Bidwell Lore – Muh-he-con-neok or “People of the Waters that are never still”

Welcome to week 34 of Bidwell Lore! This week we turn our focus to the original inhabitants of the Berkshires, the Mohicans.  We will stay with this topic through early next year and it coincides with our winter lecture series, Hidden in Plain Sight: Native Peoples and the Struggle to Recover Their History in New England. Our next lecture will take place on January 13 and you can register for it here

Muh-he-con-neok or “People of the Waters that are never still”


“History is that certainty produced at the point where imperfections
of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.” [1]


Having committed the crime of omission by not starting the Bidwell story in New England with the first stewards of the land, it would seem that the most appropriate form of mea culpa would be to place it in the context of the recent narrative shift of decolonizing history. This means taking that language from macro to micro by weaving in examples from local history. At risk is the authoring of an article of greater length that lacks the shorter and lighter storytelling quality of earlier Bidwell Lore articles. There is, however, value in the opportunity to examine the hidden biases in New England histories over the last four hundred years.

Mohican words were written by English and Dutch colonists based on a phonetic spelling as heard by the ears of those colonists and the Nation’s name of Muh-he-con-neok, over time went through various iterations including, Mahikanak, Mahican by the Dutch, and Mohican by the English, which the Tribal Nation uses today.

Diaspora (di-as-po-ra): the dispersion of any people from their original homeland.

Diaspora of Native people began in New England almost as soon as colonists landed in sizeable numbers. The arrival of the Mayflower was only the symbolic beginning of a brutal and bloody process to try to eliminate New England tribes through warfare and slavery in order to ensure the dispossession of land from Native communities. In addition, the rapidly increasing English population brought with them very different methods of land use, changing the environment to the extent that the Native way of life was not sustainable, including loss of access to game animals. [2] The Massachusetts Province, during the early 18th century, saw the Provincial government enact legislation to create game wardens for control of the harvest of deer.

Stewards of the land along the Hudson River from Lake Champlain to Manhattan and into Massachusetts as far east as the Westfield River, the Mohican Nation once numbered in the thousands. The Nation was greatly reduced by European disease, dispossession of land, and less so by conflict with the Mohawk, which was at least in part caused by the Dutch and their manipulation of tribes in the fur trade.  

The outlined circle approximates the Mohican lands before the arrival of the English

For a number of years, historians have suggested that the Berkshires were seasonal hunting grounds of the Mohicans, but the sheer volume of artifacts, home sites, and burials suggests a significant presence over time and may call into question that theory. In addition, current scholarship suggests there are other reasons that support a shift away from the traditional narrative of the vanishing Indian, best explained through the writings of Lisa Brooks in her book Our Beloved Kin A New History of King Philip’s War, Jean M. O’Brien’s book Firsting and Lasting Writing Indians out of Existence in New England, and Amy E. Den Ouden’s book Beyond Conquest: Native Peoples and the Struggle for History in New England.

“A compelling and original recovery of Native American resistance and adaptation to colonial American. Grounded not just in extensive research but also in the land and communities of Native New England, Lisa Brooks presents a complex picture of war, captivity, and Native resistance during the “First Indian War.” (Later King Philip’s War) [3]  Lisa Brooks, in her book Our Beloved Kin, some 340 plus years later, counters the long-established English narrative of King Philips War by a retelling the events of that time from the Native perspective. One small example of the impact of language is Professor Brook’s replacement of the word warrior with the word protector, giving the reader an understanding that the Native people were continually in a defensive position, only attacking as a last resort in order to survive.

As Anishinaabe historian Jean O’Brien and others have observed, American readers have often been drawn to the “national narrative of the ‘vanishing Indian,’” including the death of Native leaders like Philip, rather than the more complex stories of Native adaptation as with James Printer. The persistent narrative of “extinction” to which O’Brien refers, “has falsely educated New Englanders” and Americans “for generations,” engendering a mythological history in which the English, and their American descendants, “replace” Indians in the land. Likewise, in writing about “king Philip’s War” colonial ministers and magistrates sought to contain Indigenous resistance within narratives that would justify their replacement. [4]

Amy E. Den Ouden’s book Beyond Conquest demonstrates how the current Euroamerican scrutiny and denial of local Indian identities is a practice with a long history in southern New England, one linked to colonial notions of culture – and ultimately “racial” – illegitimacy that emerged in the context of eighteenth-century disputes regarding Native land rights. [5]

Quoted in an earlier Bidwell Lore article regarding the Bidwell connection to the Mayflower and its impact on the Native Community it seems appropriate to repeat two definitions that are meant to shift the reader’s perspective and understanding of early New England colonial history and its impact on native peoples.
 
“Colonialism” has been defined as when one nation seizes control of another nation’s natural resources & peoples for profit. An extreme form is “settler colonialism”, in which the invading nation attempts to permanently settle the territory by eliminating the native population & erasing its culture. [6]
 
In recent years, several researchers have branded the colonization of New England colonialism as settler colonialism. [7]

“Decolonization” is the act of undoing the effects of colonization. It includes removing the cultural biases of the dominant colonial culture from historical interpretations to allow a more accurate presentation of a country’s past & present history & heritage. Recently, the decolonization movement has begun to remove the confines of colonial histories in the study of indigenous & other once “marginalized peoples”. Acts like NAGPRA [8] along with efforts to involve members from these communities in all aspects of historical study & programming have created new, more accurate interpretations that utilize archaeology, oral tradition, & written documentation to correctly incorporate indigenous, captive, & emigrant lifeways & thought into the larger history of the Americas. [9]

Although in past Bidwell Lore articles we have listed several books that strive to bring New England Native Americans out of extinction, as well as those books listed above, the best fit for this discussion would seem to be Jean M. O’Brien’s Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England. From the back cover of the paperback edition: “In Firsting and Lasting, Jean M. O’Brien argues that local histories become a primary means by which European Americans asserted their own modernity while denying it to Indian peoples. Erasing and then memorializing Indian peoples also served a more pragmatic colonial goal: refuting Indian claims to land and rights. Drawing on more than six hundred local histories from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island written between 1820 and 1880, as well as censuses, monuments, and accounts of historical pageants and commemorations, O’Brien explores how these narratives inculcated the myth of Indian extinction, a myth that has stubbornly remained in the American consciousness.” [10]

In her introduction, O’Brien goes on to explain, “I want to argue that the local gave particular valence to the twinned story of non-Indian modernity and Indian extinction. Romanticized constructions of generalized Indians doomed to disappear were one thing; its quite another thing to contemplate the ‘extinction’ of Indian peoples who might instead have been your neighbors. ”The idea of ‘recognizing’ Indians played out as tangible reality for non-Indians and Indians alike.”

 O’Brien writes that the idea of “recognition” is central to her project in two fundamental ways. First, her concern with Indians in southern New England, some of whom are – and others are not – at present recognized as tribal nations by the U.S. government. Second her focus on the processes whereby non-Indians in the nineteenth century failed or refused to recognize Indian peoples as such. Even though non-Indians had Indian neighbors throughout the region, and even when they acknowledged that these neighbors were of Indian descent, they still denied they were authentic Indians.

In taking up the question of recognition, O’Brien analyzed the ways in which local histories narrated Indian history and “extinction” in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island between 1820 and 1880. Bidwell Lore will use local histories to provide examples of this extinction in the Berkshires. O’Brien’s book is about that effacement and the shift to an English history of New England. The book is broken down into four chapters, “Firsting,” “Replacing,” “Lasting,” and “Resisting,” and equally important are the introduction and conclusion. That said, I will leave the reader, if so moved, to seek out her book. [11]

In some additional passages from the book before a turn to local sources O’Brien writes, “My aim is to analyze the narrative strategies that New Englanders used regarding the Indian past and that attempted to put Indians themselves in the past by asserting their extinction in subtle and not so subtle ways. Central to all this is the construction of the original myth that assigns primacy to non-Indians who ‘settled’ the region in a benign process involving righteous relations with Indians and just property transactions that led to an inevitable and (usually drawing on the Romanticism that conditioned nineteenth-century sensibilities) lamentable Indian extinction. Thus the ‘first’ New Englanders are made to disappear, sometimes through precise declarations that the ‘last’ of them has passed, and the colonial regime is constructed as the ‘first to bring ‘civilization’ and authentic history to the region. Non-Indians stake a claim to being native – indigenous – through this process. In stark contrast to the narrative construction, New England Indians actually ‘last’ and remain vibrant peoples into the future.” Ethnocentricity and xenophobia were deeply embedded in early New England, given support by the narrow confines of Puritan religious thought. [12]

“By taking up the narrative construction of Indian history in local accounts, this book aims to undermine its collective claims that modern New Englanders had replaced ancient Indians on the landscape. I hope to show the ways in which non-Indians produced their own modernity by denying modernity to Indians. I want to expose the futility of these claims, as New England Indians continued to resist their effacement as tribal nations in the nineteenth century and beyond. It is this long-term ideological construct, I would argue, that shapes contemporary debates and confusion over the ‘authenticity’ of New England Indians. I hope that by exposing these constructions, I can shed light on larger issues about Indianness, ‘authenticity,’ recognition and modernity in the United States.” [13] O’Brien goes on to breakdown the book’s chapters as a method for providing a “thematic ordering in order to make sense of the construction of New England extinction, and the centrality of the Indians to the New England project of modernity.” [14]

“Chapter 1., ‘Firsting,’ examines claims that local texts make about the primacy of English culture, institutions, and lifeways in the production of modernity in New England. Local histories claim Indian places as their own by constructing origin stories that cast the Indians as prefatory to what they assert as their own authentic histories and institutions. [15]

“Chapter 2. ‘Replacing,’ looks at the construction of what I call the New England ‘replacement narrative.’ The erection of monuments, the mounting of historical commemorations, local interest in amateur archaeology and place names as well as claims to rightful ownership of the land show how local histories built a collective case that they replaced Indians on the landscape of New England. Monuments to Indians propose their eclipse, and are juxtaposed with monuments to non-Indians that are intended to assert English origins. Historical narratives and relic collecting place Indians in the past, and selective retention of Indian place-names in meant to commemorate Indian peoples and practices that are asserted as extinct.” [16]

Monterey’s place name is Konkapot River, although it is likely that even if residents know the name to be native in its origins, they likely know little about Konkapot himself and how he related to the Mohican people of Berkshire County.

Next week we continue to review the important topics from Jean M. O’Brien’s book and her analysis of the “vanishing Indian” narrative in New England.


Article written by Rick Wilcox with editing by Heather Kowalski.


[1] The Sense of Ending, Julian Barnes, 2011.
[2] Changes in the Land, William, William Cronon, 1983, Hill & Wang Publishers, an excellent book on that topic.
[3] Back cover of paperback edition of Our Beloved Kin.
[4] Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War, Lisa Brooks, 2018, Page 6.
[5] Back cover of Beyond Conquest: Native Peoples and the Struggle for History in New England, Ouden, 2005.
[6] Patrick Wolfe, 2006, “Settler Colonialism & the Elimination of the Native”, Journal of Genocide Research 8(4): 387-409; Danielle N. Bennett “Decolonizing Museum Session at NEMA”, November 19, 2017, web site entitled Museum Studies at Tufts University.
[7] Amy Den Ouden, 2005, Beyond Conquest: Native Peoples & the Struggle for History in New England, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln; Jean M. O’Brien, 2010, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis; J. Kehaulani Kauanui, 2017, “Challenging Settler Colonialism in the Recovery of Wangunk Tribal History, Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut 79:37-40.
[8] The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
[9] Dr. Lucianne Lavin (IAIS) & Paul Wegner (IAIS.) The Institute for American Indian Studies, Washington, CT 06790
[10] Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England, Jean M. O’Brien, 2010, University of Minnesota Press.
[11] For a lighter read: Flight of the Sparrow, Amy Belding Brown, 2014, New American Library, is a fairly well-balanced novel about the time Mary Rowlandson, who was “captured,” spent with Native people during King Philips War as well as the rigidity of the English in their treatment of Natives and each other.
[12] Not to suggest it is missing in today’s world.
[13] Introduction page xxiii.
[14] Introduction page xxiii.
[15] Introduction page xxiii.
[16]  Introduction pages xxiii, xxiv.

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