Pequots seek river name change to reflect native roots in eastern Connecticut 

By Aman­da McCard | UConn Journalism

Maps, jour­nals, books–if it’s a his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment that ref­er­ences the Thames Riv­er in New Lon­don, Con­necti­cut, chances are good that Dr. Kevin McBride has stud­ied it. He’s not just an avid riv­er enthu­si­ast or a his­to­ry buff. He’s an archae­ol­o­gist on a mis­sion, per the request of the Mashan­tuck­et Pequot tribe, to dis­cov­er the orig­i­nal name of the water­way and learn what it has been called through­out his­to­ry. 
The Pequot tribe hopes to use McBride’s find­ings to come out on top of a dis­agree­ment with the Mohe­gans, the oth­er tribe local to the Thames Riv­er. Leg­is­la­tion pro­posed by state Rep. Antho­ny Nolan in Jan­u­ary seeks to rename the riv­er to hon­or indige­nous his­to­ry, but these two tribes are at odds over what the new name should be. 
The Pequot tribe would like it to be called the Pequot Riv­er. That’s what its name was until 1658, McBride said. 
Records indi­cate that the Eng­lish called it the Pequot until they renamed it to the Thames, at the same time that the city called Pequot Plan­ta­tion was renamed to New Lon­don. 
But McBride explained that know­ing the river’s his­to­ry doesn’t solve the prob­lem of what to call it today. 
“I know the Mohe­gans aren’t hap­py,” he said. “I think they want to call it the Mohe­gan Riv­er, but there’s no basis for it.” 
In a Feb. 27 state­ment to the Trans­porta­tion Com­mit­tee, chair­man and jus­tice of the Mohe­gan Tribe Coun­cil of Elders Char­lie Strick­land “Two Bears” explained his tribe’s phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al close­ness to the riv­er. 
“[T]he riv­er – which The Mohe­gan Tribe has his­tor­i­cal­ly called the Mas­s­ape­quo­tuck – runs adja­cent to our home­land. It has been the lifeblood of our tribe for cen­turies,” Strick­land said. 
The tribe has a close spir­i­tu­al rela­tion­ship with the riv­er, said Cather­ine Foley, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Thames Riv­er Her­itage Park. She explained that its elders give a tour of the Thames where they dis­cuss its his­to­ry. 
“They talk about how they see the riv­er, what the riv­er has pro­vid­ed to the tribe his­tor­i­cal­ly,” she said. “It’s real­ly about the peo­ples and the riv­er and the impor­tance of the riv­er and the sig­nif­i­cance that it had to their dai­ly life.” 
This dis­pute reflects a long his­to­ry of con­flict between the tribes. The Pequot and Mohe­gan peo­ple fought on oppo­site sides of the Pequot War in 1637, accord­ing to the CT Human­i­ties pro­gram Con­necti­cut His­to­ry. 
McBride described them as “ancient ene­mies,” but acknowl­edged that their cur­rent rela­tion­ship is much bet­ter than it once was. 
“They get along, but there’s still that lit­tle bit of com­pe­ti­tion,” he explained. 
The elders of each tribe are a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. 
“They’re still pissed at each oth­er,” McBride said. 
Regard­less of the out­come of this dis­agree­ment, renam­ing a water­way like the Thames involves more than just com­pro­mise. The U.S. Board on Geo­graph­ic Names is a fed­er­al body that stan­dard­izes names of geo­graph­ic fea­tures. It man­ages name changes, con­flicts and inquiries of nat­ur­al fea­tures like water­ways, moun­tains and islands. 
“In part­ner­ship with Fed­er­al, State, Trib­al, and local agen­cies, the BGN pro­vides a con­duit through which uni­form geo­graph­ic name usage is applied and cur­rent names data are pro­mul­gat­ed,” reads the BGN page of the Unit­ed States Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey web­site. 
The board has poli­cies in place for geo­graph­ic fea­tures locat­ed on trib­al lands and for ones that are cul­tur­al­ly sig­nif­i­cant to tribes. For fea­tures locat­ed on non-trib­al lands, the USBGN prin­ci­ples doc­u­ment states that the board will “[c]onsider Trib­al com­ments along with those received from Fed­er­al depart­ments and agen­cies, State and local gov­ern­ments, and oth­er inter­est­ed par­ties.” 
Tara Wal­lace, branch chief of the Nation­al Ocean­ic and Atmos­pher­ic Asso­ci­a­tion and a mem­ber of the BGN, explained that the board typ­i­cal­ly votes in favor of names sug­gest­ed by tribes. 
“Most of the time we will sup­port a trib­al name,” she said. “We real­ly like to see trib­al sup­port and we like the tribes to get togeth­er, if there’s more than one tribe in the area, to sup­port one name and not have more than one pro­pos­al.” 
The BGN prin­ci­ples doc­u­ment explains that after a name change pro­pos­al is sub­mit­ted, the board con­ducts some ini­tial research and pre­pares a case brief. This brief is pub­lished in a review list where the pub­lic can sub­mit com­ments. The board’s mem­bers then vote to approve or reject the name change, and if approved, all fed­er­al agen­cies must change the feature’s name in every pub­li­ca­tion. 
Both tribes have stat­ed that chang­ing the river’s name rep­re­sents an oppor­tu­ni­ty to hon­or their his­to­ries. 
“The bill before you today is a crit­i­cal acknowl­edge­ment of our proud and com­plex his­to­ry,” said Rod­ney But­ler, chair­man of the Mashan­tuck­et Pequot Trib­al Nation, in a Feb. 27 state­ment to the Joint Com­mit­tee on Trans­porta­tion. “The goal of this leg­is­la­tion and the core of our sup­port is to cel­e­brate the rich indige­nous his­to­ry of the Pequot Riv­er, the sur­round­ing region, and the shared his­to­ry of the state of Con­necti­cut that was born along its shores.” 
In that state­ment, But­ler expressed a desire to work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly to hon­or his tribe’s his­to­ry. 
“We look for­ward to the con­tin­ued dia­logue with mem­bers of this com­mit­tee, the leg­is­la­ture, and our Mohe­gan cousins,” he said. 
Strick­land also men­tioned coop­er­a­tion in his state­ment. 
“In the spir­it of coop­er­a­tion, we have reached out to our neigh­bors at the Mashan­tuck­et Pequot Trib­al Nation in the hope of dis­cussing a tra­di­tion­al name that would be agree­able to both of Connecticut’s fed­er­al­ly rec­og­nized tribes,” he said. “While such a name has not been iden­ti­fied at this time, we remain open to such a dis­cus­sion which might inform the Gen­er­al Assembly’s work this session.”