Norwich ― In 1643, on a cliff overlooking a rocky gorge, Sachem Uncas of the Mohegan Tribe was said to have jumped all the way across to the other side during a battle with the Narragansett tribe.
While the gorge, known today as Uncas Leap, was narrower at the time, some warriors did not make it to the other side, falling to their deaths.
On Thursday morning, at the very same spot, Mohegan Tribal Elders joined local and state officials for a groundbreaking ceremony at the site of the new Uncas Leap Heritage Park. The beat of hand drums and smell of burnt sage still lingered in the air as about 50 people watched the ceremony.
“Mohegans always think of life as our circle, connecting that past and present to our future,” Vice Chairwoman of the Mohegan Tribal Council of Elders Elizabeth Regan said Thursday morning about the upcoming Uncas Leap Park.
“It is an opportunity to connect those,” Regan said. “It is an opportunity to offer not only our people today, the people all around us, but all Mohegans, all people in this area, to learn about what was here and what will be.”
Since 2010, city officials, historic preservation and tourism advocates have dreamed of turning the historic Yantic Falls/Uncas Leap area into a heritage park that celebrates Native American, colonial and Industrial Revolution history and culture.
“Finally, we are here to groundbreak and mark the start of the home stretch for that journey, a good journey,” Kevin Brown, a tribal member and president of the Norwich Community Development Commission said.
“Wikun papômshô,” he added, which means “a good journey” in the Mohegan-Pequot language.
The park will include a walking path along a long-buried former hydropower canal and observation deck directly across from the tallest rock cliff across the river and overlooking the gorge. Stairs will lead from the parking area down to another overlook at the Yantic Falls dam.
Additionally, burial grounds returned to the Mohegan nation in 2009 and located up the hill from the dam will be physically linked to Uncas Leap via footpath, Mayor Peter Nystrom said at the groundbreaking.
The park is expected to be completed in the summer of 2024.
Speakers on Thursday reflected on the state’s history of mistreatment toward indigenous tribes and applauded the city’s willingness to spend $2.8 million in American Rescue Plan funds to work to finish the park as a way of preserving town and Tribal history.
“When Sachem Uncas died in 1683, it began the long, precipitous decline in the failure to recognize the Mohegans’ sovereignty,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said.
“There is something about the spirit of this place, and that spirit is the endless goodness of the Mohegan tribe, ” Blumenthal said, “Their reverence for history, but for that spirit that they have embodied – and it is the spirit of their sovereignty, which he fought to preserve.”
“Quite frankly, Connecticut hasn’t always been the best partner with it’s native communities,” added State Sen. Cathy Osten, D-Sprague. “And this was important for us to say because this is only a small piece of us returning some of the wrongs that we committed against the Native American communities.”
U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Second District, who with Blumenthal was partly responsible for providing ARPA funding to Connecticut, said when the American Rescue Plan was passed, there was a debate over whether or not the funds should be distributed to local communities or to state government.
“This obviously is a perfect example that I think we made the right call with that decision,” Courtney said.
Regan delivered her remarks last, followed by a blessing of the grounds and honor song delivered by tribal members with drums.
“I do want you to know that what is now known as Norwich, Connecticut has long been just a portion of the traditional Mohegan land. Our hunting and fishing and traditional places were here. Villages were here, long before European contact.”
“As we finish, please know that we do not say goodbye, we say Mus kunáwuyumô!, see you later. Clearly that is illustrated here today with our tribe. It has not been goodbye has it? It has been: we are still here,” Regan said.