Commonplace · vol. 4 · no. 4 · July 2004

Joanna Brooks
Samson Occom at the Mohegan Sun
Finding history at a New England Indian casino
Part I | Part II | Part III | Part IV


Just as Samson Occom had to prove he was really "Indian" in terms familiar and comfortable to his English and Anglo-American audiences, American Indians today are often called upon to answer non-Indian expectations about how "real" Indians should look and act. This points to an abiding paradox at the heart of American Indian tribal sovereignty: in order to access federal resources and enact certain forms of institutional self-governance, tribes must win "recognition" from the federal government. The enactment of self-determination in the public sphere is also mediated by dominant cultural expectations of Indianness. Tribal gaming has been so controversial in part because it challenges romantic notions of Native Americans as essentially precapitalist peoples.

Among American Indian tribes, winning federal recognition is not viewed as an easy prospect. It can be a costly and difficult process.

Reaction to Indian gaming has been especially fierce in the state of Connecticut, home to both the Mohegan Sun and the Mashantucket Pequot Foxwoods casinos. Tribal gaming opponents in that state and elsewhere have challenged the legitimacy of American Indian tribes and of the federal recognition processes through which these tribes have won the right to operate casinos on reservation lands. Twenty Connecticut communities petitioned for a moratorium on tribal recognition in May 2001. They charged that opportunistic self-proclaimed "Indians" were bamboozling the federal government into granting them recognition.

Among American Indian tribes, winning federal recognition is not viewed as an easy prospect. It can be a costly and difficult process. It requires that tribes document hundreds of years of continuous tribal self-governance, continuous occupation of traditional tribal lands, and continuous observance of cultural practices. Colonial conditions including war, impoverishment, political upheaval, and removal have made mustering this kind of documentation exceedingly difficult if not impossible. In fact, the survival of some tribal communities, traditional governments, and cultural practices has historically depended upon the evasion of colonial surveillance and government documentation and regulation.

During the eighteenth century, colonial overseers purposefully disrupted the traditional Mohegan tribal sachemship that had long resided with the Uncas family. In protest, Samson Occom and his generation founded separatist Indian Christian churches as spaces for community self-governance and self-determination. Occom led many Christian Mohegans away from Connecticut in 1785, to join with other Christian southern New England tribal members in exodus to Brotherton, New York. His sister Lucy Occom Tantaquidgeon did not make the journey. Instead, she stayed home in Uncasville and assumed a leadership role in tribal affairs. Historians have observed that what happened at Mohegan also happened among the Choctaw, Creek, and other Removal-era tribal communities: female-headed tribal factions tended to resist removal from traditional lands, even when it cost them formal recognition from the federal government; male-headed tribal factions developed male-focused tribal governance and land ownership systems recognized as legitimate by federal Indian overseers and broader Euro-American society.

Fig. 3. The Mohegan Congregational Church was built in 1831 under the direction of Lucy Occom Tantaquidgeon, sister to Samson Occom. Recent renovations crucial to the preservation of the structure were funded by casino revenues. Photograph by the author.

In 1831, during the Jacksonian era of Indian Removal, Lucy Occom Tantaquidgeon, her daughter Lucy Tantaquidgeon Teecomwas, and her granddaughter Cynthia Teecomas Hoscoat deeded a plot of land on Mohegan Hill to tribal ownership for the building of a community church. These women understood that it would be strategically important to the continuance of the Mohegan on traditional lands to escape removal by demonstrating themselves a "Christianized" people. The Mohegan Congregational Church has remained a key venue of tribal political, social, and cultural life ever since. Even when tribal treaty relationships with the federal government were terminated in 1860s and 1870s, the traditional matrilineal tribal leadership remained intact through the church’s Ladies Sewing Society. The half-acre on which the church stands is the only plot of land that remained continuously in tribal ownership. Proving their ownership of that plot of land and proving the female line of leadership that began with Lucy Occom was critical to the Mohegan tribe’s successful petition for reinstatement of federal recognition in 1994.

American Indian tribes must document continuous histories in order to win federally recognized powers of self-determination that make casino gaming possible. Now, casinos are funding initiatives to restore and continue tribal cultural and historical traditions. The Mashantucket Pequots have devoted Foxwoods revenues to the construction and maintenance of an enviable museum, library, and archive—employing at least one full-time manuscript archivist—on the grounds of the tribal complex. The Mohegans are also invested in preserving and perpetuating their culture. "Aquay / Greetings, Welcome to the Mohegan Indian Reservation. Mundo Wigo [The Creator is Good]," read the green road signs at the tribal reservation boundaries. With gaming revenues, they undertook a million-dollar restoration of the aging and fragile Mohegan Congregational Church in 2003. Without the Mohegan Congregational Church, there would probably be no Mohegan Sun Casino; without revenues from the Mohegan Sun Casino, the church might not be standing today. The beautifully restored white clapboard structure stands about a mile down the road from the Mohegan Sun. The tribe also maintains a park and burial grounds at Shantok on the bluff overlooking the Thames River. Signs provide park information and regulations in both English and Mohegan languages. Riverside trails are littered with crushed clam shells, a reminder of the aquacultural practices at the heart of traditional Mohegan life, practices that were interrupted by colonial incursion and that are being revived—thanks to gaming revenue—in tribal oyster and clam farms in Long Island Sound and area rivers.

History is also built into the Mohegan Sun Casino. It is an exceptionally smart space, one designed to both confirm and redirect our ideas of New England Indian life and history. There are, of course, the hyperreal mobilizations of the familiarly iconic "Indian," designed to establish once and for all, beyond the question of federal recognition, beyond the interrogation of gaming critics, that the Mohegans are indeed an American Indian tribe. But there are also more subtle and profound memorializations of Mohegan tribal history. The casino houses an unassuming life-size statue of legendary modern Mohegan medicine woman and anthropologist Gladys Tantaquidgeon (1899-present). Fidelia’s Restaurant (located next door to Michael Jordan’s Steak House) is named after Fidelia Hoscott Fielding (1827-1908), the last fluent speaker of Mohegan dialect and an honored traditional culture keeper. The Hall of the Lost Tribes—a smoke-free gaming room—features the marks of sachems of thirteen extinct Connecticut Indian tribes culled from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century documents. And there on the wall of the Mohegan Territory coffee shop, Samson Occom’s home site appears in a wall-sized 1861 map of the reservation.

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