A Traditional Chief of the 21st Century
by J Kēhaulani Kauanui — Wesleyan University
December 07, 2012 – 00:00
Listen: this is the sound of indigenous leadership in the 21st century. Lynn Malerba is the first female chief of the Mohegan Tribe in almost 300 years. She has spent much of her life in the land around Mohegan Hill—the historical center of the tribe, and home to the Mohegan Church. Surrounded by the state of Connecticut, the Mohegan Tribe is a sovereign, federally recognized Indian Nation with its own constitution and government. While its best-known enterprise may be the Mohegan Sun casino, the tribe also owns and operates a number of other ventures benefitting both the tribe and the community at large.
I launched my radio show, “Indigenous Politics: From Native New England and Beyond,” in February 2007. I wanted to highlight this region, where I now reside, and its indigenous people. I especially wanted to discuss their ongoing political resistance to settler colonialism, something they share with indigenous people worldwide (hence, the phrase “and Beyond”). I was able to claim independent media as a site for engaging critically with issues of land desecration, treaty rights, political status questions and cultural revitalization.
This particular segment speaks to the importance of lineage and kinship, survival and the maintenance of tribal traditions. Selected by the Mohegan Council of Elders, Chief Malerba was inducted at a ceremony at during the Tribe’s homecoming weekend on August 15, 2010. In the interview, she explains how her mother and other female leaders in the tribe set an example for her leadership. Chief Malerba is also a great-granddaughter of a sachem, which made me reflect on what it means to come from an unbroken chain of connection to one’s people, long before any casino, and still have to face the central myth of settler colonialism, that of the “vanishing Indian.”
Ojibwe historian Jean O’Brien has successfully unpacked that myth in Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. Parsing hundreds of 19th century New England local histories, O’Brien shows how white settlers effectively installed themselves as the "first" Americans, while [often repeatedly, over decades] eulogizing Indians who were allegedly the "last" of their tribes. Thus, white Americans asserted their own modernity, while denying it to indigenous people.
This podcast speaks, boldly and unapologetically, about how New England’s Native people have evolved with changing times, showing adaptation and innovation. The full interview, and others in the series, can be found here.