NEW LONDON, Conn. (AP) – As a child she spent much of her time at the Tantaquidgeon Museum with her great aunt Gladys, its founder.

Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel would take in as much information as she could about the Mohegan Tribe’s past and its cultural richness. And for most of her life, Zobel could look to Gladys Tantaquidgeon for guidance.

So it was difficult for her to imagine herself ever assuming the role of medicine woman, which was left vacant after Gladys died in 2005 at the age of 106.

But when the Mohegan Tribe’s Council of Elders came to Zobel last month, asking if she would be willing to take on the position of medicine woman, she accepted. The council said Zobel would be “preserving the spiritual, physical and emotional health of individual tribal members.”

Shift in life

While the appointment will not change her life dramatically, it signals a shift. For so long she and other tribal members had Gladys, who was wholly dedicated to her tribe and community, to turn to.

And now, at the age of 48, Zobel has become that person.

“This is a position that I really, really had terrible trepidation about ever even thinking about assuming,” Zobel said. “I think it’s knowing that you no longer have someone else to go to.”

While some people may envision the medicine person as someone with vast knowledge in ancient herbs and healing techniques, Zobel said different people have different gifts.

She said that within tribes sometimes there is an individual who is a “seer.” Some may practice herbal healing and yet others may have a gift for working with children or the elderly. But no matter what someone’s gift or strength is, Zobel said the intent never changes.

“The goal is simple: to do what’s best for your tribe and for the community as a whole,” she said, “to bring good things to the place that you live and the world that you live in.”

Joseph Gray, vice chairman of the Council of Elders, said the position is meant to promote “harmony and well being in the tribe as a collective whole.”

“The official duties are just being the medicine woman period,” Gray said.

Role definition

The role of medicine woman is defined by the person occupying the position.

Gladys’ way was to spend her life researching the history and traditions of the tribe. In doing so, she created, along with her brother and father, Harold and John, the Tantaquidgeon Museum, which the Mohegans believe to be the oldest native-owned and operated museum in the country.

“(Gladys) focused on learning more about our ancient traditions as a way to make our people whole,” Zobel said. “And because I saw so much success in what she did, that’s the path that I wanted to follow.”

In many ways Zobel has focused on similar projects. “Personality-wise, we’re very different and yet there are very few people with whom I would rather (have) spent time during my life,” Zobel said.

Accomplishments

Gladys, among her many accomplishments in life, entered the University of Pennsylvania in 1919, co-founded the museum in 1931, did social work for the Bureau of Indian Affairs in the mid- to late 1930s and in the 1990s provided documentation that helped the Mohegan Tribe achieve federal recognition.

In her role as executive director of the cultural and community programs department, Zobel has spent much effort on the repatriation of artifacts and human remains. She has also worked on reviving the Mohegan language.

Zobel emphasized that in order to repatriate artifacts, she must first understand their significance. So she has also become well-versed in tribal symbols and the stories behind them. She hopes to preserve the old stories for each generation.

As medicine woman she will have no official duties to perform and she will not have to wear any special regalia.

Currently, her regalia consists of a blue satin top, a velvet collar and a black skirt that Gladys embroidered for her about 30 years ago.

When she wears the regalia, she also wears two down-turned turkey feathers in her hair. The angle of the feathers symbolizes that the individual comes in peace.

Family

Zobel said no one in her family was entirely surprised by her appointment but she expects her three children, David Uncas Fayet, 17, Madeline Fielding Fayet, 18, and Rachel Beth Fayet, 22, may get the biggest thrill of all.

“I don’t think anyone expects their mother to be the medicine woman,” she said. “I think for them, this will be interesting to explain to their friends.”

Meanwhile, Zobel’s mother, Jayne Fawcett, said she is “comforted” to know that her daughter will fill a role she described as the “soul of the tribe.”

Fawcett, who is a former tribal councilor, said Zobel’s appointment represents a continuation of the legacy of her aunt, Gladys.

“I guess it is important, extremely important, because everything that we are about must be contained in the medicine person,” Fawcett said.

“And the medicine person is the keeper of all of our traditions, of all of the things that make us unique, and it must be someone who has really been steeped in it all their life,” she said. “It’s extremely gratifying to me. It’s like having a safety net for the next generation.”

AP-ES-06-14-08 1250EDT


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.