Connecticut Sun unveil new jerseys inspired by Mohegan Tribe and late elder and social justice advocate Gladys Tantaquidgeon

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Shawn McFarland, Hartford Courant
·5 min read
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It’s fitting that Gladys Tantaquidgeon — the late Mohegan Sun elder and pioneer for social justice — will have her legacy continue through the Connecticut Sun and the WNBA, a team and league often on the forefront of equality and equity.

Tantaquidgeon, who died in 2005 at the age of 106, was the Mohegan Tribe’s medicine woman, a tribal council member, studied anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in the early 1900 1/4 u2032s, worked with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, served as a librarian at the Niantic Women’s Prison in the 40 1/4 u2032s, wrote several books, founded a museum and played an integral role in having her tribe federally recognized.

Her list of accomplishments is as great as the impact she’s had on her own tribe and others across the country. Now the Sun, which is owned by the Mohegan Tribe, will showcase that on the court.

The Sun unveiled new Nike jerseys for the 2021 season on Thursday. Nike’s objective with uniforms is ‘Tell H.E.R Story’. H.E.R stands for each uniform edition: Heroine x Explorer x Rebel, with a white home jersey, dubbed the “Heroine Edition,” an orange away jersey (”Explorer Edition”) and a third alternate jersey (”Rebel Edition”) that incorporates aspects of Tantaquidgeon and the tribe’s culture.

“We’re so we’re thrilled for that to be to display that on the Connecticut Sun, because, of course, one, it’s a female basketball team,” Mohegan Tribe Chief Lynn Malerba said. “So we’re really thrilled about that, too. It also inspires all of our young girls, to know that they could do that.”

The alternate jerseys — which are blue and dubbed the “Rebel Edition” — are an homage to Tantaquidgeon’s traditional regalia. The word “Keesusk” — which means “Sun” in the tribe’s native language — is written across the chest. The design which lines the sleeves and sides of the jersey incorporates the Mohegan trail of life. The wave-like design represents the ups and downs of life. The crescents surrounding them represent the moon and sun — emblematic of the passing of time — and the dots in between them are symbolic of “the people we meet along the way,” Regan said.

Similar elements are seen in the team’s new home and away uniforms.

“I think they’re gonna wear that not only the Keesusk uniform, the one that is for Gladys, but the others as well, because those also embody our symbols,” said Beth Regan, vice chairwoman and justice of the Mohegan Tribal Council of Elders. “But I think it’s a unique way ... I think they’re gonna have a sense of pride themselves. I really do. I think they’re going to share that.”

Cultural appropriation — especially of Native Americans — is a controversial topic in professional and amateur sports, largely in naming, imagery, branding and chants. The Sun are the country’s only professional sports team owned by a Native American tribe. Because of that, the tribe is able to share its own culture through sports in the manor which it deems appropriate.

“I think that anytime you can share your message with your indigenous voice, it’s meaningful, and it’s not someone else telling your story, right?” said Regan, who credited Nike for how they approached the tribe and brought them into the design process. “We have seen for so long, the misappropriation of our images. Our stories are all of that through sports, especially. We just have to look right here in Connecticut. It feels so good, it feels so right, to finally be able to have a team that is owned by a Native American tribe. To be able to display who they are, from their voice with with our voice on our on our team.”

Malerba likened the tribe’s impact and influence of the jersey’s to the building of the Mohegan Sun Casino. During its construction in the mid 1990 1/4 u2032s, the tribe’s historian and current medicine woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel prepared a 200-page document for the design team. The main request? When visitors entered the casino, they should be surrounded by the tribe’s culture.

“This, I think, is a logical extension of that,” Malerba said. “And this is a very graphical way to [share our culture].”

The link between the tribe and the WNBA is more than just as an ownership group. As Malerba pointed out, she is not the first female chief of the Mohegan Tribe. Women have held pivotal leadership roles within the tribe before women in Connecticut could even vote or hold office.

The WNBA has been on the forefront in the fight for equality for years. The league dedicated its entire 2020 season to social justice and created the WNBA/WNBPA Social Justice Council. Players like UConn alums Maya Moore, who left the WNBA to focus on reform in the American justice system, and Renee Montgomery, who opted out of the 2020 season and since retired like Moore to focus on social justice reform, are in some sense following in the footsteps of Tantaquidgeon and the Mohegan Tribe.

“You think about the WNBA, in particular Renee Montgomery and Maya Moore, they’re rock stars when it comes to racial equity and social justice. They are devoting their lives to that,” Malerba said. “I think that we we love the WNBA for the reason that they’re not afraid to live their values, just as we need to live our values and what we espouse is what we believe.”

Regan, a New Britain native, played college basketball and softball at Eastern Connecticut and is a volunteer assistant for the Warriors’ women’s basketball team now. She’s a Sun season ticket holder and often attends their practices.

To her, the connection between the tribe and the team is a no-brainer. Seeing their culture on display on the jerseys — in their own words and under their direction — is even better.

“How appropriate is it for us to own a WNBA team, right? Clearly that’s not by accident. And and how appropriate it is for us to be involved in the design of the name and uniform.” Regan said. “I really believe our team will feel a sense of pride to wear that uniform. They stand for social justice, [Tantaquidegeon] stood for social justice, we stand for social justice.”

Shawn McFarland can be reached at smcfarland@courant.com.