By Walter Woodward
(c) Connecticut Explored, Winter 2019-2020
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The week the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian opened in 2004, construction workers uncovered a large number of 17th-century human remains on Stonington’s Mason’s Island. Police called in State Archeologist Nick Bellantoni, who, realizing this was a previously unknown First Peoples burial site, contacted members of the Pequot and Mohegan tribes to arrange a field rescue operation. Nick invited me, as the newly appointed state historian, to accompany him on a site visit. It was a deeply moving experience.
That was the day I met Faith Damon Davison. She was part of the joint tribal effort to repatriate the ancestors’ remains. Faith greeted me and carefully explained how the tribal teams were working and the importance they placed on conducting the recovery in ways that honored those whose burials had been disturbed. Her determination to do this right—in The People’s way—was unmistakable.
I took an instant liking to Faith, and I like to think she also did to me. The more I knew her, the more I appreciated her. Faith was the real deal. She was smart and a life-long learner. She earned a degree in anthropology from Connecticut College and a masters’ degree in library science from the University of Rhode Island, and she used both well. During the 13 years she had oversight of the Mohegan Library and Archives she was instrumental in repatriating key rare books, maps, and documents and three-dimensional artifacts to the Tribe’s collections. The Tribal library had 47 volumes when Davison arrived, more than 7,000 volumes when she retired in 2010.
Though ostensibly “retired,” Faith remained actively engaged with a great many organizations, including serving on the boards of the Stanton Davis Homestead Museum and the Yale Indian Papers Project and as a member of the Mohegan Historic Preservation Advisory Board. For her outstanding service the Mohegan Tribe honored her with the title of “Nonner,” wise woman, in 2011, and in 2013 the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums named her a “Guardian of Culture and Lifeways.”
All these speak to Faith’s accomplishments, but Mohegan elder Beth Regan, who joined with Faith in recent years to give public talks about Mohegan history and culture, helps us see the person. “We became a team. She was the brains and I was her voice . . . but we were much more. She inspired me to want to learn more; she always encouraged me, and even when she corrected me – it was always gentle and encouraging. She and I felt like we got to know the (historic) people we learned about. She wanted their voices to be heard, and Faith wanted to bring to life the real and tell the Truth – the good and the not so good. . .. She even got me to like papaya.”
That was the Faith Damon Davison I knew too. Wise, honest, frank in her opinions, and clear-eyed about the complicated truths of history. I always liked talking to her because of that, and we will all be a bit impoverished in her absence.
The last time I was to see Faith Damon Davison was at an event last April commemorating the 250thanniversary of the founding of Dartmouth College, a school that owes its existence to the efforts of Columbia minister Eleazar Wheelock and the fund-raising prowess of the Mohegan minister Samson Occom. I was to talk about Eleazar Wheelock that day; Faith and Beth Regan on Samson Occom. Faith became ill that morning, so Beth presented for both of them in a way that would have made Faith proud. I made plans with Beth to get together with her and Faith for a lunch catch-up a few weeks later. I knew that Faith had not been in good health, and I told Beth I didn’t want to miss the chance to tell Faith in person how much I appreciated her friendship. Before that could happen, Faith died at age 78. This is the goodbye I did not get to say.
Walter Woodward is the Connecticut State Historian. Listen to his podcasts at Grating the Nutmeg (CTExplored.org/listen) and visit todayincthistory.com.