BRANFORD >> Gordon Brainerd is passionate about his ancestry. He surrounds himself with Native American art, spiritual and ceremonial objects and people who appreciate his devotion to his heritage. He has learned Queripi, an Algonquin dialect.
“I guess you would call it a labor of love,” Brainerd says.
For over 30 years he has focused on learning more about his Native American background and sharing his unique position as a member of the Quinnipiac Tribe. His wife of 25 years, Leah, is always at his side. He attends Native American meetings once a month.
“It’s part of being who you are,” he says. “It gives you a sense of belonging.”
To those who share this heritage with him, he is known as Running-Fox, Algonquian Confederacy of the Quinnipiac Tribal Council Bear Clan Medicine Chief.
“I got that name for running around the schools and universities and talking about my culture,” says Brainerd.
While most Native Americans may receive many different names in life based on their accomplishments, Brainerd was 50 years old before he was named Running-Fox.
“I don’t know about other people and their culture,” says Brainerd, “but I’m very proud of who I am. I mean, why shouldn’t I? My people have been here for over 10,000 years. That’s a long time.”
For this 81-year-old, this journey started very late in life. Growing up in Stony Creek, this heritage was something that was never talked about. To this day, he is the only one of the nine Brainerd children to embrace his Native American roots.
The lineage comes through his paternal grandmother who operated a summer hotel, The Willows, on the water in Stony Creek across the street from Bayview Park. The hotel ceased operation in the 1940s.
“I knew about it, but we never spoke about it, because of fear of harassment and ridicule,” says Brainerd.
This was not unusual for this time period, according to Brian D. Jones, Connecticut state archaeologist.
“In many cases what happened to a lot of the native peoples of the state is in the 19th century there was a lot of racism and other problems and they learned to hide their identity because of that,” says Jones, “so for many families it was often forgotten.”
Brainerd clarifies that he is not 100 percent Native American. “I’m of mixed blood, don’t get me wrong, I’m not pure blood by any means,” he says. His heritage includes German/English roots. His European lineage did not dampen his desire to learn more about the old ways of his Algonquian forebears.
This journey to the past led Brainerd to archeological digs. It was through these digs, in Branford, Guilford and Madison that he unearthed Native American tools that tell the story of his ancestors.
“I wanted to learn about the types of tools and equipment that my ancestors used,” says Brainerd.
“If you want to collect artifacts you have to go out and do archeology,” he explains. “That means going out in areas where native settlements were, they could be summer encampments or year round settlements, and digging the soil very carefully, collecting the artifacts.”
Brainerd studied historical records that showed where the settlements were located and received permission from the land owner to proceed with a dig “in a very technical manner.”
The deepest he ever dug was about 2 ½ feet, says Brainerd, which would make the artifacts about 10,000 years old.
He says he can spot an artifact right away. “If you look at a regular piece of stone, it’s a piece of stone. It’s an irregular shape or rounded, polished by being tumbled in a river or creek.
“But they were actually used, and it looks like an arrowhead or a spear point or a knife blade or some other tool,” he adds.
Finding these is emotional for Brainerd, “thinking about the person that made it,” he says. “What the effort was going into making that tool so that they could survive.
“You have to stop and think that way back in the beginning…the tools were very crude, but as time progressed they became more refined, the shape changed, the style changed,” he says.
His permanent exhibit at the Dudley Farm Museum, the Dawnland Collection of Native American Artifacts, showcases some of the hundreds of artifacts Brainerd has collected over the years.
“Some of his artifacts are 10,000 years old,” says Dudley Farm Director Beth Payne. “What we would like to do, really, is focus on his story because he is such a major part of what remains of the Quinnipiac Tribe.”
Jones concurs that it is Brainerd’s life story, connected with the artifacts, that makes the exhibit special.
“It’s a nice artifact collection reflecting a typical artifact assemblage from Native American tool making. Some of those artifacts are probably up to 8,000 years old,” says Jones.
“His is unique because he identifies as a Quinnipiac ancestor, so he has a very personal tie to the artifacts,” says Jones. “The unique aspect of the exhibit are the things that pertain directly to his own life and his own interest in native crafting.”
“The collection really helps to tell a story about him, as an individual, his interests and the kind of struggles that a lot of people go through, across eastern U.S., who are associated with tribes that are not even state recognized.”
The tribes, like the Pequot and Mohegan tribes, are state recognized “partly because they had some sort of community in place and had been politically a little bit more organized. The Quinnipiacs seemed to have been somewhat more dispersed in the 19th century,” explains Jones.
The exhibit fits into the vision of the Dudley Farm Museum, which is to “provide leadership to the greater community in the promotion of historic awareness and interpretation of the history of the North Guilford community,” according to www.dudleyfarm.com.
“Anybody who’s ever farmed any of the property around here, all you have to do is plow and you’re likely to dislodge a point or two or three, you know the arrowheads,” says Payne, specifically referring to North Guilford.
Brainerd talks with fervor about educating people and keeping Native American history alive.
“It’s very important,” he says. “It’s part of the history of this country. If I and others don’t talk about the traditions or the history of the people what will happen to it? It will be lost and this is my way of keeping that tradition going.”
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