On a quiet parcel tucked away off Stockbridge’s Main Street, a monument reaches skyward out of the ground. At the base of the structure, you can just barely make out its well-worn inscription: “The ancient burial place of the Stockbridge Indians 1734, the friends of our fathers.”
The descendants of those “friends of our fathers,” the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians, still call the Berkshire hills their spiritual and ancestral home — even after centuries of brutal displacement pushed them all the way to Wisconsin. At the heart of that reverence is the most universal of human desires: to maintain connection with and respect for the corners of the earth where we lay our forebears for their final rest. That basic dignity was just one of many torn from the area’s first occupants when colonization forced the tribe westward. Like the rest of their homelands, they lost the burial grounds to the new settlers in 1809, less than a century after the inscription that spoke of “friends” was carved into the stone.
So many of the historic indignities borne by the region’s original inhabitants can’t be undone, but this one can certainly be ameliorated in a simple and morally obvious way. We’re glad to see the Stockbridge Select Board take the opportunity to do so at its last meeting when it approved a plan to return to the tribe the small piece of land that contains their ancestors’ remains.
In seeking reclamation of the site, the tribe’s historic preservation manager Bonney Hartley wrote to the board citing 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.” Indeed, the tribe has persevered in maintaining an awareness of its traditions and heritage even as they were marginalized through centuries of expanding American empire. In recent years, they’ve continued to do so through magnanimous collaboration with the region’s current residents, from Stockbridge historian Rick Wilcox to the Stockbridge Munsee Tribal Historic Preservation Office in Williamstown.
This burial ground reclamation effort seems an intuitive next step in a joint journey of sometimes hard but healthy historical reckoning, underscored by Select Board Chairman Patrick White’s comments before the board’s unanimous vote. “These folks want their ancestors’ bones back, who can argue with that? 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.”
That is, after all, what friends would do. That 288-year-old inscription referring to the Stockbridge Indians as “friends” was belied by the years of bitter mistreatment and broken promises that followed and forced them hundreds of miles from home. We cannot change history, but we can engage with it honestly and live up to the spirit of that inscription in the present. Credit to Ms. Hartley and all other Stockbridge-Munsee tribe members who have fought to preserve a persecuted but proud people’s history, and kudos to the Stockbridge Select Board for meeting the outstretched hands of friendship with their own.
Through mutual respect and cooperation, the town of Stockbridge and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians have modeled the sort of reconciliation that is rarely seen but sorely needed if we are to fully heal the historical wounds disproportionately suffered by Indigenous Americans and fully realize the history of this place we all call home. We hope the people of Stockbridge do their part to further this morally necessary mission when the burial ground reclamation goes up for approval at special town meeting later this year.