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Looking for culture

NARRATOR: Since 1978, The Mashantucket Pequot tribe has underwritten archaeological surveys on their reservation. The search has challenged widely held beliefs about the disappearance of their ancestral culture. Kevin McBride leads the tribe's archaeological activities.

KEVIN MCBRIDE (Archaeologist): Behind me are the remains of an 18th century Pequot farmstead or homestead. You can see we're in a small valley -- maybe 300 feet across -- and within this valley there may be two or three of these farmsteads. And they're all related to one another. There was still a lot of wigwams on the reservation that we find. Perhaps half the reservation lived in framed house. And that's what this is, that period of time -- 17th and 18th century -- is a time we consider a lot of native groups are undergoing a great deal of change as a result of contact with Europeans. And the archaeological sites that we investigate from that time are loaded with European material culture.

And we just assumed that what we're seeing is a process of assimilation. What we've discovered is just the opposite. We found a great deal of continuity in terms of Pequot social patterns, political patterns, ritual behavior, the way they use space, the way they continue to hunt.

I think there's two stereotypes that western Europeans/American culture has about natives in the past, and to a certain extent, the present. One is, I think people equate technological differences with inferior/superior and of course the bottom line is history is always written by the victor. I think the other great myth is that the natives led a completely idyllic view -- that before the Europeans, these were people of the forest and they were in tune with nature. And to a certain extent that's obviously true.

But for example, evidence in the record, the archaeological record, if you believe it, you know, they too had conflicts, they too had social 

problems, they too had political problems. They occasionally over-fished or over-clammed an area. But I think the basic difference in the societies is their view of the land and the environment.


DOVIE THOMASON (Lakota/Kiowa Apache Heritage): I'm from plains peoples, northern and southern plains, and as such we were more of hunting peoples. We were not gatherers and we didn't have the agriculture that people here have had. So to see the significance of plants in stories here, the different animals in stories, the whole society that built around corn in this part of the world means something very different than what I'm familiar with, where life centers around the buffalo.

RUSSELL HANDSMAN: Between about 1,000 and 500 years ago the Weantinock Indians lived and planted corn in this field at the Housatonic River. It was used to grow corn, it was hunted in, it was fished along, those kinds of things. And it was also the place where they started to bury their ancestors probably about 2,000 years ago. So there's a real spiritual connection both to the planting fields, to the ancestral burying sites, as well as to the traditional fishing sites, which would have been used generation after generation after generation.

So when the colonists come, the Weantinock and other Indian peoples agree to share the land with the Colonial peoples but they never really give it away. And so they continue to visit, they continue to use the traditional fishing sites. And they try to continue to use the traditional planting fields. When you lose access to a traditional planting field it makes surviving and social reproduction --that is the matter of being able to continue to live in traditional communities and relatively large numbers -- a lot more difficult.

There are a whole series of strategies that Indian peoples like the Weantinock use to basically submerge or to some extent hide their Indian identity for some parts of the 18th and 19th Century. But they continue to be Indian, they would continue to visit the homelands.

Wood splint baskets, for instance, are a way for people to travel from place to place, from homeland to homeland in the 19th century and they were given away as gifts to kin, to their neighbors, to people they hadn't seen in awhile, as well as being given or sold or bartered away to non-native people. So baskets are really a way to maintain links with one another.  

Survival of the Indian Nation

TRUDIE LAMB RICHMOND: I think the real struggle is holding onto the land. We have lost so much, that the fragments of land that we have left, the reservations that we have left, this is our culture.

CHIEF BIG EAGLE: Indian land is the survival of the Indian nation, without it you have no identity.

STRONG HORSE: Miantinomo was a sachem of the Narragansetts in 1642. This is a petition to the English.

"For you know our fathers had plenty of deer and skin. Our plains were full of deer and also our woods, and of turkeys. And our coves were full of fish and fowl. But these English having gotten our land, they would scythe and cut down the grass with axes fell our trees. Their cows and the horses eat the grass, and their hogs spoil our clam banks and we shall all be starved."

DOVIE THOMASON: The land is the people. I was always told -- my grandmother always told me -- and it's something that's echoed by many native voices, is that people cannot own land, that the earth owns the people. In that way the earth, who we call mother, gives us everything. We get our foods, our traditions, our stories -- all things emerge from the land. We're told that, in my tradition, we emerged from the land.

MOONFACE BEAR: When the English first came here and wanted to utilize the land, and so we did some dealings and treaties and we exchanged symbolic things to say "you know, we understand, here's our hospitality, come and live amongst us.

Everything was fine, everything was good. We was happy to see them. We understood about needing land to survive, to live. But the problems didn't really come until like a fence -- when a fence like this was where maybe we walked down to the waterhole to fish. And the fence being there the next day, and crossing that fence and somebody hollering at us or shooting at us, running out with some paper or some deed saying, you know, "what are you doing? You're trespassing on my land."

And we'd say, "well, you know we've always gone down this way to go down to the water." And they'd say, "well you can't go down there no more. That's trespassing, that's illegal, that's against the law. You sold the land. You do not have that right no more."

And that's when problems arose. That's when it hit home to us, what they meant by selling the land.

MIKKI AGANSTATA: There was such a different perspective on each side. Indians who were caretakers of the land in no way could even grasp the idea of land ownership. And from the European point of view, they really couldn't see where being Indian was anything other than a temporary condition.

JANIS US: To put it bluntly, most Native Americans feel that through trickery, deceit, drunkenness with the whiskey, which they kept passing out, which Native Americans were not used to -- they managed to roughly steal away the land. They had the chiefs and the sub-chiefs, what have you, put "x's" on pieces of paper that they couldn't even read and didn't know what they were doing.

MIKKI AGANSTATA: When you look at the individual histories of the lands, the tribal lands, here in Connecticut as well as the other northeast areas, it is just astounding that there's any land in tribal control today. And it's almost equally astounding that there really are reservations. There are these little areas where people have managed to hang on. You have to admire that.

NARRATOR: Since Colonial times, state tribal leaders have repeatedly sought redress from state authorities, citing unfair treatment and the loss of their land. The Schagticoke tribe's experience is typical.

Trudie Lamb Richmond is one of the few tribal members who still live on the Schagticoke reservation.

TRUDIE LAMB RICHMOND: Schagticoke reservation was established in the early 1700s. And almost immediately, we started losing land, after the land had been set aside and had been reserved. And almost immediately, native people began requesting for some kind of assistance. Because once you're on the reservations your whole way of life changed. Your way of being able to provide for yourself was becoming more and more difficult.

And there were so many petitions with the General Assembly. The General Assembly would listen to these complaints and then say, "well we've looked into it and there's nothing more that we can do." We were constantly being encouraged to leave rather than to remain here, until our reservation today is 400 acres and there's six families that live here.

NARRATOR: Chief Big Eagle lives on one of the two Paugussett reservations -- a one-quarter-acre plot by a busy Trumbull road.

CHIEF BIG EAGLE: There's not enough land for the population to live on. And it's always been hard because you was a ward of the state up until '73. In order to live here the statement was you had to make friends with the settlers. You could be removed without cause. If you wanted to come spend the night with your mother you had to get a written letter of permission from the state in order to come.

NARRATOR: Securing sovereignty over their reservations is essential to Connecticut's native people for both economic and cultural reasons.

The Golden Hill Paugussetts have sparked several controversies: armed defense of untaxed cigarette sales on their Colchester reservation, extensive land claims in southwestern Connecticut and a gambling casino proposal in Waterbury.

Moonface Bear leads the Colchester Paugussett group, called Paugeesauk by Moonface and his tribal group.

MOONFACE BEAR: And so how are you going to have somebody being concerned about their culture and their identity when they have to make "x" amount of dollars every day to sustain just some kind of life. Because if I don't take care of my kids without insurance, DCYS will certainly be here and take them away from me. So that's the kind of pressure that we have, which is basically anybody can identify. So without economy, let's face it, how could you see a thriving community?

I grew up in the movement - I grew up in change. I grew up that everything that is going on for Indian people didn't happen because one day somebody decided to say, "let's be nice to the Indians." There were fights, confrontations, a lot of deaths, a lot of destruction in native communities to get what we have today. So I'm an adamant believer in the warrior society, and I believe in the right of nations to have our own military, I believe the right in us being a free state in the defense of ourselves and the defense of our laws.


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Last modified: September 03, 2012