American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Pequot

Pequot, "destroyers." The tribe known as Mohegan ("wolf") sprang from a Pequot faction in the early seventeenth century. (See also Narragansett.) Roughly 4,000 Pequots lived in eastern Connecticut and extreme northeastern Rhode Island in the early seventeenth century. Their main villages were situated on the Thames and Mystic Rivers. Pequots spoke an Eastern Algonquin language.

The people recognized a supreme deity as well as lesser deities. Medicine men called powwows used herbs, sweats, plants, and songs to cure illness and banish evil spirits. The people also celebrated a variety of the Green Corn festival.

Village bands were led by sagamores, or chiefs, who maintained their influence through generosity and good judgment. A council of important men together took all major decisions. There may have been a hereditary component to the position of village sagamore. There may or may not have been a grand sachem who led the bands in precontact times. Certainly, that was the case in the early seventeenth century, when Sassacus dominated the Pequots as well as some Long Island bands.

Unlike many northeastern tribes, the Pequots dispersed in the summer to designated resource sites such as fishing weirs, shellfish gathering places, gardens, and marshlands and came together in winter villages. They also dispersed in the early winter to hunting camps. Leading men might have more than one wife, in part so that they could entertain more frequently and more lavishly and in part to build alliances with other families. Corpses were wrapped in skins and woven mats and buried in the ground with weapons, tools, and food. The ultimate destination was the land of the dead. Houses were abandoned after a death.

Villages were usually located on a hill and were often palisaded. Consisting of at least several houses, they were moved when the supply of firewood was exhausted. People lived in bark or woven mat houses, framed with saplings or poles bent and lashed together. Smaller houses (roughly fifteen feet in diameter) held two families. Larger bark-covered longhouses (up to 100 feet long and thirty feet wide) with multiple fires held up to fifty people. Temporary villages were located along the coast in the summer and in the woods in the winter.

Women grew corn, beans, and squash; men grew tobacco. Corn was used in stew; cornmeal was also made into cakes and baked in hot ashes. The people gathered shellfish along the coast in the summer. They also ate an occasional beached whale. Although deer was the animal staple, men hunted an enormous variety of large and small game as well as fowl, the latter including turkey, quail, pigeon, and geese.

Deer, especially the white-tailed deer, furnished most of the people's clothing. Men generally wore breechclouts, leggings (in the winter), and moccasins; women wore skirts or dresses and moccasins. Both donned fur robes in cold weather. Clothing was often decorated with quillwork as well as feathers, paints, and shells. Pottery was generally basic although often decorated by incision. Canoes were of the birchbark and more commonly the dugout variety.

The Pequots may have arrived in their historical territory from the Hudson River Valley–Lake Champlain area, wresting land from the Narragansetts and the Niantics in the late sixteenth century. In the early seventeenth century, the grand sachem Sassacus dominated twenty-six subordinate sagamores. However, the people were driven out of Rhode Island by the Narragansetts in 1635. About that time Uncas, son-in-law of Sassacus, led a group of Pequots to establish another village on the Thames River; that group became known as Mohegans.

Soon after the Dutch arrived in the region, they began trade with the Pequots, who sold them land at the future site of Hartford. However, control of that land had been disputed, and the British favored more local Indians. As tensions worsened, the Mohegans saw a chance to end their subordinate status. In 1637, they and the Narragansetts aided British forces in attacking a Pequot village, killing between 300 and 600 people. Sassacus and a large group of followers were killed by Mohawks while trying to escape. Many were captured, however, and sold into slavery or given to allied tribes as slaves. The rest of the tribe fled to the southwest. Some escaped to Long Island and Massachusetts, where they settled with other Algonquins. The surviving Pequots were forced to pay tribute to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and were prohibited from using the name "Pequot." Uncas then became chief of the Pequots and Mohegans, now all known as Mohegans. He remained firm in his friendship with the colonists, fighting the Narragansetts in 1657 and Britain's enemies in King Philip's War.

Although the Pequot/Mohegans survived that conflict, they and other local Indians were severely diminished, and they ceased to have a significant independent role other than as servants or indigents. Some joined other Indian tribes, such as those who passed through Schaghticoke in upstate New York to join the Western Abenakis. In 1655, freed Pequot slaves in New England resettled on the Mystic River. The people suffered a continuing decline until well into the twentieth century.

The tribe divided in the late seventeenth century, into an eastern group (Paucatucks) and a western group (Mashantuckets). The former received a reservation in 1683, and the latter were granted land in 1666. Most of their land was later leased to non-Natives and lost to Indian control.

In the 1770s, some Mohegans joined a group of Narragansetts, Mahicans, Wappingers, and Montauks in creating the Brotherton (or Brothertown) tribe in Oneida territory (New York). The community was led by Samson Occom, an Indian minister. In the early nineteenth century, this community, joined by groups of Oneidas and Stockbridge (Mahican) Indians, was forced to migrate to Wisconsin, where they received a reservation on Lake Winnebago that they shared with the Munsee band of Delaware Indians. The reservation was later divided and sold.

By the early twentieth century, most Brotherton Indians had been dispossessed, but the community remained intact, mainly because members kept in close contact and returned regularly for gatherings and reunions. Mohegan Indians began a political revival in the early twentieth century, forming the Mohegan Indian Council and becoming involved with the Algonquin Indian Council of New England.

Paucatuck Pequots continue to fight for full federal recognition as well as full recognition by the state of Connecticut of their rights and land claims. They are also attempting to ease the factionalism that has troubled them for some time. The Mashantucket Pequots were recognized and their land claims settled by Congress in 1983. A museum and cultural center are planned. They publish the Pequot Times and own and operate Foxwoods, the largest resort casino in the world.

Elements of the Pequot language exist on paper and are known by some of the people, especially tribal elders. Various gatherings and family reunions continue among the Brotherton people of Wisconsin. The spiritual center of the tribe is in Gresham, Wisconsin. Traditional culture has disappeared, but these people remain proud of their heritage.

The Mohegans have a land claim pending against the state of Connecticut for roughly 600 acres of land alienated in the seventeenth century. The Tantaquidgeon museum is a central point of reference for the tribe, as is the Mohegan church (1831) and the Fort Shantok burial ground. The people celebrate the wigwam festival or powwow, which has its origins in the Green Corn festival of ancient times.

 

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