The Nehantic Native Nation and various departments in East Lyme are sponsoring a celebration of the Nehantic Tribe at McCook Point Park in recognition of Indigenous People’s Day.
Dr. John Pfeiffer, historian for the Town of East Lyme and official historian for the Nehantic Nation, said that he’ll be speaking about the tribe’s history and the diaspora at the event on Monday, October 11.
The Nehantic Nation originally resided in portions of southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island, living on the shoreline in the summer and retreating inland in the winter months, according to a document compiled by Elsbeth Dowd, a volunteer with the East Lyme Historical Society who is coordinating the Indigenous People’s Day event.
The name “Nehantic” means “those who live at the point.” The tribal people lived in wigwams and created decorated pottery. They were hunters and gatherers who also grew corn, squash, beans and pumpkins. In 1672, the Connecticut Colonial Assembly assigned the tribe a 300-acre reservation that stretched from McCook’s Park to Attawan in East Lyme.
David Brule, chairman of the Nehantic Native Nation, said that by about 1650, epidemics brought by the English had reduced the size of the tribe by 90 percent, down from 10,000 members. He said that of the few hundred families who remained on the reservation, many — including his own family — ended up leaving because of a lack of economic opportunity.
According to Pfeiffer, by the 1800s, the tribe had split into four different groups. One group remained on the reservation in East Lyme, a second intermarried with people in the town of Lyme, a third moved out of the state – first to New York and then to Wisconsin – and a fourth moved into various towns in the Connecticut River Valley.
According to a statement from the Nehantic Nation, its members have had an active role in both Connecticut and U.S. History. The statement said that descendents of the Nehantic have served in the U.S. military since Connecticut was a colony, and that the Nehantic people participated in the Underground Railroad, the Abolitionist Movement and helped found the NAACP.
The State of Connecticut declared the tribe extinct by the mid-1870s, after the majority of Nehantic who still remained on the reservation succumbed to tuberculosis in the mid-17th century. However, Pfieffer and Brule have been able to identify a diaspora of Nehantic descendents living across the country.
Brule, who lives in Massachusetts, said that in 2009, he heard about a Day of Remembrance for the Nehantic being held in East Lyme. Pfeiffer, who had spent his life researching the history of the Nehantic Tribe, had organized the event, and Brule reached out to him.
“I would kind of liken it to him hearing from a long lost tribe deep in the Amazon, because he had really no idea that there were still Nehantics alive and self-identifying,” said Brule.
Brule said he had been working with his cousin, a professional genealogist, to identify descendants of the Nehantic tribe. Pfeiffer, who became the Nehantic Nation’s official genealogist, was also able to identify more and more Nehantic descendents. Brule said they were aware of two principle families — the Jeffrey family, which Brule is descended from, and the Tatten family — whose members, he estimated, added up to more than 100 individuals.
Brule said that it can be a challenge to identify those with Nehantic ancestry because of the limited historical documentation.
Pfeiffer said that, in addition to the limited records, people often were not told that they had Native American roots because of the risk of discrimination.
“Back in the 17, 18, 19 hundreds, if you described yourself as having Native American blood, you would not probably be able to get a job, you would be discriminated against,” said Pfeiffer.
He gave the example of Doug Smith, a pitcher for the Red Sox in 1912 who, according to Pfeiffer, was kicked off the team because of his Native American ancestry.
Pfeiffer said that the discrimination started to change during the time of the Civil Rights Movement.
Brule said that about 12 years ago, the two primary families began holding annual reunions on the grounds of the East Lyme Historical Society. The Nehantic Nation was officially incorporated in July of this year. He said the nation sees itself primarily as a cultural organization.
Brule said that he had reached out to the Parks and Recreation Department in East Lyme to erect new signage in what remains of the Nehantic burial ground at McCook Point Park. Currently, only a single sign exists declaring the tribe extinct. Mark McDowell, recreation supervisor in the East Lyme Parks and Recreation Department, said the department was erecting three new signs that would describe the history of the Nehantic people, their service, and where they are today. McDowell said he hopes to have the signs erected before the event on Monday.
Brule said that he hoped the Indigenous People’s Day celebration might generate awareness among people who might have native ancestry and not be aware of it. He also said he viewed it as a way of educating the town as a whole about the presence of the Nehantic in the region.
“I think, as an educational step forward for the people in the area … we really feel that it would be really great for the townspeople to know that we’re here and that we could emerge and participate in the fabric of East Lyme and perhaps represent our demographic and our minority and share some of the indigenous values that we have,” he said.
The October 11 celebration will include presentations from Pfeiffer and members of the Nehantic Nation, a demonstration of birch bark basket-making and activities for children, including pottery-making, learning Nehantic animal names and coloring the tribal seal.
According to Dowd, the event will include picture books written by contemporary Native American authors and a free copy of “Fry Bread: A Native American Family Story” to the first 50 families. Brule said that the “Humble Spirit” drum group will be performing beginning at 12 p.m.
The event lasts from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m