Matt Grahn Norwich Bulletin August 14, 2023

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While it is only a patch of dirt now, the construction at Uncas Leap Heritage Park will transform the park into something special, perhaps even a National Park.

A groundbreaking at Uncas Leap was held Thursday, with members of The Mohegan Tribe, along with federal, state and local officials. The park is expected to be finished next year, Norwich Community Development Corporation President Kevin Brown, who is also Mohegan, said.

When completed, Uncas Leap Heritage Park, off of Yantic Street, will feature an outlook, an outdoor amphitheater, and an exhibit room for visitors and special events, according to the site plan.

Members of the Mohegan Tribe participate in the groundbreaking at the Uncas Leap Heritage Park Thursday.

The park is also a part of the city’s Heritage Trail, which follows about a mile of various historic sites along the Yantic River, starting from Howard T. Brown Park. Connecting Uncas Leap Heritage Park this way to downtown is critical for people to experience Uncas Leap, Brown said.

As the state is now requiring schools to teach about the local Native American tribes, Norwich is creating a perfect environment for that to happen, Brown said.

“You’re learning, feeling and seeing all at the same time,” he said.

The falls at Uncas Leap Heritage Park.

Endless opportunities to make use of park

The Norwich Historical Society would also have its own programming at the park, and tours of the property. Performing arts groups can also make use of the amphitheater, Norwich Historical Society Executive Director Regan Miner said.

“The opportunities are endless,” she said.

Norwich aims to get Uncas Leap Heritage Park recognized as a National Park, Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom said.

“We want that designation, and we’re going to achieve that designation,” he said.

Norwich Community Development Corporation President Kevin Brown speaking during the groundbreaking for the Uncas Leap Heritage Park.

How Uncas Leap Heritage Park came to be

The story of the park’s development began in 2007, when the property was listed for sale for $300,000. The realtor, Norwich Historical Society member Bill Champagne, knew of the site’s significance and was introduced to Mohegan Tribe members by the late Bill Stanley. A steering committee to develop the property into a park was formed between the City of Norwich and the Mohegan Tribe. When the city had to foreclose on the property, the Norwich Historical Society found help from state and federal organizations, including Preservation Connecticut and the National Parks Service, Norwich City Planner Deanna Rhodes said.

“These agencies’ recognition of the cultural significance of this property, and their sincere interest, validated the work of the steering committee and their goals,” she said.

Funding was secured for Uncas Leap Heritage Park, with state Sen. Cathy Osten, former state Rep. Emmitt Riley and late former NCDC President Jason Vincent pivotal in acquiring the funds. SLR International helped with the master plan, and Norwich Public Works also assisted. More recently, City Manager John Salomone and the Norwich City Council used ARPA money to help finish the park, Rhodes said.

Local, state and federal leaders at the groundbreaking for the Uncas Leap Heritage Park in Norwich Thursday.

Progress on the Uncas Leap Heritage Park also means greater recognition of the Mohegan people, as Native Americans were in the area long before settlers arrived. Norwich was built on what was once Mohegan villages and hunting grounds, Vice Chairwoman of the Council of Elders Beth Regan said.

“While breaking ground was not a positive thing in our Mohegan territory, today clearly marks a different vision of that breaking ground, and a new beginning,” she said.

Many Mohegans attended the groundbreaking ceremony. A song calling the ancestors, an honor song and a travelling song were played on drums and sung in Mohegan.

The Mohegan language was use throughout the groundbreaking, and a Mohegan blessing was given.

Mohegan Tribe Outreach Specialist Dave Eichelberg and Mohegan Tribal Council of Elders Secretary Chris Harris performing a Mohegan song during the Uncas Leap Heritage Park groundbreaking on Thursday

The namesake of the park is Sachem Uncas, the first Sachem of the Mohegan Tribe. A revered leader and strategist, he jumped over the chasm to escape enemies chasing him in battle. Where the Yantic River calms was a landing place where Mohegans would carry their dead up the ravine and bury them at the Royal Mohegan Burial Ground, Regan said.

“This is clearly hallowed ground,” she said. “This place where buildings are today, were the burial grounds, and still hold remains of our people today, and their spirits.”

Mohegan Tribal Council of Elders Vice Chair Beth Regan speaking during the Uncas Leap Heritage Park groundbreaking Thursday.

The city plans on restoring a passage from Uncas Leap to the Burial Ground, Nystrom said.

“That’s our obligation,” he said.

The heritage part of the Uncas Leap Heritage Park name indicates a connection to the past, and to the future, for the Mohegan people, Regan said.

“We don’t say goodbye, we say mus kunáwuyumô, (meaning) see you later,” she said. “Clearly, that is illustrated here today with our tribe. It has not been goodbye, has it? It is ‘we are still here.'”