Partnership across generations
STOCKBRIDGE -- In the 1950s, Tribal Con servation Of ficer Jim Davids would come from the Stock bridge Munsee Com munity Band of Mohican Indians to the Berkshires. He and Stockbridge Police Chief Richard Wilcox’s father would hike and canoe down the river together.
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 His torical 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 al most to the Connecticut River."
Wilcox’s connection to the Mohicans goes back nearly 300 years. His ancestor, Dr. Oliver Partridge, served as second physician in Stockbridge when the town began as a mission settlement between the Mohicans -- and people of the Nara gansett, Munsee, Delaware, Scatticoke and others -- and the English colonists.
The Mohicans moved, under pressure, from Great Bar rington 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 Mo hicans 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 bathed newborn babies.
He kept diaries, 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 Stock bridge, 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 Jim Davids through Wilcox’s grandmother, who curated the Stock bridge Historical Col lec tion for 30 years.
"When people come from Wisconsin to visit, they know: ‘If you’re going to Stockbridge, find Rick Wilcox,’ " Wilcox 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.