Location and Prominence
The Mohegan Indians are sometimes also known as "wolf people," and the word “Mohegan” is believed by many linguists to translate as “from the wolf.” The earliest Mohegans were members of the Pequot Tribe who settled in upstate New York and eventually migrated to Connecticut in the upper Thames River Valley, where the climate was more temperate and food was more readily available. In general these people were non-nomadic, which means that they settled in one place and lived there more or less permanently; they did not move around in pursuit of food or crops the way many of the tribes in the plains in the center of the country did.
The Mohegans in Connecticut eventually split from the Pequots in the early 1600s after two chiefs quarreled about how to deal with the European settlers who were encroaching on their land, spreading disease, and consuming needed resources. Uncas, a Mohegan chief, decided to take his followers and form his own tribe, which ultimately gave rise to the Mohegans as an independent group.
Pequot leaders ultimately went to war with the Mohegan branch over the split in what is known historically as the Pequot War of 1637. There was more at stake than the Mohegan split, and the Pequots were fighting the Europeans as much or more as they were fighting the tribal offshoots. Importantly, though, the Mohegans sided with the European settlers. With their assistance and arms power, the Mohegans eventually defeated the Pequots. This alliance would keep the Mohegans safe for many years afterward, though it did lead to some changes in how they conducted their affairs and how they shared their land.
Religion and Language
Originally, the Mohegan people were spirit worshippers who, like most Native American peoples, had stories and beliefs linked to the natural world in which they lived. Samson Occum was one of the first ordained Christian Indian ministers to come from the Mohegan tribe. Born in 1723, he formed a New England Christian Indian School that eventually moved to New Hampshire and became Dartmouth College. Samson ultimately moved to upstate New York, but his Christianization of the Mohegans helped save them from eventual relocation since government leaders of the time were more likely to give advantages to groups who were perceived to be Christian and more or less working towards a mainstream status quo.
Fidelia Fielding, born in 1827, is another notable of the Mohegan Indians. As the final living speaker of the Mohegan language, she is credited for saving it by having captured the language in four diaries. An avid storyteller, she also committed to having many of her oral histories recorded. The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. owns these materials now and some scholars are looking for a way to revive the language so that it can be taught to modern tribal children.
Fielding also was the first member of the tribe to live in a modern log home. Two medicine women, Emma Baker, born in 1828, and Gladys Tantaquidgeon, born in 1899, are largely credited with preserving much of the tribal culture and history as it is known today.
The Tribe governs itself as a sovereign, federally recognized Indian Nation within the United States. As such, it has its own government and ruling constitution for its roughly 1,700 members. To be a member of the tribe, a person must be able to trace his or her ancestry to the 1861 tribal roll and in most cases must have at least a 1/8 blood connection; in addition, he or she must usually be active within the tribe to qualify for privileges and benefits. Since the 1900s, nine chiefs have presided over the Mohegan Indians, and their rulings are usually binding.
The largest Mohegan Reservation is in Montville, Connecticut, and gained recognition in 1994. Several casinos are operated by the tribe and it owns the Connecticut Sun, a Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) team. The Mohegan Tribe is different from the Mahican Tribe, which also speaks a similar dialect of the Algonquian language. Both traditionally lived in roughly the same swath of New England, but the Mahicans are a larger group whose territory also extends into Canada.