— Gay Story Hamilton, chairman of the Council of Elders of the Mohegan Tribe, has been named to the board of directors
of the Endangered Language Fund at Yale University.
Since January, the Mohegan’s Council of Elders has assumed responsibility for the tribe’s ongoing language reconstruction
“One of the main enemies of native language is television,” said Hamilton, a former instructor at Western Connecticut
State University and former employee in the anthropology department at the American Museum of Natural History in
New York City.
“Because people everywhere, even on reservations, are plugged into English television, they’re probably being exposed
more to the English language than their own. In many tribes, only the leaders are fluent,” said Hamilton. “And
when you lose language, you lose culture. So it is important to preserve the language. It’s not just a nice idea.”
The Endangered Language Fund is a non-profit organization affiliated with Yale’s department of linguistics. The
fund is devoted to the scientific study of endangered languages, the support of native efforts in maintaining those
languages, and the dissemination of that work to native communities and scholars.
Hamilton replaces Mohegan historian Melissa Fawcett on the panel.
The Mohegans have been working on their language reconstruction project for about two years.
They are working with Florida-based linguist Julian Granberry to create a modern Mohegan language.
“He calls it modern, because it won’t be what it once was,” said Hamilton.
The tribe is producing four interactive compact discs with basic vocabulary and sentence structure that will be
made available to tribal members.
“One of our goals is to provide enough information so individuals can generate sentences,” said Hamilton. “This
will not just be rote learning.”
Within the tribe, a volunteer group has been working on the project for almost two years, and Story said the effort
is starting to pay rewards.
“We’ve been to a couple of meetings with other tribes trying to either retain or reconstruct their languages,”
she said. “This is a situation that affects many tribes, and not just tribes like us who have had a long period
of time assimilating with non-Indian peoples.”
The last Mohegan fluent in the native tongue, the Mohegan-Pequot dialect of the Algonquian language, was Fidelia
A. Hoscott Fielding, who died in 1908.
Fielding did not teach her protégé, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who is now 101 and the tribe’s matriarch,
much of the Mohegan-Pequot dialect, according to the tribe’s written history. Use of the native language was prohibited
when Fielding was a girl, and she feared Tantaquidgeon would suffer reprisal if she learned the dialect and spoke
it, the history states.
“We’re working hard to bring (the language) back,” said Hamilton. “And it’s all starting to come together.”
The Mohegans have met with the Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts to share ideas for reconstructing language.
“We want to see what other tribes are doing,” she said. “The Wampanoags, they’re an Algonquian language, too. Their
language is closely related to ours, and one way a linguist restores a language is to look at closely related languages.”
Hamilton is the leader of the seven-member Council of Elders and former editor of the Mohegan Press, which has
published a dictionary of the tribe’s language and grammar. The dialect is not directly translatable to English
and focuses on the land, animals and rhythms of the natural and spirit worlds, according to the tribe’s history.
Years ago, Hamilton completed an internship through the Smithsonian Institution by shadowing a curator at the Museum
of Natural History, where she later worked.