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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


February 8, 2003 - Issue 80


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Mohegans Revive Heritage Through Language

by Patti Villacorta Special to the Norwich Bulletin
credits: Photo #1-Jay Levy, a cultural specialist assisting the Mohegan tribe, and Bruce "Two Dogs" Bozsum, cultural programs director for the tribe, are working to awaken the Mohegan language. Photo #2-Stephanie Fielding, Mohegan tribal linguist, is working on word lists for the language.
Jay Levy, a cultural specialist assisting the Mohegan tribe, and Bruce "Two Dogs" Bozsum, cultural programs director for the tribe, are working to awaken the Mohegan language.Despite the fact that Bruce Bozsum grew up in Montville, where his family has lived for hundreds of years, as a teen-ager Bozsum took only a limited interest in his Mohegan heritage. It was easier to pass as white.

"I distinctly remember hearing stories from my parents when I was young, stories about locals treating our people as if we'd disappeared off the face of the earth, refusing to acknowledge our culture," Bozsum said, with a shrug of his shoulders. "Except for the times when someone would call us 'dirty Indians.'"

Now 42, Bozsum serves as Pipe Carrier, goes by his Mohegan name, Two Dogs, and his personal goal is to be his tribe's next fluent speaker. In the meantime, he keeps busy managing the Cultural Programs Department that includes teaching a language class.

It has been 95 years since Fidelia Hoscott Fielding, the last fluent Mohegan speaker died. Fielding, the granddaughter of Martha Uncas, called herself Dji'ts Bud dnaca, which means Flying Bird. For five years, Bozsum, Stephanie Fielding, the tribal linguist, and others have researched the state archives for documents and spent month upon month in local libraries compiling word lists. Slowly, they have begun teaching themselves how to speak and read Mohegan. They also have consulted with a linguist in California who works on language restoration with several other tribes.

Jay Levy, a cultural specialist who has been assisting Bozsum with the language project, said he hopes in a few years, the Mohegans will be able to produce calendars and publish books in their own language. Also on the top of their list is recording the elders' oral histories so their stories won't be lost forever.

Stephanie Fielding, Mohegan tribal linguist, is working on word lists for the language. "This is a means of keeping their culture alive," Levy said. "It gives them a way of surviving as Indians. You should see how fast the Mohegan children pick up words."

In the early 1900s, Frank Speck, an anthropology student from Columbia University, traveled to Connecticut in search of Fidelia Fielding. His goal? To document the dying Mohegan language. After Fielding died in 1908, four of her diaries were translated by Speck.

"Maybe Speck was the keeper of the language," Bozsum said. "Now, we're at a time when we need to revitalize it. We want it restored. Maybe it's wishful thinking that my generation will be fluent, but to see our kids and grandkids speaking to each other in Mohegan is a dream we can realize."

Christine Murtha serves as corresponding secretary of the Tribal Council and is an enthusiastic student in Bozsum's monthly language class.

"Growing up in Niantic, we did everything we could to keep our culture together. My mother and grandmother were active in genealogy. We always made traditional dishes. But our language was dormant. I knew the word for succotash. I knew the word for tree. But I never knew how to make a complete sentence," Murtha said.

Murtha shook her honey-colored hair and glanced at the word chart posters hanging on the wall of Bozsum's office. She smiles a big smile.

"Now I can listen to my language tapes in the car every day while I'm driving to work," she said.

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