The Mohegans were wiped out long ago in the novel “The Last of the Mohicans,” but today the real American Indian tribe is flush with casino cash and using it to restore its proud past.
The Connecticut tribe has reclaimed the Mohegan Royal Burial Ground and is restoring it to pay homage to its famed Chief Uncas and his descendants, who were mythologized in James Fenimore Cooper’s 1826 work.
The project has been dubbed “The Lasting of the Mohegans.”
“Writing somebody out of history is another form of genocide,” tribal historian Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. “We certainly can’t allow Uncas to be forgotten.”
The Mohegans operate one of the world’s most successful casinos and are among about 50 tribes in the U.S. that have managed to reclaim burial grounds or other sacred sites, said Suzan Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, an Indian rights organization in Washington.
In recent years, the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes have preserved a massacre site in Colorado, while the Nez Perce have taken control of worship sites in Idaho, Harjo said. Several tribes in California who operate casinos also have reclaimed burial grounds, she said.
'Using newfound wealth'
“More and more, the native people are using newfound wealth to purchase what should be theirs anyway,” Harjo said.
But several hundred burial grounds and other sacred sites remain threatened by development, according to Harjo.
In Connecticut, the Mohegans tried for centuries to protect and reclaim their burial ground. But with few resources, the tribe had little leverage.
“The Royal Mohegan Burial Ground has been a source of anguish for the tribe since the 18th century,” Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. “We hope that we have lived up to their expectations and given them some peace.”
In a stark reversal of fortune, the federally recognized tribe of nearly 2,000 is giving Norwich, a once-prosperous city in eastern Connecticut, $1 million for economic development and another $1 million to the Masons who operated a popular lodge on the site.
The Mohegans spent $1 million to demolish the Masonic temple last fall and are spending another $1 million to restore the burial ground into a park-like setting with stone work and plantings.
Presidents Andrew Jackson, Ulysses Grant and William Taft paid visits to the burial ground to honor Chief Uncas, who was an ally of English settlers.
Burial ground encroached
“This is really the place where the two civilizations came together,” Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. “As Americans, we honor great colonial leaders. Naturally it seems appropriate to honor the great Indian leaders of the same period.”
Uncas granted the settlers land that later became Norwich in return for a promise that his tribe would keep the burial ground, Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. But the burial ground was gradually encroached upon by settlers, she said.
“In many ways the restoration of this burial ground is fulfillment of the original agreement between Uncas and the original settlers of Norwich,” Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. “Uncas in many ways created a model of cooperation between settlers and Indians.”
Hundreds and possibly thousands of Mohegans, including Uncas, were buried in the royal cemetery dating back at least to the 1600s, Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. The exact location of Uncas’ grave is unclear.
The Mohegans had tried to keep the 3.4-acre site undeveloped since the last tribal burial there in 1876, suing unsuccessfully in the 1890s and 1930s, arguing that the land had been illegally encroached upon.
Norwich officials endorsed the project, saying it reversed a historic wrong. By the end of the year, tribal members hope to visit the Royal Mohegan Burial Ground, surrounded by new historical markers.
“This goal created a lot of patience for a lot of generations of people,” Tantaquidgeon Zobel said. “I think the key is a belief that eventually the right thing would be done.”