In honor of Native American Heritage Month, this On the Bridge column honors Mohican life in the Berkshires, and especially in the present. The Associated Press would call November ‘American Indian History Month,’ with respect, and a Dineh guide at the Museum of the American Indian once explained to me that she would choose ‘American Indian’ because it means something more specific to her. I offer this column in warmth and thanks for the time Chief Rich Wilcox, Sherry White and Barbara Allen have taken to talk with me.
STOCKBRIDGE — In the 1950s, Tribal Conservation Officer Jim Davids would come from the Stockbridge Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians to the Berkshires.
He visited with Grace Bidwell Wilcox, then curator of the Stockbridge Library’s Historical Room. In the 1990s, her grandson, Stockbridge Police Chief Richard Wilcox, canoed down the Housatonic River with Davids’ son, whose name is also Jim.
More than 200 years after they left Stockbridge as a group, Mohican people come to the Berkshires to walk in the mountains — and to advise in the cleanup of the Housatonic.
Sherry White, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Stockbridge Munsee, has an office in Troy, N.Y. And she has a longstanding friendship with Wilcox.
In conversation, White, Wilcox and Barbara Allen, curator of the Stockbridge Historical Collection, explained that for at least 9,000 years, until the 1600s, the people of the Mohican nation lived along the Mahicannituck, the waters that are never still — now the Hudson river — and in the lands surrounding it.
“The original Mohican homeland is huge,” Wilcox said, “from the Hudson River Valley to Vermont, from Mahnattan almost to the Connecticut River.”
Wilcox’s connection to the Mohicans goes back nearly 300 years. His ancestor, Dr. Oliver Partridge, came to Stockbridge in 1771 and served as second physician. The town began as a mission settlement between the Mohicans — and people of the Naragansett, Munsee, Delaware, Scatticoke and others — and the English colonists. In Partridge’s time, Wilcox said, most of the original Stockbridge people had lost their land, but most had not yet left the community.
The Mohicans had moved, under pressure, from Great Barrington to settle in Stockbridge, and they agreed to learn the customs and live by the laws of the Europeans who had often broken covenants with them. It was a difficult choice, White said, and it raised arguments among people who had their own familiar faith — and little reason to trust the colonists.
“Even while we were here, some people did not want to be Christianized,” she said.
Partridge spoke for the Mohicans in the community and represented their political interests. He treated them when they were ill. He must have sat with them when they were dying. He must have cared for their children.
He kept account books, and Wilcox has read them. Reading the account books give such a vivid sense of Partridge’s days, his work and his concerns, that Wilcox feels as though he knows his forbear.
When the Mohicans left Stockbridge, forced to move west, Partridge agreed to care for the places here they most loved. Wilcox is carrying on the work.
“Chief Wilcox has been a friend of the tribe for years,” White said. “He has been helpful in keeping the tribe’s interest in projects around here. People think because we left here, we have no interest in this place, but we really do.”
Because she works for the Stockbridge Munsee, she comes often, she said; many of the stockbridge Munsee do not have the means to travel as she does and to walk in the Ice Glen in October, when the leaves turn colors.
Chief Wilcox’s family met Davids through Wilcox’s grandmother, who curated the Stockbridge Historical Collection for 30 years.
” When people come from Wisconsin to visit, they know: ‘If you’re going to Stockbridge, find Rick Wilcox,’ ” White said.
He and White met through her work. Through the years, he said, he has become involved with community preservation, and he wanted to make sure whatever he or the town did, they did respectfully.
So Wilcox and White work together to preserve and care for places important to the people of the Stockbridge Munsee Nation. Three years ago, they cleared and cleaned the stone pillar from the Ice Glen that honors Mohicans who lived and died here.
They wanted to keep a balance between restoration and leaving the land in peace, Wilcox said. With a preservation grant, they restored the stone staircase and found an Indian head penny embedded in the mortar. Masons would often press a penny into the mortar with the year, he said, to show when they finished the work.
The mason who built the stairs left his own memorial token instead.
Now, after the cleanup, a visitor can stand by the stone and look down to the river.
“It’s great what Rick does,” White said. “The Tribe is so grateful, we honored Rick with a blanket. This is significant,” a community honor, a sign of strength. “We wait for the day when we’ll get a blanket.”
When they give someone a blanket, they wrap him in it. At Laurel Hill Day on Aug. 25, Chief Wilcox stood warmly surrounded in his tribute, with Mohican symbols in bright-colored wool.