121621 UNC tantaquidgeon zobel TM

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, an award-winning Native American writer, stands next to a bronze statue of her great uncle, Chief Harold Tantaquidgeon, located in front of the Mohegan Tribal Community and Government Center in Uncasville on Thursday. | Tim Martin, The Westerly Sun

UNCASVILLE — Mohegan Medicine Woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, an award-winning writer with several novels and works of nonfiction under her belt, understands the power of telling stories.

After all, Tantaquidgeon Zobel, who also serves as the tribe's official historian, comes from a long line of female storytellers.

A very long line.

Her great aunt and mentor was noted Mohegan Medicine Woman 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 well about the importance of stories and their role in Mohegan tradition.

"I guess I always knew about the responsibility of a storyteller," said Tantaquidgeon Zobel, whose 2000 biography of her great aunt, "Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon," has been praised for being a "major contribution to anthropology, history, theology, women's studies, and Native American studies." "Stories have been very important all throughout my life."

These days, it's Tantaquidgeon Zobel's story of Gladys' mentor, Fidelia "Flying Bird" Fielding, the woman who was born in 1827 and "kept important stories" of her tribe, that's been drawing oceans of accolades these days. 

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

A table read of "Flying Bird’s Diary" is currently in the works and is scheduled to be presented sometime this winter.

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

She was an overarching figure, a "rebel and a radical," Tantaquidgeon Zobel said, and a strong matriarchal leader who is thought to be the last speaker of the language, even though speaking her native tongue came with a price.

"She was beaten in school for speaking the language," she said. "And she was not particularly popular either — even in her own tribe."

"She and Gladys were cut from the same cloth," Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. Gladys, who has a long and impressive list of contributions, fought for social justice and helped found the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum, among other things, and kept personal records of correspondence regarding Mohegan births, graduations, marriages and deaths, which were critical to proving the Mohegan case for Federal Recognition in 1994. 

Flying Bird also kept diaries — four of them returned to the Mohegans from Cornell University in 2020 — that are now being used in the reconstruction of the Mohegan and other related Indian languages and the topic of Tantaquidgeon Zobel's screenplay.

The diaries were lost, Tantaquidgeon Zobel said, but they were found.

In November 2020, James Quinn, the Mohegan Tribe’s historic preservation officer, traveled to Ithaca, New York, to retrieve the diaries from Cornell.

"We believe that these papers coming home is really Fidelia coming home to us," Lynn Malerba, the Mohegans’ ceremonial chief, said during a ceremony recorded on YouTube youtu.be/1PhNo5yHClU.

Stories can fall in and out of fashion, Tantaquidgeon Zobel said, but they often come to life at the exact time they are supposed to — the exact time they are meant to be told and meant to be shared.

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

Her story has been resonating not only with Native people, but with people all over the world, Tantaquidgeon Zobel said.

"I was surprised at 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 her manuscript "The Lasting of the Mohegans" and was the first American Indian appointed to the Connecticut Historical Commission.

Tantaquidgeon Zobel, the mother of three adult children who recently moved from Mystic to Uncasville along with her husband, Randy Zobel, to be closer to her work, said she sometimes puzzles over the stories that have and haven't been told about the Mohegan people.

"We first hear about Indians and the Mayflower," she said, "then we hear about them a little in the Victorian age and then we hear about the casinos ... but what happened in between? How does that even 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 have all suffered, and all of our ancestors suffered."

The story of Flying Bird, Tantaquidgeon Zobel said, despite being a sometimes "tough story to tell" is essentially "a story about hope."

"It's about hope in a difficult time," she said. "It's a story about a woman in an impossible situation."

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

"And because of the sustained efforts by each of them, the Mohegan Tribe and indeed the entire region is richer for the language and history that has been preserved," he said. "It's really an extraordinary story of lineage, and shows how consequential a single individual's life's work can be."

"Like Gladys," Tantaquidgeon Zobel told Brough, "I think of myself as a placeholder. "It's about keeping the tribe going, passing it on and sharing the good."

She also likes to think of what Gladys said when she was 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 all have to stand in love for the tribe,'" Tantaquidgeon Zobel said.


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