If the title character of The Last of the Mohicans — the young Uncas (Eric Schweig) — really had been the last Mohican, Ralph W. Sturges would be out of a job. Sturges, also known as Chief Gertinemong (”He Who Helps Thee”), is not only the current lifetime chief of the Mohegans (a name that can be transliterated as ”Mohican”), he’s also a direct descendant of Uncas. According to the tribe’s official historian, Melissa Fawcett Sayet, 907 Mohegans survive to this day, approximately 300 of them in and around the town of Mohegan, Conn.
Few nonhistorians realize that Uncas was actually the first of the Mohegans. It was Uncas who created the tribe in the early 17th century, after leading a rebellion against the Pequot leader, Sassacus. Although the Mohegan reservation in Connecticut was dissolved in 1861, the tribe maintains a land base of about two square miles.
Sturges, 73, is a marble sculptor and leader of the tribal council. ”Like any chief executive officer,” he says, ”my job is to see that the tribe runs similar to a corporation. The most important thing a chief can do is keep educating the young in their culture, but also move the tribe ahead into the 21st century so that they can exist another 500 years.”
Despite director Michael Mann’s much-reported obsession with authenticity, the production worked only briefly with the real Mohegans — auditioning them as extras. No Mohegans were hired, and Fawcett Sayet was never contacted.
Why? Location casting director Shirley Fulton Crumley claims that intermarriage has reduced the Mohegans’ aesthetic ”purity.” ”We wanted to have the look of Northeastern Indians of that time period,” she says. ”(The Mohegans) are blond and blue-eyed. They are very fair people; they don’t look like Native Americans anymore.” Lee Teter, a visual consultant and a specialist on Northeastern American Indians, explains that the filmmakers drew their history primarily from first-person, documentary sources because ”it’s the most accurate information. It pertains to the time period we were trying to portray as opposed to what it (the culture) has evolved to.”
However different from their ancestors, today’s Mohegans, says Fawcett Sayet, hold firm to their identity as a recognizable unit (they are currently applying for recognition as an official tribe from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C.). Indeed, her tribe’s ambitions go well beyond literary or cinematic notoriety. ”We believe in the lasting of the Mohegans,” she says, ”not the last of the Mohicans.”