STOCKBRIDGE — For descendants of the town’s original settlers, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, a return to their ancestral homelands always packs a powerful, emotional punch.
That was especially evident last week, as several tribal members dedicated a new public exhibit at the Trustees of Reservations’ Mission House at 19 Main St. Artifacts from the Mohican Nation’s archives went on display, curated from their museum in Bowler, Wis., in the area where the descendants have resided since the 1850s, after their forced exile from Stockbridge and a long westward journey, enduring tremendous hardship.
In the 1730s, after the 125-member tribe arrived from New York’s Upper Hudson Valley, Stockbridge — it originally was named Indian Town — was settled as a missionary community for the Mohicans and English to coexist and co-govern. The Rev. John Sergeant, an English settler, created a mission house in the town to promote Christianity.
The Stockbridge-Munsee Community now has a five-year agreement with the Trustees to tell its story through the Mission House exhibit, said Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the tribe. “The whole exhibit is told in our own voice so we have a footprint on Main Street again,” she explained.
Stockbridge native Trudy Fadding, a rising junior at Williams College, worked with the tribe’s historical preservation office in Williamstown to help develop the exhibit.
Through a college internship with Hartley last winter, Fadding researched and prepared the content and text for the “Mohican Miles” exhibit panels.
“Welcome home,” said Brian Cruey, the Trustees’ Berkshires director, as he greeted Heather Bruegl, cultural affairs director for the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, Hartley and other tribal members at last week’s opening reception. “It is with gratitude and humility that we acknowledge that we are learning, speaking and gathering at the Mission House on the ancestral homelands of the Mohican people, who are the Indigenous peoples of this land.”
He pointed out that the Munsees have leased from the Trustees the carriage house adjoining the Mission House “so that they have a place in Stockbridge that’s truly theirs.”
Bruegl, fighting back tears, acknowledged that her first visit to the original homeland of her ancestors has been an emotional experience.
“To be able to call this space ours and to call this space home again has been absolutely amazing,” she explained. “Putting this exhibit together was a labor of love, something that has been so transforming to be able to do it in Stockbridge and in a location like the Mission House that has had such a significant history and impact on our people.”
Addressing the invited guests, including local town leaders, Bruegl voiced hope “that you learn something you didn’t know about the Stockbridge Munsee Community beforehand and understand that this land is sacred, has meaning and is important to us, and it has a history that is longer than your history here.”
Hartley detailed the repatriation of important cultural heritage artifacts and heirlooms, such as a pipe and magnifying glass passed down from Chief Popewannehah “John” Konkapot, the town’s original settler, John Quinney and other tribal leaders.
“We’re really fortunate that over the past decades that we survived, we’re resilient, we’re now thriving, and we now have a library and archives of our own,” she told the crowd. “These items aren’t just utilitarian but, to us, still have a living, breathing, active meaning and value.”
She saluted “our brother, Rick Wilcox, a close friend of our nation” for delving into the history of the town’s first settlers. Wilcox, a retired police chief of Stockbridge, has “helped us in so many ways with research and dedication to reconnect with our homelands,” Hartley said.
The exhibit can be viewed by the public at the Mission House, 19 Main St., from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Mondays.
The National Historic Landmark is maintained by the nonprofit Trustees of Reservations, the nation’s first preservation and conservation organization, founded in 1891 by landscape architect Charles Eliot. Among its 127 Massachusetts sites, the Trustees operates Naumkeag in Stockbridge, Monument Mountain in Great Barrington and Notchview in Windsor, as well as Bartholomew’s Cobble and Ashley House in Sheffield, Tyringham Cobble and Goose Pond Reservation in Lee, and the Guest House at Field Farm in Williamstown.