Mohicans and the Berkshires

It’s amazing how many people come into the museum and think the tribe doesn’t exist, because of James Fennimore Cooper and ‘The Last Mohican,’” said Barbara Allen, Curator of the Stockbridge Historical Collection. “They are amazed to find that there are nearly as many enrolled members of the Stockbridge Munsee as there are people in Stockbridge.”

In the 1730s, the Mohicans had left their rich farmlands and fishing grounds along the Hudson and settled in Great Barrington. They agreed to leave their lands in Great Barrington and to settle in Stockbridge, to join a mission settlement with the Rev. John Sergeant, in exchange for a promise that they would not have to move again.

Sherry White often visits Stockbridge. Eagle file photo

By 1785, the Mohican families in the mission had lost their Stockbridge lands to “settlers.” A 1750s document in Allen’s collection forced the nation to divide their land into allotments. The nation tradtionally held land collectively — as the Stockbridge Munsee do today, said Sherry White, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer for the Stockbridge Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, now based in Wisconsin.

When one man held title to the land, Europeans could more easily take it from him.

“Before that (allotment), the English were unsystematically stealing land,” said Stockbridge Police Chief Rich Wilcox, who works with White to preserve places important to her people. “After they set up the proprietorship, they had a system for stealing the land.”

In 1785, the Mohicans petitioned the legislature for blankets, a horse and a wagon, and they walked 160 miles to settle alongside the Onieda in New York State. But their ties in the Berkshires have always remained, and they have always been deep, changing — and contemporary.

“People have this idea that when we all moved, we all moved together,” White said.

Mohican families must have settled, and Mohican people must have married, all long the way from Massachusetts to Wisconsin, she said.

Allen believes that even “after the people left, if they all left, they came back to visit.”

They kept in touch with families who lived here, she said, and came back to see the lands they knew. Wilcox has found references in historical documents to a family who would come back to camp on the land they had once owned and weave and sell baskets to support themselves.

If we could talk to them in their language, we might know how they felt when the sun rose over the mountains on a fall morning.

No one living today speaks the Mohican language, White said, though an effort has begun to teach it in schools, and people speak Munsee, which is similar.

Language shows the way people think, and a glimpse of this language may give a fragment of a sense of what the Mohicans who lived here thought of the caves and hemlock trees of the Ice Glen or the hard rock maples on Monument Mountain.

The people who spoke Mohican in Stockbridge talked of the mountains as organisms, as unique as people. According to Lion Miles, a Stockbridge historian and linguist who has compiled the first dictionary of Mohican, the Mohican language had animate and inanimate words, much as French and Latin have male and female ones. Mountains are animate in Mohican.

Mountains have souls.

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  1. Pingback: The Stockbridge Munsee Tribe | Michael Forbes Wilcox

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