Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Travel Journal: Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Museum

Even though as a white person I always feel a little bit like I'm intruding at pow wows, as someone who grew up in tribal towns and now lives in an area with comparatively few Native people, I also get a warm feeling of familiarity and nostalgia for my childhood. Finding myself in a room full of Native people again last week at the Pequot Museum choked me up a little bit, I have to be honest. The adorable little kids in regalia who were already great dancers only doubled down on my emotional state. Beautiful!

The Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Museum and Research Center holds an annual Educational Pow Wow that introduces pow wow culture, etiquette, and meaning, and explains the different styles of dances and accompanying regalia. My girls and I drove down to Connecticut to attend the most recent one on July 9th.

The museum is on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation near Ledyard, CT, between Norwich and New London in the far southeastern corner of the state. It's a couple hour's drive for us, so we didn't get there until late morning. The pow wow had already started, and the museum was crowded with school or summer camp groups.

The program is run through twice, in the morning and again in the afternoon, with a lunch break in between. That meant we were able to catch the tail end of the morning presentation, grab some lunch in the Pequot Café, do a quick trip through the exhibits as the field trips cleared out for the day, and still catch the afternoon presentation. There is plenty to do and see at the Pequot Museum even without an event like the pow wow, so we crowded a ton of activity into one afternoon.

View of the Green Roof

First things first, the museum is gorgeous. It's won a bunch of architectural awards since it opened in 1998, and the modern building is surrounded by a lush green forest that visitors can enjoy on the hiking/walking trails that surround the grounds or from the 185 ft. tall Observation Tower. The 65,000 sq. ft. "green roof" is an eco-friendly garden of soft grass - growing on the roof of the exhibit halls! A round, glass atrium just inside the front entrance, called the Gathering Space, is two stories of sunlight with that backdrop of thick, green trees.

The Gathering Space

Up in the balcony looking down over the Gathering Space floor, the Pequot Café serves local, native, seasonal foods cafeteria style. I jumped at the chance to get an Indian taco - something I grew up with in Oklahoma, but rarely see now that I live in New England. Frybread is just perfect for sopping up buffalo chili and salsa and melted cheese. Yum! My daughters had a grilled cheese and a peanutberry (peanut butter and whole summer berries) on thick, homemade whole wheat bread and a side of sweet potato fries. A small market area also sells White Earth Nation and Red Lake Nation products.

Back down a long ramp under the Gathering Space atrium, there are two floors of exhibit space that trace the Pequot Nation from the last Ice Age to the present day. The impressive, recreated pre-colonial Pequot Village would probably be the most memorable part for most people, my kids included, but I was struck most by an audio/visual presentation in a mock farmhouse about the tribulations of the people during the 20th century. I think most Native American history, when you can get it at all, focuses on the devastations of Native communities during the colonial or westward expansion periods. Rarely are we encouraged to ask what was happening with Native people in 1920 or 1940 or 1960, and yet the legal and cultural blows were still being delivered.

My girls also loved the outdoor 1780s Farmstead exhibit.

The "Mission Mishoon" dugout canoe in progress

Another striking exhibit was the Portrait Gallery which consists of large black and white photos of current Pequot tribal members, young and old. The Pequots are a particularly racially diverse tribe, and seeing a presentation of cohesive tribal identity amongst such a diverse-looking group of people was inspiring. The same was true of the dancers in the Gathering Space above when we followed the sound of drums back up the ramp to take our seats around edge of the atrium.

My daughters (ages 6 and 8) were enthralled with the dancing. The younger one was totally Team Jingle Dance and the older was Fancy Shawl all the way. We skipped out before the group round dance at the end because the girl were begging to see the Observation Tower before it closed at 4:30, but I couldn't keep them from dancing down the hallway, across the parking lot, and at the rest stop McDonalds on the way home.


The Educational Pow Wow (and the Museum as a whole) provided a great opportunity to have several good talks with my girls about appreciating without taking, about Halloween costumes, and about Native Americans being "a people with a past, not of the past." We enjoyed ourselves, but we also definitely learned a lot.

For more photos, click here to see The Norwich Bulletin's photo gallery of the Pow Wow.

1 comment:

  1. That's a wonderful tribal museum to visit. The interesting thing I like in this post is the tribal dance that is really nice. Thanks for sharing. affordable park and fly deals