North Stonington — Members of the Eastern Pequot Tribe will keep a ceremonial fire burning on the tribe’s reservation land until sunset Friday to honor the memory of Chief Hockeo, Roy Sebastian, lifetime sachem and longtime spiritual leader, who died Tuesday morning at age 95.
According to tribal tradition, the ceremonial fire will remain burning for three days to honor the chief, along with drumming and other ceremonial traditions. The fire will be extinguished after the drumming ends and sunset begins Friday, Tribal Chairman Mitchel Ray said Thursday.
“He was one of the kindest people I have met, from his voice and the things he would say,” Ray, who was elected tribal chairman in September, said Thursday. “He was kind and loved by us all.”
Current Tribal Vice Chairwoman Brenda Geer, a 30-year Tribal Council member, recalled that Sebastian “was soft-spoken.”
“But when he spoke,” she said, “you listened.”
Sebastian dedicated his life fighting for “tribal rights, lands and people,” his daughter, Katherine Sebastian Dring, past Tribal Council chairwoman, wrote in a biography published in the tribe’s newsletter May 15.
He worked tirelessly with tribal leaders, historians and supporters to put together what tribal leaders said they were told at the time was the best application to gain federal government recognition, with more than 70,000 documents submitted. The battle first was won, with recognition approved in 2002, and then lost when the decision was reversed in 2005 after objections were raised by dozens of Connecticut towns and the state.
Geer called the reversed decision by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs “absolutely devastating for everyone.” But she said Sebastian never lost hope and worked to keep tribal culture alive.
“He said ‘stay connected to the land. Preserve the land,’” Geer recalled. “We have one of the oldest reservations in the state.”
Sebastian served as tribal chairman of the state-recognized tribe from 1976 to 1997. At the tribe’s annual meeting in 1997, he was declared sachem for life, Dring wrote in the biography. Twice, the Mashantucket-Pequot Tribal Nation honored Sebastian, in 1994 at that tribe’s Schemitzun festival for his dedication to maintaining the Eastern Pequot Tribe’s sovereignty, and in 1996 with the presentation of an eagle feather headdress.
“He often led ceremonial and burial services on their historic reservation (established in 1683) and at other community and sacred places,” Dring wrote.
Sebastian especially encouraged tribal families to teach traditions, ceremonies and tribal dances to the children to ensure they would live on in future generations, Geer said.
During his leadership tenure, Dring wrote, her father worked with her, the Tribal Council and members to petition successfully for federal grants for tribal services.
“He is remembered by all who have known him as a well-respected elder who constantly fought for his tribe, land and people,” Dring wrote, “praying: ‘Tabuttantam Manitoo, Sunnamatta Wetomp? Cowammaunuck.’ (Thank you Creator. Is it not so, dear friend? We loved thee.”
Sebastian was born July 25, 1926, in Old Mystic, one of seven children of parents Roy Emanuel Sebastian and Julia Sebastian. He married Virginia Rose Basket and they had three children: Katherine, Patricia and Gwendolyn. He has six grandchildren.
His name, Hockeo, means “the body” in Algonquian language, Dring wrote in his biography. The name was passed down from his great grandfather to his grandfather, to his father and then to him.
A memorial service will be at 1 p.m. Sunday, June 12, on Eastern Pequot Reservation, Wright Road, North Stonington.