PITTSFIELD — A pair of moccasins and a wampum pouch that have been in the Berkshire Museum’s collection for nearly 65 years are on their way home to the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians in Wisconsin.
Upon being presented with the moccasins and wampum pouch during an official “transfer of custody” at the museum on Thursday, Bonney Hartley, historic preservation officer for the Stockbridge-Munsees, carefully tucked cedar and tobacco leaves amongst the items.
“It’s actually kind of similar traditionally to what Sachem Konkapot would have in his wampum bag. He would have had wampum in there or medicine. I just used my own medicine bag to place tobacco and cedar. Cedar is for protection, tobacco is our way of offering prayers. When I take them back to our office, I’ll light sage and smudge them,” Hartley said, referring to the Stockbridge-Munsee office on the Williams College campus.
The moccasins and wampum pouch are attributed to Pophnehonnuhwoh, a Muh-he-con-ne-ok sachem (chief), later known as Chief John Konkapot (a name taken after his Christian baptism in 1735). At some point, Konkapot gifted the items to Israel Dickinson, whose great-great-grandson, Allen Peck, of Pittsfield, donated them to the Berkshire Museum in 1958, said Jason Vivori, collections experience manager at the Berkshire Museum. The items are headed to the tribe’s own museum and library in Bowler, Wis., where their cultural items are preserved.
“We just want to cleanse them off, welcome them back home and let them know what’s happening to them — they’re returning from here to go back to our community,” Hartley said. “But also just recognizing that we don’t know the circumstances, exactly, of how they were obtained in great detail. So, I offered too, some protection from any energy be around that exchange, and if there was any pain or unjust actions.”
She explained the wampum bag of a sachem, traditionally, would not be something Konkapot could decide to give away on his own. The wampum pouch, she said, would also hold wampum beads used in the telling of a tribe’s oral history.
But Konkapot, one of several sachems, or chiefs, of the Muh-he-con-ne-ok (People of the waters that are never still), also known as Mohicans, was himself unique. In the 1730s, Konkapot welcomed the Rev. John Sargent into his village, Wnahktakoot. Sargent built a mission, Indiantown, an early attempt at assimilation of indigenous people through Christian conversion.
“There is some amount of question [of whether the items belonged to Konkapot], I often think when working in repatriation, you don’t know, don't always have 100 percent certainty ... ,” Hartley said. In cases like this one, she said, with items from the 1700s and records that begin with the donation in 1958, the baseline is preponderance of evidence, a case of more likely than not.
“In this case, we don’t have a reason to dispute the museum’s records from the donor they obtained it from,” she said. “We go with best records that we have. They are within our design and style [and within] the colors. We have no reason to doubt that’s not the case. That is the best available information.”
Hartley adde that while it is not known what the relationship between Konkapot and Dickinson was, they do know both were alive in the same area of the Berkshires at the same time. (Dickinson was Berkshire County sheriff.)
Talks of repatriating the items to the Stockbridge-Munsee Community began in August, when the museum was partnering with them on the exhibit, “Muh-he-con-ne-ok: People of the Waters that are Never Still,” Vivori, said.
To do so required the Stockbridge-Munsees make an official request under the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. Under the act, federal agencies and institutions receiving federal funding to return Native American “cultural items” to lineal descendants and culturally affiliated American Indian tribes, Alaska Native villages, and Native Hawaiian organizations. Cultural items include human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects, and objects of cultural patrimony.
Vivori said that despite both parties agreeing that the items should be returned to the Stockbridge-Munsees, they had to go through the process which includes a consultation process, a process of determination and publishing in the Federal Registrar of the U.S. National Archives. In the case of the moccasins and wampum bag, the items were returned under a claim of cultural patrimony.
The claim for the wampum bag, she said, focused on the cultural patrimony of the item — a cultural significance, rather than a ceremonial one.
“Regardless of the exact circumstances, we took the approach that it belonged to the whole community, that a medicine bag is not individually owned; not one person’s individual artwork,” Hartley said.
“This is an item that belongs to the collective. Clearly, the moccasins are attributed to our sachem. And that’s the interest in them. If they were just from anyone in our tribe, I don’t think the museum would not have had an interest in them,” she said. “They took them with the understanding they had belonged to our leader. They have that kind of symbolic representation of our community’s resilience, leadership and diplomacy — all the things Sachem Konkapot represents in keeping our community together; alive.”
This is not first time the Berkshire Museum has repatriated an item under NAGPRA. In 2018, the museum partnered with the Big Drum Society and White Earth Tribal Council to return an Ojibwe Large Drum to the White Earth Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.