For Stockbridge-Munsee members, return to ancestral homeland 'very humbling'

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STOCKBRIDGE — For descendants of original settlers, when Stockbridge was known as Indiantown, a periodic return to the tribal nation's ancestral homeland packs a spiritual and emotional punch.

The goals this year were to record narrations for an online walking-tour video project organized by Housatonic Heritage and to keep tabs on a one-week archaeological dig behind Laurel Hill.

A half-dozen members of the Wisconsin-based Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Indians recorded narration for a video tour of 11 downtown historic sites with special significance for the tribe. The video is expected to be online on a new website within a year.

A history seminar with a public walking tour was held in May 2018 with nearly 30 tribal members, including descendants of the first settlers, attending.

The visit helped JoAnn Schedler, a direct descendant of Chief Popewannehah "John" Konkapot, understand his extensive land holdings and the ouster of the Mohicans from their homelands 50 years after European colonists led by John Sergeant arrived.

"Every time I come back here, it looks so familiar, and it always feels very spiritual and important that our ancestors were here," she said.

Schedler credited retired Stockbridge Police Chief Rick Wilcox for "awesome research connecting names and different sites."

Diane Burr, a first-time visitor to her ancestors' homelands, called it "very emotional for me, walking their steps, and I've learned a lot. I can't wait to dig deeper."

As a direct descendant of Sachem (Chief) King Solomon Uhhaunauwaunmut, she was escorted by Wilcox to his presumed property along the Housatonic River.

"This was my first time being here," said Odessa Arce. "I was really shocked and wasn't sure what to expect. I was really surprised how much was left here, even after 300 years. I didn't realize this was here for us to come back to."

On his second visit, Robert Little, a Marine veteran and a commander in the Mohican Veterans organization, found it a "very humbling" experience to retrace his ancestors' steps, picturing how they were forced out of their homeland in 1783.

"It touches my heart," he said.

The archaeological dig, which concluded Friday, has been held in the vicinity of the Ice Glen near the river, said Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Bonney Hartley.

In the general area, historical researchers believe George Washington prepared a ceremonial ox roast in 1783 to honor the Mohican soldiers who fought on the side of the American Revolution.

According to a signed document in the Stockbridge Library Museum and Archives, just two months after the feast, the Mohican tribe's chiefs were forced to move the community to Oneida tribal lands in western New York, later settling at a reservation in Wisconsin, where they joined the recently established Munsee Nation by treaty in 1856.

"It was like this grand thank-you from the highest leader, but then don't let the door hit you on the way out," Hartley said.

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"It would be important to our tribe to find the site," she pointed out, as it was near the home of King Solomon. The archaeological dig was paid for by a $20,000 grant from the Cultural Research Fund, which supports tribal and state cultural or historic preservation projects.

Archaeologist Casey Campetti, who grew up in Stockbridge, is with New Jersey-based AECOM Burlington, a heritage preservation firm.

She explained that the one-time dig's results at the restricted site, to be confirmed in lab tests, include artifacts, like nails and household debris, from the mid- to late 18th century associated with a structure that would have belonged to a native American chief.

A formal research report will be prepared this summer. A permit from the Massachusetts Historical Commission was required by state law for the study on the town-owned land.

"It's a challenge, since part of the research is how likely is it that something happened here at some point," Campetti said. "And what's happened since that time that gives us pause, such as construction of the [Housatonic] Railroad and the former trolley line, which is now a path, and flooding." Based on Wilcox's research, "we're out here ground-truthing," she added.

Computerized lab studies of high-resolution GPS points in the area might indicate spatial patterns, Campetti predicted, adding, "Who knows what might come of it?" A summary is expected during a community presentation at the Stockbridge Library, likely in October.

The group's walking-tour itinerary included Chief Konkapot's land on what is now 47 Main St.; the former farm of community leader and French and Indian War veteran Captain Naunauphtank, now 30 Main St.; the 1773 tavern and stagecoach stop that became the Red Lion Inn, where Revolutionary War soldiers, including Mohican men, met; the Town Offices built on Indian-owned land; tribal land now housing the Stockbridge Library and Archives; as well as the Old Corner House, the town cemetery on Main Street and burial grounds just west of the Congregational Church.

Terrie Terrio, now the elected tribal council leader who first visited Stockbridge 15 years ago, felt a connection. "I had the feeling that I was here before, so I was very keen on getting back here."

She was especially intrigued by the burial site as well as the Town Offices with the bust of Chief Konkapot in front. She also thanked Wilcox and others for "looking out for our sites so we have someplace to come back to."

When he first visited in 2006, Jeff Vele focused on a large, flat rock in the Housatonic, "a good rock for fishing," and found that he could "sense those ancestors fishing; it was a very, very moving feeling."

Even more so when he realized that King Solomon's homestead was nearby so he could "connect the vision and feeling I had 13 years ago to an actual person, who I could see fishing there 300 years ago."

Wilcox, the former chief, said "history is in my DNA" and noted that his grandmother, a Bidwell descendant, was curator of the Stockbridge Library's Historical Room from 1938 to 1968. His Wilcox ancestors, going back seven generations, bought the land that's now Chesterwood from the tribe at "what I'd like to think was a fair price" of 70 pounds silver for 100 acres — about $15,000 in today's dollars.

In retirement, he jumped into historical research, making connections through deeds and documents "to flesh out what was going on here in the 18th century. It's like a rediscovery of information, and now a strong connection with members of the Stockbridge Munsee Community to recapture a lost history. The relationships really help when you make a discovery and you can share it; it's a feel-good experience to be able to do that."

He credited the Stockbridge Golf Club for volunteering to keep the adjacent burial grounds mowed weekly and cleaned up twice a year.

As the key supporter of the filmed walking tour, Dan Bolognani, executive director of Housatonic Heritage, noted that area residents who had bits and pieces of Native American history in their collections helped start the project five years ago.

"I believe that the history of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians is the history of the Berkshires," he told The Eagle by email. "It's a truly significant story to be told, and the approach that was taken — creating and narrating the story in the Native American voice — is of foremost concern. An informed, educated and thoughtful approach is our goal, and the Upper Housatonic Valley National Heritage Area is pleased to continue to sponsor the project."

Clarence Fanto can be contacted at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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