Gladys Iola Tantaquidgeon, aka Mohegan Medicine Woman, passed away November 1, 2005, at the age of 106. She died peacefully of natural causes at her home on Mohegan Hill in Uncasville, Connecticut. At the time of her death, she was the oldest living member of the Mohegan Indian Tribe.1
Among her many achievements, Tantaquidgeon played a critical role in disproving the "Last of the Mohicans" myth which, repopularized by the 1992 movie of the same name, was based on James Fenimore Cooper's 1826 French and Indian War novel.2 The novel ended with the Mohegan's Chief Uncas' dying, leaving no heirs, and signifying the end of the tribe.3
Tantaquidgeon, however, knew better of this myth. She was a 10th generation descendant of Chief Uncas who, contrary to Cooper's account, lived a long life and had many children.2 Tantaquidgeon worked tirelessly to document the tribe's continuing existence through in-depth record-keeping and artifact preservation. In 1994, Tantaquidgeon's efforts were paramount in the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs' decision to officially recognize the Mohegan tribe, now with 1700 members.4 Tantaquidgeon also successfully campaigned against the use of the Dutch word "Mohican" in favor of the English word Mohegan, which in their native language means "wolf."2
Born in 1899, the third of seven children to John and Harriet Fielding Tantaquidgeon, both Mohegan Indians, Tantaquidgeon's childhood was steeped in Mohegan tradition and culture.1 Most of the males in her family served as tribal chiefs, including her brother Harold, and the women as tribal matriarchs.2
"By age five, three tribal nanus, respected elder women whom she called her Ôgrandmothers,' had singled her out to receive the store of traditional practices, beliefs, and lore that comprise Mohegan culture," wrote Peter Nichols in the article, "Running Against Time."4
Her nanus, Lydia Fielding, Mercy Ann Nonesuch Mathews, and Emma Baker, guided Tantaquidgeon in her youth as she learned the ways of tribal spirituality and herbalism.1 Ultimately, she had the honor of becoming only the third medicine woman of her tribe since 1959.2
In 1919, she enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania to study anthropology alongside Frank Speck, the founder of the college's anthropology department and longtime Mohegan field researcher and friend.4 It was there her great niece, Melissa Fawcett, said Tantaquidgeon was exposed to new ways of thinking, to other Indian tribes, and to courses which broadened her academic focus.4 Her research at the University eventually led her to write her best known book, A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practice and Folk Belief (Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Dept. of Public Instruction, Pennsylvania Historical Commission), published in 1942 and reprinted in 1972 and 2000 as Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians (Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission).5
Though she never graduated from college, Tantaquidgeon received honorary doctorates from Yale and the University of Connecticut in recognition of her achievements.4
In 1931, Tantaquidgeon, her father, and her brother opened the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum, now considered the oldest Native American-run museum in the United States.5 Displays are not exclusive to the Mohegan tribe and include artifacts from a variety of Native American tribes. Tantaquidgeon enjoyed educating others about Indian culture and sharing the oral tradition of storytelling.4 She was often heard saying, "You can't hate someone that you know a lot about."3
By 1934, Tantaquidgeon decided to take a job with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and went to work helping the Indians on the Yangton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.5 In 1938, motivated by the poor living conditions on the reservation, she took a position with the newly formed Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board and encouraged Native Americans to improve their quality of lives through traditional Indian craft skills.4
"The strategy would also make the native economy a vehicle for handing down traditional tribal skills," said Nichols. "She taught Indian art and handiwork on several Lakota reservations, invited accomplished Native American artists to come and teach, and exhibited the art in museums across the country."
In the 1940s Tantaquidgeon worked as a librarian at the Niantic Women's Prison in Connecticut.1 In 1947 she returned home to Mohegan Hill to work in the museum. She gave public tours until she was 99.6
Tantaquidgeon received numerous awards for her lifetime of good works, including the National Organization for Women's Harriet Tubman award, the Institute for American Studies' Hall of Elders award, and induction into the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame.1 She never married nor had children, but her legacy continues in the hearts of all whom she taught or inspired.
"She was Mrs. Mohegan. I always looked at her as such," Lifetime Mohegan Chief Ralph Sturges told the Norwich Bulletin. "And I know that a lot of people will miss her. When you miss a shining light, you don't realize it until it goes out."6
Tantaquidgeon knows how to make cough remedies from the inner bark on the south side of maple trees and that a howling dog is a herald of death. She knows that the relationship of her people, the Wolf People, with birds and animals, lands and waters, rocks and plants is profoundly different from the experience of most in Western society. She knows that we inhabit a vast and living cosmos in which all things are related and that it is "good medicine" to give thanks for all the blessings. Above all, she remembers the ancient legends and knows that time moves swiftly, despite the fact that Earth is mounted on the back of Doyup, Grandfather Turtle.
—Peter Nichols, editor, Penn Arts & Sciences Magazine; author, Tantaquidgeon biographical article, "Running against Time."
1. Gladys Tantaquidgeon, Mohegan tribe's matriarch and spiritual leader passes away at the age of 106. The Mohegan Way Newsletter. Fall 2005;1-2.
2. Oliver M. G. Tantaquidgeon, 106, Tribal elder helped preserve Mohegan traditions. Los Angeles Times. November 2, 2005:B8.
3. Reed C. Gladys Tantaquidgeon: Fighting for the rights of the Mohegans. Guardian. November 15, 2005: Obituaries.
4. Nichols P. Running against time. Penn Arts and Sciences Magazine. Summer 2001. Available at: http://www.sas.upenn.edu/sasalum/newsltr/summer2001/running.html. Accessed April 11, 2006.
5. Gladys Tantaquidgeon, 106, Mohegan's Medicine Woman. New York Times. November 2, 2005:C18.
6. Durkin J. Mohegan—The Mohegan tribe has lost its matriarch and longtime cultural leader. Norwich Bulletin. November 2, 2005 Obituaries.