Laughing Woman, a Mashantucket Pequot elder, says of the Native American Studies curriculum: “Let’s tell it the way it was." MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

It seemed inevitable that a celebratory press conference announcing a state and tribal partnership to develop a Native Studies curriculum for use in public schools in Connecticut would end on an awkward note.

Given the fraught history of the state’s indigenous tribes, ranging from the genocidal Pequot War of the 1630s to contemporary struggles over school mascot names like the Killingly Redmen, discomfort should have been expected.

Teachable moments, the governor calls them.

In the lobby of the office building that houses the state Department of Education, Gov. Ned Lamont stood Wednesday between ancient enemies, the Pequots and Mohegans, united in a desire to write their own story.

The tribes’ histories were framed by the European colonizers who nearly erased the dominant Pequots, first by epidemic, then by war and, finally, by the 1638 Treaty of Hartford. It banned uttering the Pequot name. 

There were no answers to reporters’ questions about how the story would be taught, not by the state’s chief academic officer and not by its governor. The curriculum is to be finished by January of 2024, offered, but not mandated, for use by local schools.

What of the Treaty of Hartford? What of John Mason, a Connecticut colony founder who led the dawn attack in 1637 on a fortified village in Mystic that killed 400 Pequots, including 175 women and children?

“I don’t know as much as I should have about the Treaty of Hartford, John Mason,” Lamont said. “I understand John Mason is incredibly offensive to at least one of our tribes and Native Americans. And we want to take a hard look at that.”

A marble statue of Mason stands in a niche above the north steps of the Capitol, clutching a sword and gazing over Bushnell Park. To its right, a stone frieze depicts the attack Mason led against the Pequot village.

Reporters kept pressing. What of the frieze that commemorates the slaughter and is blandly titled, “ATTACK ON AN INDIAN FORT?” Should it be removed? A push to move the statue has not succeeded.

One, two, three seconds passed with no answer from the governor.

“I don’t really know,” Lamont said, finally. “I can tell you probably a lot of those statues, you can point to a lot of history, and point to a lot of murals that are incredibly offensive. The question is, are they also learning moments? Or are they disqualified?”

From the back of the lobby, a Lamont staffer loudly said, “Thanks, everybody!”

The press conference was over.

Aa stone relief on the Capitol depicting the attack John Mason led on a fortified Pequot village in 1637 MARK PAZNIOKAS / CTMIRROR.ORG

But then a Mashantucket Pequot elder called Laughing Woman stepped forward. To start the press conference, she led a prayer in a mix of English and a Pequot language the tribe has struggled to revive.

“You have to let the old people speak,” said Laughing Woman, who is 81. “I’m reminding everyone today is a new day. We prayed. We asked for guidance. We asked the Creator to help us all to deal with a big word, two of them.”

She said one of them was “love,” the other “forgiveness.”

Laughing Woman was one of the members of the tribes who gathered at dawn some 30 years ago on the site of the massacre. She looked to Beth Regan, a social studies teacher and Mohegan leader, and said, “I went with your medicine person.”

Regan raised a hand to her heart and nodded.

They had prayed then by a statue of Mason erected on the massacre site in 1889, when the U.S. war on western tribes was fresh. They took steps toward reconciliation, to recognition of an overlooked history.

“It will not wipe out history,” Laughing Woman said. “It still hurts us very much about the massacre of our people. We became the first slaves in America. It wasn’t the Blacks. It was Pequots that were sent everywhere. It was a form of genocide.”

African slavery actually came earlier, but the history of Pequot slavery rarely gets contemporary attention.

“Let’s tell it the way it was. It’s going to be hurtful. But it is important to speak the truth and not dress it up. It was not only the Mohegan tribe that helped with the massacre, or Mason,” she said.

There were other tribes. She said she can go down a list.

She looked to the governor.

“And so I feel sorry for you, because you were put on the hot seat here for a split moment, which is alright, because you can learn, too,” she said.

Lamont smiled. 

“So let’s pray for peace, for unity,” Laughing Woman said. “It doesn’t come easy. And this is a beginning, a new day.”

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.