Soar through 400 years of Mohegan history

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Bruce ‘Two Dogs’ Bozsum, left, sings a traditional Mohegan song as he and Phil ‘Yellow Hawk’ Russell take a Mohegan Tribe History cruise along the River Thames on Saturday July 16, 2022. The event was hosted by the Thames River Heritage Park. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Al Grant of Uncasville, daughter Kady of Queens, NY, and his wife Judi, who are unseen, and others listen to Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum on Saturday, July 16, 2022 during a boat tour of the history of the Mohegan tribe along the thames The event was hosted by the Thames River Heritage Park. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Bruce ‘Two Dogs’ Bozsum, left, speaks as he and Phil ‘Yellow Hawk’ Russell, second right, take a boat tour of the history of the Mohegan tribe along the River Thames on Saturday July 16, 2022. The event was hosted by the Thames River Heritage Park. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

Vinnie Cusano, right, drives the water taxi on Saturday, July 16, 2022 during a boat tour led by Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum and Phil “Yellow Hawk” Russell on the history of the Mohegan tribe along the River Thames. The event was hosted by the Thames River Heritage Park. (Dana Jensen/The Day)

NEW LONDON — Bruce “Two Dogs” Bozsum, former chairman of the Mohegan Tribal Council and Mohegan Sun Casino, opened Saturday afternoon’s Thames River cruise by playing the theme song from Gilligan’s Island into the sound system he took on the water taxi .

But this wasn’t a three-hour tour like the famous 1960s sitcom, nor did it end in shipwreck. Instead, the Thames River Heritage Park boat trip took just over an hour from New London City Pier to the casino and back on a mild summer day. And while Bozsum did his best to keep things light-hearted, there was seriousness that couldn’t be avoided as he told about a dozen passengers about the Mohegan tribe’s centuries-long struggle for their lives along the Thames.

Bozsum and Mohegan Tribal Council of Elders member Phil “Yellow Hawk” Russell introduced themselves as cousins, both descendants of Uncas – a revered chief, statesman and warrior who ruled the tribe at the time of its founding more than 400 years ago led.

“We are 13 generations of this man,” Bozsum said.

The Uncas tribe became the Mohegans or Wolf People after splitting off from the Pequot tribe due to what the Mohegans describe as differing ideas about how to deal with European conflicts. Ultimately, the Mohegans helped the British defeat the Pequots.

The Pequots went to the east side of the river and the Mohegans to the west. This is how their respective casinos – Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun – are now.

“This is where our family split up,” Bozsum said. “And we will remain so forever.”

The boat turned around near the Yale Boathouse and Horton Point where Uncas used to sit on rocks now known as Uncas’ Chair. At this point, overlooking the narrow bend in the river to what is now the Casino Mohegan Sun, the chief is said to have watched closely for enemies attempting to cross the Mohegans’ river side.

In describing Uncas as the tribe’s first sachem, or chief for life, Bozsum also referred to the name of his newest sachem: “Many Hearts” Marilynn “Lynn” Malerba was named the 45th Treasurer of the United States in June, the first American aborigine hold position. She also heads the Treasury Department’s newly established Office of Tribal and Native Affairs.

Bozsum wondered that a Mohegan signature will be on all the money in the United States.

“She gave a speech the other night and said, ‘I’ll carry you all in my heart,'” he recalled. “And I said, ‘We’ll carry you in our wallets.'”

Bozsum spent nine years as chairman of the tribal council, a tenure that included an audience with the Queen of England and a starring role on an episode of the reality television show Undercover Boss.

The boat tour was part of a busy summer calendar of events through the Thames River Heritage Park, which its organizers call a ‘Park Without Borders’. The group uses water taxis — repurposed, surplus naval utility boats — to connect nearly 20 historically and culturally significant locations in New London and Groton.

In its sixth full summer season, the park has evolved from hop-on hop-off boat rides to themed tours. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, tours regularly sold out in their first year on topics related to the region’s important military history from the days before the Revolutionary War to the advent of nuclear submarines. The offering was soon expanded to include forays into women’s history, whaling, indigenous history and the importance of black seafarers to the region’s maritime heritage.

The park partnered with the Mohegan Tribe last year, resulting in numerous popular tours where tribal members sang in native attire, displayed native objects, and shared stories highlighting their heritage.

Russell, who has served as the tribe’s environmental officer, spoke about the shellfish and shad that fed his ancestors and his own generation’s efforts to restore such a livelihood.

“We restocked the whole river with oysters and clams,” Russell said. “You came back pretty well.”

Bozsum’s contributions included singing, playing the flute and reciting a blessing. His song’s billowing, syncopated melody was part of a thunder dance by the men to “get everyone to war,” he said. The blessing thanked the Creator for the beautiful day and the good things that have come.

Earlier, as the boat pulled away amid the industrial sprawl of the Groton-New London riverfront, he asked, “Can you imagine how beautiful it was years ago without all that?”

Now the member of the Tribal Council of Elders remains committed to preserving history through the spoken word. He started the Tribal Language Restoration Program in 1998; now his daughter leads him.

According to the tribe’s website, Fidelia Fielding was the last fluent speaker of the Mohegan language when she died in 1908. The Mohegans stopped teaching their children the language for fear of retribution from public school teachers, the tribe said.

The modern Mohegan language evolved from fragments found in written documents belonging to various tribe members, including Fielding and anthropologist Frank Speck, from over a century ago, the tribe said. The members also collaborate with neighboring tribes that have similar dialects.

“We have beautiful language,” Bozsum said after reciting the blessing in his original language. “I love speaking it all the time.”

Other boat tours include White Sails, Black Hands: The African American Experience on Connecticut Waters; Submarines, Battlefields and Traitors: Military Stories on the Thames; and Well Heeled and Wannabe: The Golden Age on the Thames. They run on weekends through mid-September.

Visit thamesriverheritagepark.org for more information.

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