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The Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians seek to reclaim ancient burial grounds

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The Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians is asking town leaders to approve a return of the site off Main Street to tribal control. The parcel, including a monument to buried tribal members, was turned over to the town in 1809.

STOCKBRIDGE — Descendants of the town’s first settlers want to reclaim land on a quiet, forested nook overlooking the Stockbridge Golf Course. Dating back nearly 300 years, this is a burial site for ancestors who lived in the community then known as “Indian Town.”

Today, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians is seeking reclamation of the “Indian Burial Ground” site off Main Street. According to a tribal history, “it is highly likely that tribal members were buried here long before the colonial period, and that this burial ground was in fact a continuation.”

In a letter to the Select Board, Bonney Hartley, the historic preservation manager for the tribe, cites the “official and sacred responsibility for our Nation to preserve our ancestral burial grounds and other cultural sites such as these in our Mohican homelands.”

The land was turned over to the town in 1809 as European colonialists forced remaining members of the tribe to flee westward, a migration that began in 1783. “It would be very meaningful and significant to, more than 200 years later, be able to restore this burial ground to our people,” Hartley wrote.

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She pointed out that the land agreement between five Stockbridge-Munsee sachems [chiefs] and local resident Dr. Oliver Partridge sought to protect the burial grounds and prevent “the soil from being removed so that the bones [of] our Ancestors may there lie undisturbed.”

Hartley, who is based in Williamstown, says the agreement was made under pressure of a planned road project, calling it “a last resort to advocate for the grave site protection, while our Nation was being forced to remove further west.”

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In a letter to the Stockbridge Select Board, Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation, cites the “official and sacred responsibility for our Nation to preserve our ancestral burial grounds and other cultural sites such as these in our Mohican homelands.”

A monument at the burial grounds includes a barely legible, weather-beaten inscription: “The ancient burial place of the Stockbridge Indians 1734, the friends of our fathers.”

The Select Board will discuss the appeal Thursday evening, board Chairman Patrick White said. If the board approves the return of the burial site, the property transfer likely would be submitted to residents during a special town meeting this fall.

An agreement to restore the burial site to the tribe also would require the approval of the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribal Council, Hartley said.

“These folks want their ancestors’ bones back, who can argue with that?” White commented during The Eagle’s visit to the historic site. “It’s a small parcel with a lot of history and meaning to everybody, especially since it’s an ancestral homeland. I think symbols matter, it’s important that we continue to recognize our shared history in this space. We all have a shared experience in a really beautiful place and we’re figuring out how to co-exist together in this lovely corner of the Earth.”

This week’s Select Board meeting also will take up some minor changes in the language of a State House bill approving the town’s decision to return some historical documents to the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. The revisions were recommended by an attorney for the legislature, White said, and needs routine approval by the board.

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In 1734, the 125-member tribe arrived from New York’s Upper Hudson Valley, forming the Indian Town missionary community for the Mohicans and English settlers to co-exist and co-govern. After their forced exile by European colonists and westward migration beginning in 1783, Mohicans arrived at Oneida tribal lands in western New York, forming a community known as New Stockbridge. Moving on briefly to Indiana’s White River Valley, the tribe later settled in Wisconsin, where by treaty in 1856 they joined the recently established Munsee Nation.

Today, about 750 direct descendants of the Stockbridge Mohicans are part of the federally recognized tribe of 1,500 blended Mohican and Munsee natives. They live on a 25,000-acre reservation in Bartelme and Red Springs, Wis.

Some descendants return regularly to Stockbridge. Last July, they dedicated a new public exhibit at the Trustees of Reservations’ Mission House at 19 Main St., where artifacts from the Mohican Nation’s archives went on display.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com.

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