Mohegan Tribe, Cornell Partner to Repatriate Fidelia Fielding Diaries

The Mohegan tribe recently partnered with Cornell University Library to repatriate the papers of Fidelia Fielding, one of the last fluent speakers of the Mohegan language, as part of the tribe’s efforts to revive it as a spoken tongue. Below, tribal and library representatives share their story as a potential example to be adopted and adapted by other libraries, archives, and museums in collaboratively repatriating papers and artifacts.

open diary with handwriting on both pages in black ink
Photo by John Munson/Cornell University.

The Mohegan tribe recently partnered with Cornell University Library to repatriate the papers of Fidelia Fielding, one of the last fluent speakers of the Mohegan language, as part of the tribe’s efforts to revive it as a spoken tongue. Below, tribal and library representatives share their story as a potential example to be adopted and adapted by other libraries, archives, and museums in collaboratively repatriating papers and artifacts.



When our elected and traditional tribal leaders first approached President Martha E. Pollack of Cornell University regarding the return of Fidelia Fielding’s papers and diaries, we were unsure how the president would view our request. We were actively engaged in restoring our language to a spoken language once again, and knew these papers held by Cornell University would play a role in our efforts. Fidelia, the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan language, intended her work to ensure that future generations of Mohegan people would remain connected to our tribal culture through our language. The return of her words would symbolize a return to wholeness from what had been an interrupted circle of knowledge. Fidelia’s spirit could guide us in our fluency efforts from her traditional home on Mohegan Hill once again. President Pollack immediately referred us to Gerald Beasley, university librarian, and his staff to begin discussing the transfer.

We began with a virtual meeting, where Beasley shared the joyous news that Cornell would work on a transfer agreement, assemble and develop a method for transfer, and complete the physical transfer. We were blessed that day to “visit” with Fidelia’s diaries and be given a tour of the facilities that were responsible for her safekeeping all these years. Our experience was one of thoughtfulness and understanding that the return would be more than just a transfer of papers. Rather, the return epitomizes restorative justice. The cultural importance of her work was seen as outweighing its academic importance to a prestigious institution of higher learning, by that very institution. Everyone involved in this transfer recognized that these documents belong with Mohegan despite their travels and scholarly use. This act also recognizes the continued existence of our Mohegan Tribe since the time of first contact with the Europeans, our continued practice of our Indigenous ways, and our sovereign relationship with what is now the United States of America—despite many attempts to completely assimilate all the first peoples of this nation and relegate us to peoples of the past. We cannot overstate the good intentions of everyone at Cornell for not only being solicitous caretakers of these documents but for also understanding the deep importance of these documents to our community.

This transfer occurred solely due to the generosity of spirit. Any archivist or librarian dealing with rare manuscripts surely has a strong connection to the work they do. They ensure that knowledge is preserved and passed from one generation to the next. Our friends at Cornell put their faith in our Mohegan people, knowing that we will honor our ancestor, protect these sacred documents as they have done for the past 15 years, and once again speak the language she preserved for generations to come. We cherish the relationship we have with Cornell and will work to be good knowledge partners with them in the future. We believe this relationship could be a model for other tribes, universities and museums to follow. When people work from the heart, social justice prevails. —Chief Many Hearts, Lynn Malerba, Mohegan Tribe


open diary with pencil sketch of bird and handwriting
Photo by John Munson/Cornell University.

Thanks to the research of University of Pennsylvania anthropologist Dr. Margaret M. Bruchac—who tracked the work of Dr. Frank G. Speck for her book Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists (University of Arizona Press, 2018)—we know something about the travels that transported Fidelia’s diaries away from Mohegan. Their journey began around 1900 when Fidelia “Flying Bird” Fielding met Speck, then a college student at Columbia University. Speck took an interest in the Mohegan-Pequot language (at a time when it was thought to be extinct), and convinced Fidelia to loan some of her diaries written in the language for study. These were some of the last words written in our language by a fluent speaker. Speck loaned these papers to his professor, Dr. John Dyneley Prince. Tragically, Prince suffered a house fire that destroyed those diaries along with other documents in Algonquian languages, all recorded by elderly speakers. This was a dark time in Mohegan history; our people were disheartened. Fidelia had refused to teach the language to her young mentee, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, out of fear that the child would be beaten for speaking it as she herself had been. As the years passed, the last elders with a working knowledge of the Mohegan language—such as Emma Baker, James Rogers, and Fidelia herself—passed away.

Then something unexpected happened in 1918. During the Spanish Flu epidemic, Fidelia’s adopted son, John Henry Cooper (Fielding), a carpenter working in Norwich, CT, came home to quarantine on the reservation in his mother’s old cabin. With little to do, he rummaged through her old things and papers. Among them, he found several of Fidelia’s forgotten diaries. He contacted Speck—now chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania—to share the incredible news. When the flu pandemic subsided, Speck asked Gladys Tantaquidgeon, by this time a young adult, to join him in researching the diaries and other papers that recorded Mohegan historical records, traditional stories, beliefs, and cultural practices. Tantaquidgeon worked with Speck to adapt some of this information into a publication for the Bureau of American Ethnology, and was also inspired to write her own book, Folk Medicine of the Delaware and Related Algonkian Indians (Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1941, reissued in 1972).

When Gladys, her brother Harold, and their father John founded the Tantaquidgeon Indian Museum in 1931, they hoped to archive Fidelia’s papers alongside other Mohegan records and heritage items. Speck held onto the diaries for two more decades, but after he passed away unexpectedly in 1950, the other Mohegan items were nowhere to be found. For reasons unknown, the diaries had been left among the books at the Museum of the American Indian. After the MAI library was transferred to the Huntington Free Library, the diaries remained hidden for decades before resurfacing in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University. It seems poetic that now, a century later, in the midst of another pandemic, Cornell has recognized the significance of Fidelia Fielding’s diaries and offered to return them to Mohegan, completing the circle of their journey away from, and back to, Mohegan. —Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel, Medicine Woman, Mohegan Tribe




man wearing mask, standing, and Indigenous woman, also masked, standing at red and gold cloth covered table holding carved and decoratedbowl
Photo by John Munson/Cornell University.

Collecting often means acquiring. But when considering the research landscape holistically outside of predominantly white mainstream libraries, building stronger cultural heritage collections also means knowing when to let go. I want to preface this piece by stating that Cornell University Library is not sharing this story because we are looking for praise or pats on the back. We should not be praised for doing the right thing. We are re-examining our own history of exclusion. We are interrogating our own longstanding misperceptions of cultural inclusion and for this reason it only seems natural that we share our experience to contribute to progress in the library profession’s understanding of repatriation. We have all inherited the many collections we steward. They had a life before we came along and fit them into our version of the research landscape. This teachable moment should make every library give pause to consider the provenance of our cultural heritage collections and acknowledge that their history and meaning is eternally intertwined with the communities who created them.

On a sunny afternoon, on November 4, 2020, I joined a small group of Cornell University Library representatives on the terrace beside Cornell’s iconic clock tower to welcome visiting Mohegan Tribal Historic Preservation Officer James Quinn, and bid farewell to the physical diaries and documents of Fidelia “Flying Bird” Fielding on their way back home to the Mohegan community.

It was a deeply moving moment for all of us because we were facilitating an important homecoming. And I consider it as a particularly poignant milestone for me as associate university librarian overseeing Rare and Distinctive (RAD) collections. As keepers of memory, we are privileged. We facilitate the interpretation, study, and care of collections. We are ambassadors of cultural heritage. However, there is a tenuous line between our roles as stewards of collections and becoming historical gatekeepers who exhibit collective amnesia about transgressions against Indigenous peoples and how that impacts what we collect and how we collect it. We must resist the urge to believe we are the best keepers of memory and only we should tell a community’s story.

As I stood there with Gerald Beasley, our Carl A. Kroch University Librarian, and Anne Sauer, the Stephen E. & Evalyn Edwards Milman Director of Rare and Manuscript Collections, I felt deeply proud to be a part of the Cornell institution. Through the repatriation of Fidelia’s papers, we were acknowledging the role that privilege played in the history of Cornell’s collections, and affirming our commitment to reparative and inclusive social justice in our curatorial work.

The university was founded as “an institution where any person can find instruction in any study” and more and more Cornell University is acknowledging that it was built on Indigenous land and examining its history. When Cornell University President Pollack informed the library about the Mohegan Tribe’s request to repatriate Fidelia’s papers as part of their language revitalization efforts, all of us on the library’s leadership team instantly agreed that it was the right thing to do.

We were ready to undergo the repatriation process in accordance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and we also had other factors to consider, especially during the pandemic: How could we transfer the papers in a manner that would be safe for their handlers and the documents themselves? Would the repatriated documents be placed in an environment conducive to their long-term conservation? Would scholars and researchers continue to have access? Could the library retain rights to host and make accessible the digital surrogates of the artifacts for the benefit of researchers at Cornell and elsewhere?

These questions and concerns were all swiftly addressed in the course of our virtual meetings with Chief Lynn Malerba and other members of the Mohegan Tribe. Our discussions were so pleasant and amicable that they were not negotiations at all but conversations. And in the end, no elaborate paperwork or legalese was involved. A simple documentation of the transfer from our archives to the Mohegan Archives was agreed upon.

During our discussions with our Mohegan partners, we were excited to learn more about their ongoing language revitalization program and how Fidelia’s papers—revered by the tribe as physical manifestations of their elder’s spirit—will be housed in the Mohegan Archives to inspire and inform generations of Mohegans as well as researchers and visitors from outside the tribe.

We were grateful that our Mohegan partners allowed our request to retain the rights to the digital surrogates of the artifacts, and that they also generously volunteered to have a representative drive from Uncasville, CT, to personally pick up the artifacts from our campus in Ithaca, NY.

The process that took the longest was preparing Fidelia’s papers for the journey. We are fortunate to have the expertise of library staff in Cornell University Library’s Digitization and Conservation Services (DCS), who stabilized the paper artifacts and gave them individual archival enclosures—including paper folders and polyester sleeves—to facilitate safe handling. DCS also constructed a custom clamshell box to contain and protect the whole collection. As requested by our Mohegan friends, the box was wrapped in red cloth—a color, we were told, that was significant to Fidelia.

On the day of transfer, we performed a short and simple ceremony to mark the historic moment. Mohegan Tribal Historic Preservation Officer James Quinn shared some heartwarming words of thanks and gave us a gift of a bowl, carved from a gourd by a tribal member, along with a note of gratitude from the Mohegan community. These items are now a precious part of our RAD collections.

We know, too, that we have gained a lasting bond with our Mohegan friends, and we look forward to future collaborations when we can celebrate Fidelia Fielding’s legacy together. —Tamar Evangelestia-Dougherty, associate university librarian, Cornell University Library

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