That’s how Brian Cruey, the Trustees of Reservation Berkshires director, greeted Heather Bruegl, cultural affairs director for the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. It wasn’t just an act of kindness, but a recognition of history, as the pair helped to open “Mohican Miles,” a new exhibit at the Trustees of Reservations’ Mission House in Stockbridge. It includes artifacts and educational displays curated by the tribe’s museum in Bowler, Wis.
More than relics from the past, the exhibit is also a voice in the here and now — a real presence right on Main Street for a people who are part and parcel of the history of this land, but saw their own history systematically threatened by the expanding American empire. The Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians now resides in Wisconsin, a thousand miles from the South County town of their namesake after broken treaties and cruel dispossession forced them out of their ancestral homelands. Yet they still call this place home, a reverence for these Berkshire hills they have proudly carried through centuries of unimaginable hardship.
It is morally imperative to acknowledge this, but the Mohican Miles exhibit goes a crucial step further by not just recognizing history but allowing the tribe to tell it, relinquishing a settler-colonialist stranglehold on a rich history too often minimized in America’s founding mythos. “The whole exhibit is told in our own voice so we have a footprint on Main Street again,” Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, told The Eagle.
The tribe has a five-year agreement with the Trustees to tell its story through the Mission House exhibit, a project made possible by the hard work and cooperation of local and tribal historians and advocates. At the exhibit’s opening, Ms. Hartley singled out former Stockbridge police chief and local history buff Rick Wilcox as “our brother ... a close friend of our nation” who “helped us in so many ways with research and dedication to reconnect with our homelands.”
Some worry that an honest reckoning with our history with clear eyes instead of rose-tinted glasses risks division, but this project shows that it can actually unite us. The kinship expressed toward Mr. Wilcox by Ms. Hartley reminds us that meaningful reconciliation is possible and these are what the steps toward it look like: Peoples separated by the tides of history coming together for an honest appraisal of that history, and empowering the dispossessed to help tell their story with their own voices.
For a short time in the 18th century, Stockbridge was once an exception to the rule of Colonist-Native American interaction, with a land agreement forged by the mutual acknowledgement of John Sergeant and Chief Popewannehah “John” Konkapot. It was a rare instance of some decency and cooperation shown by English settlers toward this land’s first inhabitants, though Sergeant’s death and the initial strains of manifest destiny’s brutal engines drove a series of shattered promises and atrocious acts by the settlers, displacing the tribe far from their homelands.
Knowing the history of Stockbridge — and America — means recognizing these truths and cooperating in acknowledging the real history and precious humanity of this land’s first peoples. America has a long way to go to fully realize this moral mission, but Stockbridge and the Trustees of Reservation are exemplifying how it should be done.
In welcoming the Stockbridge-Munsee Community to their ancestral home, Mr. Cruey summed up the Mohican Miles exhibit’s goal: “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.”
Truly reckoning with history, though morally necessary, is often difficult — but it’s made easier when communities reach out to do it together. We must be literate in the history that has preceded us. We owe it to ourselves, as well as our fellow humans who for too long have been locked out from joining in the writing and contextualizing of that history. Anyone looking for a good start should visit the Mohican Miles exhibit.