Gladys Tantaquidgeon

Gladys Tantaquidgeon

Mohegan Medicine Woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon was born on Mohegan Hill on June 15, 1899 to John and Harriet Fielding Tantaquidgeon. She was the third of the family's seven children.

Dr. Gladys Iola Tantaquidgeon, Mohegan Medicine Woman June 15, 1899 - November 1, 2005

Mohegan Medicine Woman Gladys Tantaquidgeon was born on Mohegan Hill on June 15, 1899 to John and Harriet Fielding Tantaquidgeon (both Mohegan Indians). She was the third of the family's seven children.

Educated in tribal spirituality and herbalism by her "grandmothers" Lydia Fielding, Mercy Ann Nonesuch Mathews and Emma Baker, Gladys briefly attended grammar school before entering the University of Pennsylvania in 1919, where she studied with Anthropologist Frank Speck and wrote in the field of anthropology. She expanded her Mohegan pharmacopeia by researching herbal medicine among related east coast tribes, including the Delaware, Nanticoke, Cayuga and Wampanoag. Her best-known work is A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practice and Folk Beliefs, 1942, currently reprinted as Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians, 1972, 1995. In 1987, she received an honorary doctorate from the University of Connecticut and one from Yale in 1994. Her other honors include the Connecticut Education Association's Friend of Education Award, the Connecticut Women's Hall of Fame, the National Organization for Women's Harriet Tubman Award and numerous Native American honors.

She co-founded Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum in 1931 in Uncasville, Connecticut along with her brother Harold and father John. She shared her brother's philosophy that education was the best cure for prejudice. "You can't hate someone that you know a lot about."

In 1934, she was recruited by the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, to serve as a community worker on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, and from 1938-1947 she worked to promote Indian art as a specialist for the newly-formed Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming. Part of this Native art revival included the bolstering of ancient ceremonials, for which certain Native artistic/ceremonial objects were required. The Sundance and the Rain Dance had been previously prohibited by the federal government and part of Tantaquidgeon's job was to encourage the restoration of these and other prohibited ancient practices.

During the 1940s, Gladys worked as the librarian at the Niantic Women's prison, where she felt that her previous work with reservation families had sensitized her to the needs of women in difficult situations.

In the 1990s, Gladys' personal records of correspondence regarding Mohegan births, graduations, marriages and deaths were critical to proving the Mohegan case for Federal Recognition in 1994. On March 7, 2005, on the eleventh anniversary of that recognition, she was asked if she had any messages to share with her people, to which she responded, "We all have to stand in love for the tribe."

She passed away peacefully at her home on Mohegan Hill at the age of 106.

Her contributions include:

  • Pursuing an Ivy League education as a non-white woman in the 1920s
  • Co-founding Tantaquidgeon Museum in 1931
  • Fighting for civil rights in the mid 1930s
  • Social work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the mid-to-late 1930s
  • Economic development work for the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, late 1930s and 1940s
  • Applying her view of social justice to prison in the late 1940s and 1950s
  • Providing free community education about Indian lifeways 1960s-1990s
  • Ensuring friendly relations with the town of Montville and all of Connecticut
  • Preserving traditional Mohegan spirituality
  • Working to preserve the environment
  • Writing on traditional Native herbal remedies
  • Working to save traditional Native ceremonies and artforms
  • Preserving the meaning of traditional Mohegan symbols
  • Passing on and recording old Native American stories

In choosing Gladys as their protégé, to learn tribal herbalism and other traditional lifeways, her elders considered her appreciation for the Makiawisug, Little People of the woodlands. When her great aunt Fidelia Fielding saw that she did not laugh at those time-honored creatures, she gave Gladys a ceremonial belt, acknowledging her role as Mohegan culture-keeper.

It was Fidelia who left me that very old belt that I wear with my Indian dress. It had belonged to her grandmother, Martha Uncas. Martha taught her the Mohegan language. Fidelia Fielding was the last speaker of our Mohegan-Pequot dialect. She and her grandmother Martha Uncas lived together. They were said to have the Indian tongue used more than English. The most interesting part of [Fidelia's] life that I recall, was that she knew about the Little People who live in the woods, the Makiawisug. I recall that on one occasion there was a family dinner and meeting in the old parsonage, a half a mile down the road from here. At one point, she told one of the relatives that she was stepping outside for a minute to talk to the Little People, "someone in the tree"...Some of the younger members regarded her as "quite different" (and they laughed but I did not). She used to visit my parents because they didn't ridicule her. Others didn't sympathize with her contact with the Little People. - Gladys Tantaquidgeon


Trained in Native herbal lore and traditions by her "three grandmothers" as a child, Gladys went on to publish several important works on Algonquian and Delaware culture, culminating in A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practice and Folk Beliefs, Pennsylvania Historical Commission, Harrisburg, 1942 (reprinted in 1972, 1995 and 2001 as Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians).

My first trip out to the fields---where medicine plants were growing---that would have been with Grandma Fielding, Grandmother Baker and Grandmother Mathews. They were gathering them for winter use and at that time, I would have been about five years of age. I think it kindled a spark. Later on, I became interested in our Mohegan herbal remedies. Here, in my recollection, the women were the ones who gathered the plants and prepared the medicines. It was customary in herb gathering and other things that the women would observe some of the girls. They would discuss their choice saying, "Perhaps it might be well to take this one to learn certain skills. Never take the first of any plant you find. Always ask the Creator to lead you, and he will show you where there is more down the trail."

[My great aunt] Emma Baker influenced my life at that time in connection with the ceremonial. In connection with the Wigwam Brush Arbor Festival, Emma Baker selected her niece, Nettie Fowler, and I assisted her, and I was her niece. Then I was selected. And so in later time, I worked as her Vice President in the Ladies Sewing Society.
- Gladys Tantaquidgeon

Having first met anthropologist Frank G. Speck as a child growing up on Mohegan Hill, Gladys studied anthropology under him at the University of Pennsylvania from 1919-1926 and on and off for years thereafter. She went on to publish several of her own important works in the field and assisted Speck in researching and writing one of his most profound anthropological texts, The Delaware Big House Ceremony, 1931.

One day there came a person, and the person was James Webber, known as Witaponoxwe, which means Walks With Daylight. Dr. Speck's wish was to continue research on the Delaware, and this person connected with the Pennsylvania Museum and Historical Commission was to enable him and his students to continue the research. Dr. Speck said, "The Lord sent Witaponoxwe." Dr. Speck was interested in recording about the Delaware Big House Ceremony and minor ceremonies, and my interest was largely in the folk medicine. So Witaponoxwe was a Medicine Man and we had many interesting sessions while he would dictate the information about the Big House. There would be times when I would question him about the use of plants and the Delaware method of curing. There were probably not too many differences in the plants we discussed, and the stories about the grandfathers: False Face Medicine Man and Turtle. Comparing Delaware Medicine Man Witaponoxwe's herbal healing with that of Mohegans: there were, among the Delaware, more survivals of different practices because we were fewer in number. - Gladys Tantaquidgeon


Bureau of Indian Affairs, 1930s

Few American Indians worked for the Federal Indian Service in the 1930s, but Gladys joined that organization to provide tribes with a sensitive ear and moral support regarding issues such as the Federal Boarding School system and their preference for traditional remedies over white doctors, etc.

In 1934, I met with Commissioner of Indian Affairs John Collier in his Washington, DC office. That was really a scary occasion. However Mr. Collier was a very quiet unassuming individual, and it went very well. He mentioned to me that this assignment on the Yangton Sioux Reservation was one of the more difficult in Indian service. The whole program of self-government for Indian Tribes was beginning. He said he wanted the Indians to help themselves. I felt I was there not to tell the people what to do, but to work with them in a way that would enable them to desire better living quarters and better schools.

One hot summer day where I was sent to the agency office, one of the men was out mowing in the fields and was bitten by a rattlesnake. I think he opened up a chicken and put some of the intestines on his ankle, but he waited too long probably. Finally the agency superintendent said he would have to go to Rosebud hospital, and this man asked that I be the driver. So here's the hot summer weather and it was four o'clock before we started. We made the hospital, and he was admitted. I had to go on to some other work and came back two days later and stopped at Rosebud, and the patient had died. That was a difficult situation in every sense of the word.

One time I went to visit a family for the reason of finding out why a couple of the older children had not been attending school. This would have been a community school not far from their home. So when I went in, there was just the mother and father, and the mother had a little baby in her arms. I didn't see any other children. So while we were talking---I think they had a total of six children---I saw the hand of one small child poking out from under the bed, and another was in a corner somewhere. So I told them I was not out to punish them or tell other school officials.
- Gladys Tantaquidgeon

Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board, Late 1930s - 1940s

As a Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) worker, Gladys found that there was little she could do to help tribes economically, so she joined the newly created Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board, whose goal was to bolster the creation and sale of American Indian art as a means of economic support for tribes.

The Arts and Crafts Board, at that time it was new and not under the BIA. It was separate under the Department of the Interior. We had a director with headquarters in Washington, D.C.; Rene d'Harnoncourt, and his assistant, Ken Disher, were in charge. When I first entered Arts and Crafts, there were only three field workers: one in the Southwest, one in Oklahoma, and I had the northern division of North and South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. I met Eleanor Roosevelt at the Museum of Modern Art and she wrote the forward for the book that was prepared for that particular display and one on the meeting with Hopi artist Fred Kabotie. - Gladys Tantaquidgeon

Now the oldest Indian owned and operated museum in America, Gladys co-founded Tantaquidgeon Museum along with her brother, Harold, and father John in 1931.

Father and brother Harold built the little stone original museum that was begun in 1930 and completed and opened in 1931. The purpose of this little stone room was to house our collection of various artifacts that had been made and used by our people and were scattered about our living quarters here and there so that not only our own people could enjoy them but others as well. Father was disabled at the time, and he had to use a cane, and he was blind in one eye. But according to what my brother said, I guess he handled every one of the granite fieldstones used in the construction of that building. When it was finally completed members of the community and other Mohegans brought in things to put on display. From the beginning, Tantaquidgeon Museum was to be the place where we keep Mohegan treasures. - Gladys Tantaquidgeon

Gladys fought prejudice several ways, the first of which was educating the public at Tantaquidgeon Museum, maintaining that "It's hard to hate someone that you know a lot about." However, there were times during her tenure with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and later as a librarian at the State Farm for Women Correctional Center, when she encountered and tackled the issue head on.

[When Gladys was working among the Lakota] There would be instances where the Indians would hesitate to speak to or be in the company of government employees, which demonstrates the feeling some Indian people had, not to know whether they would be accepted in a public place. I know one time Flora Go Forth and I had to be at Rosebud, where we were going to demonstrate weaving, and we stopped at a small restaurant. She offered an excuse to go to the store to make some purchase. She told me after that she would be denied service in South Dakota.

A discrimination case occurred while I was in Washington before I went out West. I had been staying with two young women. One was Seneca, and the other was Chippewa. We had to go by bus part of the way to Chickahominy. My friend and coworker sat behind me, and I sort of dozed slightly, and when I turned to speak to her, the driver had asked her to move to the rear of the bus. So I turned and motioned to her to come back---which she did. I went forward to the bus driver and got my [federal] ID card, he said he didn't mean any harm, and I told him it was quite serious.

After father's death, someone asked me if I would be interested in working at what was then known as the State Farm for Women Correctional Center. There were perhaps more rules and regulations than in Indian service, after being on an Indian reservation, I had a little better understanding about their problems and what caused them.
- Gladys Tantaquidgeon

Tantaquidgeon Museum

The oldest Native American owned and operated museum in the country.