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Preserving the Story: Medicine Woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel Tells the Flying Bird Story | Daily news alerts

ByRandall B. Phelps

Jan 9, 2022

UNCASVILLE – Mohegan Medicine Woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, an award-winning writer with several novels and non-fiction books to her name, understands the power of storytelling.

After all, Tantaquidgeon Zobel, who is also the official tribe historian, comes from a long line of storytellers.

A very long line.

His great aunt and mentor was the medicine woman Mohegan Gladys Tantaquidgeon, whose mentor was Fidelia Hoscott Fielding, whose grandmother was Martha Uncas, the Mohegan matriarch born in 1761.

Gladys, she explained recently in a telephone interview from her office in Uncasville, taught her the importance of stories and their role in the Mohegan tradition.

“I guess I’ve always known the responsibility of a storyteller,” said Tantaquidgeon Zobel, whose 2000 great-aunt’s biography, “Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon,” was hailed for to be a “major contribution to anthropology”. , history, theology, feminist studies, and Native American studies. “” Stories have been very important throughout my life. “

These days, it’s Tantaquidgeon Zobel’s story about Gladys’ mentor, Fidelia “Flying Bird” Fielding, the woman born in 1827 and “keeping important stories” from her tribe, which draws oceans of these accolades. these days.

The story, “Flying Bird’s Diary,” has won dozens of awards around the world and right here in New England. As a play she was a finalist in the National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, as a screenplay she won the Rhode Island Film “Grand Prize in the RI Spotlight on New England” Festival and won the “Grand Jury Prize for the Screenplay Competition” at the Mystic Film Festival last fall.

A reading table for “Flying Bird’s Diary” is currently in preparation and should be presented this winter.

Fielding, according to Tantaquidgeon Zobel, not only passed many Mohegan traditions down to Gladys – a 10th generation descendant of Chief Mohegan Uncas who died in 2005 at the age of 106 – but she also preserved the Mohegan Pequot language. She was known to have conversed with her grandmother, Martha Uncas, in their native dialect.

She was a dominant figure, a “rebel and a radical,” said Tantaquidgeon Zobel, and a strong matriarchal leader who would be the last speaker of the language, even though speaking her mother tongue came at a price.

“She was beaten at school because she spoke the language,” she said. “And she wasn’t particularly popular either, even in her own tribe.”

“She and Gladys were cut from the same fabric,” Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. Gladys, who has a long and impressive list of contributions, fought for social justice and helped found the Indian Museum of Tantaquidgeon, among others, and has kept personal files of correspondence regarding births, graduation ceremonies. , Mohegan’s marriages and deaths, which were central to proving the Mohegan Case for federal recognition in 1994.

Flying Bird also kept diaries – four of them returned to Cornell University Mohegans in 2020 – which are now used in the reconstruction of Mohegan and other related Indian languages ​​and the subject of Tantaquidgeon Zobel’s screenplay. .

Newspapers were lost, Tantaquidgeon Zobel said, but they were found.

In November 2020, James Quinn, the Mohegan Tribe Historical Preserver, traveled to Ithaca, New York, to collect Cornell’s logs.

“We think these papers are coming home, it’s really Fidelia who is coming home,” said Lynn Malerba, Mohegans ceremonial chief, during a ceremony recorded on YouTube youtu.be/1PhNo5yHClU.

Stories can fall in fashion and go out of style, Tantaquidgeon Zobel said, but they often come to life exactly when they’re meant to – the exact moment they’re meant to be told and shared.

Now, she said, seems like the right time to bring Flying Bird “into the hearts and minds” of people today.

Its story resonated not only with Indigenous people, but also with people around the world, said Tantaquidgeon Zobel.

“I was surprised to see how popular it has been in other countries,” said Tantaquidgeon Zobel, who won the first-ever “Non-Fiction Award of the Native Writer’s Circle of the Americas” for his manuscript. “The Lasting of the Mohegans” and was the first American Indian appointed to the Connecticut Historical Commission.

Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the mother of three grown children who recently moved from Mystic to Uncasville with her husband, Randy Zobel, to be closer to her job, said she was at times puzzled over the stories that have and haven’t been told about the Mohegan people. .

“We hear about Indians and the Mayflower first,” she said, “then we hear a little bit about them in the Victorian era and then we hear about casinos… but what- he passed between the two? How does it work?

“We were a matriarchal society,” she said, “and then one day the English came and we weren’t?

“Our ancestors suffered,” she continued, “but we all suffered, and all of our ancestors suffered.”

The story of Flying Bird, said Tantaquidgeon Zobel, although it is at times “a story difficult to tell”, is essentially “a story of hope”.

“It is a question of hope in a difficult time,” she said. “It’s the story of a woman in an impossible situation.”

As podcaster Matthew Brough said in a recent email exchange, Martha Uncas, Fidelia Fielding, Gladys Tantaquidgeon and now Tantaquidgeon Zobel provided “an unbroken chain spanning two and a half centuries.”

“And because of the sustained efforts of each of them, the Mohegan tribe and indeed the whole region is richer for the language and history that has been preserved,” he said. “It really is an amazing lineage story and shows how important the work of one person can be.”

“Like Gladys,” Tantaquidgeon Zobel told Brough, “I see myself as a placeholder. It’s about keeping the tribe alive, handing it down and sharing the good.”

She also likes to think about what Gladys said when asked – on March 7, 2005, the 11th anniversary of the day the Mohegans received official recognition from the federal government – if she had any messages to share with her people.

“She said, ‘We must all be in love with the tribe,'” Tantaquidgeon Zobel said.