From the Mohegan Tribal Museum to Harvard to NMAI: An Intern's Journey (So Far)
My name is Rachel Sayet or Akitusu (She Who Reads), and I am a member of the Mohegan Nation.
Yes, we the Mohegan people of Connecticut, still exist, and are by no means extinct. The legendary character Uncas from James Fennimore Cooper's famous novel The Last of the Mohicans was actually, in many ways, the first of the Mohegans. Every Mohegan person today is a direct descendent of Uncas.
As the daughter of the Mohegan tribal historian, I was immersed in the culture and traditions of my people from a very young age. Growing up, I spent a great deal of time with my great-great-aunts, Ruth and Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who lived together in a small house at the top of Mohegan Hill, just steps from our tribal museum. We would drink tea and they would tell me stories, we would celebrate the succotash season and make flags to honor it, and we would go out into the woods and pick flowers and herbs.
My aunt Gladys founded our tribal museum (called Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum) in 1931, alongside her brother Harold (a former chief of Mohegan) and her father John. Tantaquidgeon is currently the oldest Native-run museum in the country. The museum houses artifacts from the Mohegan people and others of the Eastern Woodlands, and also includes a room called "the other tribes", which has a large collection of objects from all over Indian Country. Gladys worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs as a young woman in the 1920s and ’30s and traveled to reservations all over the country, where she was well-loved and respected. Many people gave her objects as gifts, and this is where many of the artifacts in the museum come from. Continuing my family's legacy, during high school I worked several summers at the museum as a tour guide.
Throughout her life, my mother, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel has continued the good work that Gladys began. Gladys trained my mother in the traditional herbs and remedies of the Mohegan and Delaware tribes when she was just a child, and my mother taught my siblings and me the stories and traditions of our people. Gladys passed away at 106 in the year 2005, and my mother was initiated into her current role as Medicine Woman in 2008. In 2000, my mother published a biography of Gladys's life entitled Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon.
Inspiration to Study Native Cultures
Mohegan culture has always been part of my life. As a child, I would often go to powwows in New England. I also accompanied my mother on a repatriation trip to Kentucky when I was only eight years old. But, being the daughter of a tribal historian, I never really thought of it as something I wanted to study. It was just a part of me, though a very important part.
My mother also taught me to cook at a very young age. During high school, I started taking cooking classes at the Mystic Cooking School, and I then felt that that was what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to be a chef or involved in food in some way. The fact that the tribe now had a casino also made me feel that this was the right career move.
When I was 16, my mother took me on a trip to upstate New York. Little did I know what the impact of that week would be. I was tagging along with her to look at schools, but she had a greater goal, which we would reach towards the end of the trip. She was invited to speak at Sacred Circle at the Akwesasne Mohawk Reservation along the Canadian border, where she was discussing a book she had recently published. On our way up to the reservation, we visited Cornell, as well as Skidmore College, Bard College, and St. Lawrence, to name a few. I enjoyed all of the schools, but it was not until I arrived at the Akwesasne Reservation and met the late Chief Jake Swamp that I realized what a strong connection I had with that place. You see, the Mohegan people originated in upstate New York, and lived among the Iroquois for millennia. They later migrated down into Connecticut hundreds of years before colonialism.
The following summer, I participated in College Horizons, a recruitment program for Native students. There, I met the Native recruiter for Cornell, Danielle Terrance, and learned a little bit more about the school. She suggested I apply to the school of hotel /restaurant management because of my passion for food.
At Cornell, I was involved in many different extracurricular activities, which were great for me because I have diverse interests. I participated in Hotel Ezra Cornell, an annual weekend in which students in my program run events for industry leaders, and I was a food and beverage function manager for two years. I was co-chair of Native American Students at Cornell my Junior year, and I was also in an acappella group and a World Drum and Dance group.
Although I loved my time at the Cornell Hotel School, and learned a great deal not only from coursework, but from actual experience working in several hotels and restaurants, Mohegan Sun Casino among them, I was disappointed in the fact that I was not able to take many electives in my program. Then, my senior year I took an American Indian studies course, taught by Prof. Audra Simpson from the Kahnawake Mohawk Nation. Taking a course on Native peoples which was taught by a Native professor was a new experience for me, and I learned a great deal. This course inspired me to study more about Native cultures, and possibly teach my own American Indian studies course one day.
After graduating from Cornell, and working as a personal chef for a few months, some people had suggested enrolling in graduate courses at the Harvard University Extension School, a program where it does not really matter what your undergraduate major was. I wanted to take classes about cultures and religions, something that was meaningful to me. So I decided to enroll in the prerequisites to become a master's degree candidate in anthropology, with minors in museum studies and business communication.
During my time at Harvard, I have been able to take part in many wonderful and exciting experiences. In the summer of 2008, I completed an internship at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. I was brought on to co-curate an exhibit on the Archaeology of Harvard Yard and Harvard's Indian college, which was founded in the 17th century. During this internship, the other curator, Danielle Charlap, and I traveled to Martha's Vineyard to meet with representatives from the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe and ask for feedback on our exhibit ideas. In addition, we met with the Cambridge Historical Commission, members of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, Bruce Curliss from the Nipmuc Nation, and Elizabeth Solomon from Massachuseuk at Ponkapoag. The section of the exhibit that I worked on was that of the Indian College, which was founded in 1655 and built under Harvard's 1650 charter which devoted the institution "to the education of English and Indian Youth of this Country..." Five students attended the Indian college, but only one survived to graduate. Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Geraldine Brooks recently completed a novel about this student, Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck , who was from the Aquinnah Wampanoag tribe.
Immediately following the internship, I was hired by the Peabody Museum as a research assistant. In that role, I have had been able to contribute to various projects at the Peabody Museum including creating their only online exhibit Digging Veritas Online Exhibit, finding photos and articles for their exhibit on Plains ledger art, and researching the history of their Native North American Dioramas. I have also been very privileged to attend many repatriation ceremonies at the museum, and to meet people from all over Indian Country.
Throughout graduate school I also did readings about the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington DC, and came to visit the museum on a few occasions. I've always been interested in this museum because it is a modern museum that respects the Native communities, and lets their voices be heard—a very new practice.
Over the course of my internship in the Publications Office here at NMAI, I have been involved in many projects such as proofreading the manuscript Past, Present, and Future: Challenges of the National Museum of the American Indian, writing captions for the museum’s Map and Guide, doing research and fact checking for a new exhibit on treaties for the state of Minnesota, editing the brochure for the festival This IS Hawai`i (this weekend at the museum in Washington), and working on the quiz show questions for the new imagiNATIONS Activity Center. All of these experiences have opened my eyes a little more as to what actually goes on in publications here, the types of projects they work on, and the amount of redrafting and research involved.
After I complete this internship, I will be returning to work on my master’s thesis entitled: “The Return of Moshup: The Re-inscription of Native Stories on the New England Landscape.” Through interviews with culture bearers and storytellers at the Mohegan and Aquinnah Wampanoag reservations, as well as research in newspapers, books, and journals pertaining to these stories, I will prove how traditions of Moshup the giant reinforce sovereignty for the two communities. My great-great-aunt Gladys began this work in the 1920s, when she set out to collect stories on Martha's Vineyard, which she then recorded. Today, almost a century later, I continue the work that she began, with the goal of expanding awareness of our community and the Aquinnah Wampanoag community to the general public, as well as to demonstrate that the Natives of New England have traditions that are very much alive, and vital to their survival as modern-day nations.
Ni ya yo: It is so.
—Rachel Sayet, NMAI intern, spring 2011
The Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum, ca. 1931. Uncasville, Connecticut.
The writer with her mother, sister, and great-great aunts, ca. 1993: Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, Madeline Sayet (in front), Rachel Sayet, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, and Ruth Tantaquidgeon.
A Native American Students at Cornell (NASAC) meeting in Akwe:kon, the university's Native American house, fall 2005: Rachel Sayet, Rachelle Begay (Navajo), Amber Dawn LaFrance (Akwesasne Mohawk), Nicole Wheeler, Ben Koffel.
During consultations on the Harvard project with the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, Aquinnah, Massachusetts, July 2008: Danielle Charlap, Tobias Vanderhoop, and Rachel Sayet. The tribal offices are in the background. Courtesy Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Groundbreaking for the Harvard Yard summer archaeological dig, 2009: Rachel Sayet and Jim Peters (Mashpee Wampanoag), executive director, Massachusetts Commission on Indian Affairs. Courtesy Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. copyright President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Graduate students from the first annual Summer Institute in American Indian Studies at the Newberry Library, in Chicago, 2009, reunite as presenters at the The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) conference, in Tucson, Arizona 2010: Parween Ebrahim (Princeton University), Rachel Sayet(Harvard University), Christina Dickerson (Vanderbilt University alumn), Matthew Planteen ( University of Wyoming), Scott Stevens (Akwesasne Mohawk, director of the D'arcy McNickle Center for American Indian Studies at the Newberry Library), John Robinson (University of Montana), Kate Beane (Santee Dakota, University of Minnesota), Maeve Kane (Cornell University).
Mohegan tribal members taking part in commemorating the 350th anniversary of the founding of Norwich, Connecticut, 2009.