Gladys Iola Tantaquidgeon

Nanticoke Chief Russel Clark and Gladys Tantaquidgeon (Mohegan), 1925, Frederick Johnson photograph collection, NMAI.AC.001.038, Item N14739, National Museum of the American Indian Archive Center, Smithsonian Institution.

Mohegan Medicine Woman and Anthropologist

Gladys Iola Tantaquidgeon


Starting at age five, Gladys Iola Tantaquidgeon began to be educated in Mohegan teachings to become a medicine woman. Having been selected and trained throughout her childhood by the tribal grandmothers in the traditional practices, beliefs, and lore of Mohegan culture, she was also chosen to learn the sacred ways of the Makiawisug (little spirit beings). These teachings grounded her life’s work.

Tantaquidgeon briefly attended grammar school before entering the University of Pennsylvania in 1919, and was one of the few women of color at the school. After her studies and research with anthropologist Frank Speck, she chose to conduct further fieldwork with the northeastern tribes. Working for the government, she provided educational and economic development for Northeastern tribes during the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Then she became a social worker on the Yankton Sioux reservation in South Dakota for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, served as a Native Arts specialist on the Federal Indian Arts and Crafts board, and also worked as a librarian in Niantic Women’s prison.

Tantaquidgeon’s most significant contributions derive from her efforts to document, research, preserve, and share Mohegan culture and aspects of the cultures of Northeastern tribes. In 1931, she, her father, and her brother, founded the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum to display artifacts and to preserve the teachings of Mohegan culture and spirituality. In 1947 she retired from her government service and returned to become a full-time curator at the museum. Through the museum, she recorded Native stories, preserved the meaning of traditional Mohegan symbols, material culture, and ceremonies, and offered free education about Indian lifeways to the community. In addition, she expanded her medicinal knowledge by researching the herbal medicines among related Northeastern tribes. In 1992, she was recognized as the Tribal Medicine Woman of the Mohegan. Finally, her meticulous collection of tribal records of Mohegan births, marriages, and deaths were instrumental to securing the Mohegan quest for federal recognition by the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1994.

She lived to be 106 years old. Among her numerous awards and tributes include honorary degrees from the University of Connecticut and Yale. Her most recognized scholarship is:

A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practice and Folk Beliefs (1942), reprinted as Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians ([1972] 1995)

Phyllis May-Machunda

Speck, Frank G. and Gladys Iola Tantaquideon. 1928. Native tribes and dialects of Connecticut.

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 1928. “Mohegan Medicinal Practices, Weather-Lore and Superstitions.” Bureau of American Ethnology Annual Report 43:264-27..  

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 1930. “Notes on the Gay Head Indians of Massachusetts.” Indian Notes. Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. Indian Notes 7(1):1-26..  

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 1930. “Newly discovered straw basketry of the Wampanoag Indians of Massachusetts.” Indian Notes. v.7, no. 4 (October, 1930)  pages 475-484 : illustrations ; 18 cm 7(4):475-484,  7(54):765-484. 

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 1932. “Notes on the Origin and Uses of Plants of the Lake St. John Montagnais.” Journal of American Folklore. Vol. 45, No. 176 (Apr. – Jun., 1932), pp. 265-267 (3 pages).

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 1934. “Narragansett”. Report made to Office Of Indian Affairs.  

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 1935. “Notes on Mohegan-Pequot Basketry Designs.” Indians at Work.  2(17):43-45.  

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 1935. “New England Council Fires Still Burn.” Indians at Work. 2(12): 20-24.  

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola and Janet B. MacCurdy. 1940. “Medicine Practices of the Indians of Southern New England.” The Herbalist. 4(1941): 16-21.  

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 1941. “How the Summer Season Was Brought North.” The Journal of American Folklore, Vol. 54, No. 213/214 (Jul. – Dec., 1941), pp. 203-204.  

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 1942. A Study of Delaware Indian Medicine Practice and Folk Beliefs. Reprinted as Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians ([1972] 1995). Harrisburg, Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Dept. of Public Instruction, Pennsylvania Historical Commission.  

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 1972. “Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians.” Anthropological Series Number 3. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola and Jayne Fawcett. 1987. “Symbolic Motifs on Painted Baskets of the Mohegan-Pequot.” A Key into the language of woodsplint baskets. Pp. 50-51 in Rooted Like the Ash Trees: New England Indians and the Land. rev. ed. R.G. Carlson, ed. Naugatuck, Conn.: Eagle Wing Press, Inc..  

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 2014. “An Affectionate Portrait of Frank Speck.” Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England. Ed. Siobhan Senier. University of Nebraska Press (pp. 581-587).  

Tantaquidgeon, Gladys Iola. 2014. “See the Beauty Surrounding Us.” Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England. Ed. Siobhan Senier. University of Nebraska Press (pp. 580-581).