Native American Leader Honored in London

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An American Indian chief is honored with a traditional burial 270 years after his death. In 1736, Mohegan leader Mahomet sought to restore his tribe's claim to land in Connecticut. He traveled to London, but died of smallpox before he could see King George II.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Nowadays, the Mohegan tribe of Connecticut is best known for its casino. But back in the 1730's one of its leaders gambled on a diplomatic mission to London. He was called Mahomet Weyonomon, and he hoped to ask King George II to restore his tribe's land, which was claimed by British colonists. He never returned. Mahomet died of small pox in London in 1736.

(Soundbite of tribal ritual chant)

SIEGEL: So today, 270 years later, there was a formal remembrance for Mahomet in London and this time, the monarch showed up. Queen Elizabeth II was in attendance as they unfortunate chief was granted a proper burial, Mohegan style.

Tribe chairman Bruce Two Dogs Bozsum took part in the ceremony for Mahomet.

Mr. BRUCE TWO DOGS BOZSUM (Mohegan tribe chairman): Unfortunately, he's never had a traditional ceremony from our tribe. So today, we came here. We honored him with our smudge, which is the burning of the sage and the shell. The tobacco we offer back to the earth -

SIEGEL: What brought Mahomet to London in the 1730s was a long and convoluted tale - land deals conflicting court rulings and decrees in New England and Great Britain, and the gradual appropriation of the all of the tribes' territory. Walter Woodward is the Connecticut state historian.

Mr. WALTER WOODWARD (Connecticut state historian): By the 1720's the land situation in Connecticut had gotten completely out of hand, and in some cases, people said their a purchase came from the Mohegans and others had came from this person and others from that person. One of the things that Connecticut did to try to solve this very serious land conflict, was at one point, they alienated all of the Indian clans.

SIEGEL: And so Mahomet went to England to appeal to the King. A letter he carried begins, to his most high and excellent majesty George II, King of Great Britain. The Mohegan tribe, it reads, would be reduced to the miserable necessity of leaving its native lands unless King George could intervene.

It was a rare occasion in London, the visit of an American-Indian chief, and his fate was unfortunately common, as well, to catch small pox and die. Because he wasn't English, Mahomet could not be buried in the city of London. His remains, instead, were carried across the Thames to the grounds of Southwark Cathedral. Lynn Malerba, Vice Chair of the Mohegan tribe says, this was more than many foreigners might have been granted in death.

Ms. LYNN MALERBA (Vice-chair, Mohegan tribe): It was very rare, I think, that anyone who was not from England was allowed to be buried in a cathedral in England. And so he actually was honored, and he had a funeral procession through the streets. And he was allowed to be buried at St. Mary Over's Burial-Place, which is now part of Southwark Cathedral.

SIEGEL: In 1736, Mahomet was laid to rest in an unmarked plot, among strangers. Today, Queen Elizabeth II unveiled a granite stone in the cathedral's courtyard, a customary marker for a Mohegan chief's burial place.

And while it's too late for Mahomet, the Mohegans today gave the Queen a copy of his original petition and a peace pipe.

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