Indigenous ethnologist

During the early 20th century, Penn developed deep relationships with many Native American communities, largely due to the efforts of Frank Speck, chair of the anthropology department from 1913 to 1949. It was during his fieldwork with the Mohegans in Connecticut that Speck met a precocious young child, Gladys Tantaquidgeon, who was being groomed as the tribe’s next medicine woman and the keeper of its customs and culture. She was also to become the first Native American student in the Penn anthropology department.

Gladys Tantaquidgeon seated on a beach with four other people and a black umbrella on the ground.
Gladys Tantaquidgeon kneeling in the foreground, interviewing Wampanoag elders in Aquinnah, Massachusetts, circa 1928. (Photo: The Pennsylvania Gazette)

As Melissa Jayne Fawcett, Tantaquidgeon’s grand-niece, recounts in her book “Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon,” Speck “saw glimmers of special qualities” in the young girl ... In 1919, when she turned 20, he invited her to become his assistant.

Tantaquidgeon accompanied Speck on many field expeditions. Around 1928, she interviewed Wampanoag elders in Aquinnah, Massachusetts, from whom she collected folklore similar to her own tribe’s. Margaret Bruchac, professor of anthropology and author of “Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists,” says Tantaquidgeon noted that the Wampanoag oral traditions were “part of a regional cultural complex that was linked to the world she knew at Mohegan.”

During her time at Penn, Tantaquidgeon also published a series of academic articles, authored a book on ethnobotany, and took at least 12 anthropology classes as a student in the University’s College Courses for Teachers program (a precursor to the College of General Studies). But because women were not allowed to obtain degrees in anthropology at that time, she was not awarded one.

Read more at The Pennsylvania Gazette.