GLADYS TANTAQUIDGEON (1899-2005)
Both a Medicine Woman of the Mohegan people and an academically trained anthropologist, Gladys Tantaquidgeon is important to the history of herbal medicine for her ethnographic studies of Native American medicinal plant use. From an early age, she was encouraged to bridge two cultures: chosen as a small child for traditional training by three respected woman elders, she was also educated at a New London, Connecticut grade school where she was the only Indian child.
Tantaquidgeon was still a toddler when she first met anthropologist Frank Speck, who had become friends with some young Mohegan men while an undergraduate at Columbia University. As a student of the famous Columbia anthropologist Franz Boas, Speck wrote his masters thesis on the Mohegan people. His interviews with Gladys’s great-aunt Fidelia Fielding launched his career; Fielding is said to have been the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan language, and was one of the three elders who trained Gladys. Speck studied an Oklahoma tribe for his PhD., and eventually became the most prominent anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. The Tantaquidgeon family cared for the Speck children when their parents were away doing field research, and often joined the Specks at their summer house in Cape Ann, Massachusetts, where Gladys spent her teenage summers and met many leaders from other North American tribes.
At age 20, Gladys Tantaquidgeon went to live with Speck and his family in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, along with her brother and another Mohegan boy. She became the first Native American person to attend classes at the University of Pennsylvania, her tuition waived as a member of Speck’s household. Although the School of Arts and Sciences did not yet accept women, she was admitted to its classes, and she served as Speck’s collaborator, secretary, teaching assistant, and cultural intermediary for fourteen years, accompanying him on field trips among eastern tribes and working together on many published pieces. Melissa Jane Fawcett, her biographer and great-niece, also trained in both tribal traditions and academic ones, comments on the difficulty of those years in Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon. Among other students, Gladys was treated as a curiosity; among other anthropologists, she was often aware of her colleagues’ narrow-minded analysis of her people.
Gladys Tantaquidgeon studied with elders and healers from many tribal groups related to her own, including some tribes that had migrated to Canada and Oklahoma in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1928, Speck published her article on “Mohegan Medicinal Practices, Weather-Lore and Superstition” in the annual report of the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology. The medicinal section is a list of remedies, both native plants and naturalized European ones such as burdock and elecampane. In 1931, Tantaquidgeon published a “Report on Delaware Ethnobotanical Investigations,” which recorded the teachings of a Delaware healer from an Oklahoma tribe related to hers, who lived in Philadelphia for some months in 1930 as an informant for Speck and his students. Ten years later, she expanded this work into a book, A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practice and Folk Beliefs; it was republished in 1972 as Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians, along with a revision and expansion of her 1928 article. Her published work reflects her respect for traditional rituals and beliefs, her skills as an anthropologist, and her conviction that academic audiences should be educated about the relationship between the spiritual and physical aspects of healing. Much unpublished ethnographic material may be found in her personal papers.
In 1934, Gladys Tantaquidgeon was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to survey New England tribal nations and, later, to do social work among Sioux families on South Dakota reservations. From 1938 to 1947, she promoted Indian art for the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board in the Dakotas, Montana and Wyoming, organizing cooperatives and studying traditional Indian artistic techniques.
She returned to Connecticut in 1947. With her father and brother, she had founded the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum in Uncasville in 1931, collecting and interpreting Mohegan artifacts as well as ones that the Tantaquidgeons and Specks had collected from other tribes. For sixty years until she died at 106, she served as curator of the museum, Medicine Woman for her tribe, and Vice Chair of the Tribal Council. Her personal papers, now archived at the museum, served her people in their successful petition to restore tribal status in 1994.
RESOURCES NOT LINKED ABOVE
Video: Connecticut Public TV (2018)
Gladys Tantaquidgeon, “Mohegan Medicinal Practices, Weather-Lore and Superstition, in Frank G. Speck, Native Tribes and Dialects of Connecticut (Extract from the 43rd Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, Government Printing Office, 1928)
“Indian Stories: Gladys Tantaquidgeon and Frank Speck” in Margaret M. Bruchac, Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists (University of Arizona Press, 2018)