- Indigenous Stories in Stone: Mohegan Placemaking, Activism, and Colonial Encounters at the Royal Mohegan Burial Ground
in january 2016 several members of the Mohegan Tribe participated in a groundbreaking ceremony in Norwich, Connecticut, a small New England city situated within their traditional homelands. A crowd of historical supporters gathered to unveil a public humanities project called Walk Norwich, a series of interactive walking tours and illustrated signs to be erected around the land and rivers—Yantic, Shetucket, Quinebaug, Thames—that converge there. Mohegans, whose present-day tribal reservation lies south of downtown Norwich, agreed to take an active role by authoring their own historical path, characterized as the Uncas Leap Trail in reference to the seventeenth-century sôcum (sachem), or primary leader, Wôks (Uncas, 1598– 1683).1 Comprising a series of locations marked with interpretive signs featuring text and imagery, the Uncas Leap Trail orients viewers to key nodes in a complex Indigenous homeland that has been critical to long-term Mohegan sustenance, identity, and sovereignty. This same homeland has repeatedly faced marginalization, denial, appropriation, and material damage from settler-colonial counterclaims spanning four centuries. Seen in these contexts, the Uncas Leap Trail constitutes much more than colorful roadside attractions. It is a dynamic process giving tangible form to multigenerational Mohegan practices for stewarding important places and memories, for making Mohegan resistance and resilience visible and legible to wider publics, and for counteracting erasive colonialist mentalities and actions that have attempted to overwrite the Indigenous meanings of this area.
This essay situates the Uncas Leap Trail project within a longue durée history of Mohegan caretaking for meaningful places and of communication about these places’ significances both within the community and to Euro- colonial outsiders. It traces how Mohegan individuals and collectivities have used a wide range of expressive forms to support community connections with storied places—particularly the Royal Mohegan Burial Ground by Yantic Falls—while also engaging in strategic resistance to settler- colonialist incursions and dispossessions across Connecticut, New England, and the [End Page 74] United States. As this essay shows, Mohegan ways of engaging with place have encompassed regular interactions with stones embedded in the earth; written documents about land and authority negotiated by multilingual tribal leaders; carved grave markers bearing poetic epitaphs; an important yet scarcely known nineteenth-century newspaper; and, most recently, public signage and digital commentary. Unpacking these multimedia, multigenerational approaches to denoting and maintaining significant geographies brings to light the complicated dynamics of how a specific tribal nation has chosen to transmit its own understandings of time and place. As the long-term evolution of these processes at Mohegan underscores, it is vital to understand time and place as intertwined in Indigenous homelands and operating counter to colonialist conceptions of temporality and spatiality. Such conceptions too often have attempted to confine Indigenous people and polities to narrow geographies and bygone eras rather than recognizing their expansive continuance.
Mohegan place-based activism is a deeply rooted tradition that has maintained substantial continuities even as its tactics, languages, and media have transformed. Indeed, creation of the Uncas Leap Trail was a compelling instance of twenty-first-century Indigenous “placemaking”: the articulation and reshaping of cultural landscapes through language, actions, markers, rituals, and other human activities. The concept of placemaking stresses that “place” is not a static entity universally visible and accessible to everyone but instead a dynamic process, a set of relations, an ongoing transformation, and an emotional investment that links humans and other-than- humans. Placemaking happens through a multitude of activities, including the telling of traditional stories about land and water in “deep time,” as well as in more recent eras; the deliberate memorializing of ancestors and notable happenings through lasting or ephemeral means; the ceremonial honoring and renewal of specific sites through prayer and offerings. More prosaically, it can involve erecting signs and monuments on the landscape to describe features’ significance; developing automobile or walking tours through pertinent locales; and creating cartographic representations that map important archaeological, natural, and cultural resources.2 Placemaking can be an important tool of Indigenous community-building, deployed to enhance solidarities, knowledge, and pride among tribal members.
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