NEW MARLBOROUGH — Years after Simon Winchester purchased 123 acres in Wassaic, N.Y., he began studying records of its previous sales.
Early deeds were written in Dutch, Winchester recognized, but he took greater interest in the other signatures he saw on those documents.
“I realized that these were the Mohicans, and that they had a completely different attitude towards ownership than the one I now had,” said Winchester, a Britain-born dual citizen of the United States and United Kingdom, appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 2006 for his work as a journalist and writer. He is a member of The Eagle’s advisory board.
That experience led Winchester to write “Land: How the Hunger for Ownership Shaped the Modern World,” which was published in January. In a discussion today of the book and related topics, Winchester will join Kathleen Brown-Pérez, a senior lecturer at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; Setsuko Sato Winchester, a Sandisfield artist and journalist who is married to Winchester; and John Demos, the Samuel Knight Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University, at the New Marlborough Meeting House.
Winchester acknowledges that New Marlborough and his current home in Sandisfield lie on the ancestral homelands of the Stockbridge Mohican people. European settler colonists forcibly dispossessed Indigenous peoples of those homelands, U.S. policies continually pushed tribes westward, and about 1,500 Mohican and Munsee people live in what is now Wisconsin as members of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, a federally recognized tribe.
STOCKBRIDGE — Volunteers in hiking boots and long pants dig holes marked by little orange flags among the 20th century war memorials on Main Street.
Saturday’s discussion is scheduled to run from 4:30 to 6 p.m. at the New Marlborough Meeting House, 154 Hartsville-New Marlborough Road. Tickets — $20 for general admission, but free for people 21 and younger — are available at tinyurl.com/58nx54w.
The Eagle spoke with Winchester by phone to discuss the book and Saturday’s event.
Q: This event centers on your recent book, but it’s also a conversation with others who have studied land and people’s relationships to land. How will your different perspectives and expertise shape the conversation?
A: This isn’t a book talk, but it draws from one aspect of the book, which is the question of who owns the land in this
country. It’s not us, and that’s the point.
All land that is owned everywhere must have previously been superintended or owned, if you like, by someone else. I’m going to try to summarize a bit of the history in the first 15 to 18 minutes, and the other speakers will address specific areas of interest.
Kathleen Brown-Pérez teaches the young people over in the five colleges about Native American history, so, there’s a hope that her reputation will attract some younger people.
John Demos’ most recent book was about the very troubled subject of Indian boarding schools, so, I hope he’ll get into that. And Setsuko Sato Winchester, my wife, is dealing with those Japanese Americans whose story is very relevant to dispersal and displacement and erasure.
After farming very successfully in California, Oregon and Washington, they were scooped up and put into these concentration camps in the ’40s, and when they got back, many of them found that their land had been taken away from them. I’m hopeful that we’ll get a broad group of people, and that people will be stimulated and angered by this situation, or reminded that this is an outrage.
Q: For much of history, people did not think of themselves as owners of land. What are some of the key moments in the history that your book tells?
A: The first thing that happened is, people were dispossessed of their land in England. The first formal act is in 1604 and was backed by Parliament, but enclosure had been going on for more than 100 years previously.
Common land was divided among private landowners. There’s this famous phrase “the tragedy of the commons.” Common land is what used to be the situation in most of rural England, used by everyone — farmer A would have his cattle, farmer B his pigs, farmer C is turnips.
But, cattle would eat the turnips or the pigs would eat the cabbages, and as the population increased, suddenly there wasn’t enough food. And so they built walls. They enclosed the land. It did make the farming efficient, but it made a lot of people say, “What’s happened to the land that we used? We now can’t grow our cabbages.”
So, they said, “This is ridiculous,” and either moved to cities, which were then beginning to grow, or started to cross oceans to settle in entirely new countries. And the irony is, when they came particularly here, they did to the local people what had been done to them.
Q: Embedded in the concept of land ownership is the right to exclude. How have people who have been excluded, or whose land has been taken from them, resisted?
A: The example that derived the most optimism is the situation in New Zealand. In 1840, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed by a number of Englishmen and a number of Maori chiefs, in the end about 500 of them. The result was, from 1840 onward, all of New Zealand’s land was owned by Queen Victoria, which seems bizarre: This little lady was 10,000 miles all of a sudden owned New Zealand.
Well, that situation pertained for many decades afterwards, until 1975, when Whina Cooper — she was a Maori elder — led a march through the New Zealand winter, some hundreds of miles through the north island of New Zealand to the capital in Wellington, saying, “We want our land back,” effectively.
And the extraordinary thing is that the New Zealand government of the time and subsequent New Zealand governments listened and did something about it, and they set up tribunals and courts and commissions of inquiry. And the consequence of that is, in the last 10 or 15 years, slowly, some Maoris are getting their land back. And while a long way from being complete — there’s still a lot of dissatisfaction — in my view what’s going on in New Zealand is going to serve as a road map for what is ultimately bound to happen in Australia.
The big question to me and others here is: Will this reform ever come to North America? And I’m hoping it will. The movement for community-owned land in the northeastern United States, with places like the Dutchess Land Conservancy [in New York] or the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, is at least a step in the right direction. The land is not owned or superintended by its original people, but at least it belongs to the community.
The sort of things like the land acknowledgement and conversations like you and I are having today are the sort of beginnings — the thin end of the wedge — where people are at least beginning to think about this. Yes, the land acknowledgement may be merely empty symbolism, which a lot of critics say. But, maybe it just encourages conversation, and people will begin to think it’s monstrous that the Cherokee and the Arapaho who used to superintend all this land don’t have any now.
It was all taken away from them, which goes back to the question that dominates this chat: Whose land is our land? And how did it become ours, and should it remain ours?