Heather Bruegl imagines Mohican people telling Mohican stories and histories on Mohican land, speaking their own language.
They are the Muheconneok, the people of the waters that are never still, the tidal river now called the Hudson, and for hundreds of years they lived here in the hills above the river valleys. They have always kept ties here, and this fall they have moved their Massachusetts Extension Office from Troy, N.Y., to Williamstown.
It would be powerful, she says, thinking of their voices here.
She is the cultural affairs director for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation. On a cold, clear November night, she was speaking on Zoom from the Arvid E. Miller Library and Museum from her community in Wisconsin.
Bruegl will give a land acknowledgement to open WAM Theatre’s performance of Larissa FastHorse’s comedy, The Thanksgiving Play, and WAM will give funding from the performance to support Bruegl’s work.
Bruegl is looking forward to this chance to see FastHorse’s contemporary satire. It’s brilliant and hilarious, she said: FastHorse heard theaters telling her they could not cast plays with Native actors and turned around and wrote a play with an all-white cast. Bruegl imagines FastHorse’s satisfaction in writing these four liberal, educated white characters as they are getting embrangled in their own attempts to create a culturally sensitive play for children about Thanksgiving.
FastHorse has often worked in devised theater, creating contemporary plays with Indigenous communities, building from the energy of a deepening circle of Indigenous artists and historians and teachers, entrepreneurs, activists and many more.
The Thanksgiving Play is about sensitivity to Indigenous communities, Bruegl said.
“It’s about looking to us for guidance and communication on our history and reaching out to communities you haven’t reached out to before. We’re here.”
She encouraged MCLA students earlier in the afternoon to do this work themselves — “Watch a documentary, find a native-owned business, talk with people. We want to tell you our histories, show you our communities … show you how far we’ve come.”
‘It’s about looking to us for guidance and communication on our history and reaching out to communities you haven’t reached out to before. We’re here.’
Now, in the pandemic, that work has become easier. Bruegl works with the Mohican Nation’s Arvid E. Miller Library and Museum, and she and her colleagues have worked hard to turn the place into a community gathering point, she said, and to adapt in Covid with online language classes, story hours, craft workshops and more.
And now the archives are already digitized, and she is looking into platforms to bring them fully online.
WAM Theatre will benefit the museum’s work, says Associate Artistic Director Talya Kingston. And for Bruegl this play and this time of year underscore its value. This holiday can tap into a long and painful past. She has often heard a protest that Thanksgiving should not be political, she said. And she understands the value of quiet gratitude, gathering with family and sharing a meal before winter sets in.
“It’s great to have a day for being thankful for things in general,” she said.
And if people want the holiday to be about thankfulness, or about the harvest and the turning of the seasons, then they can make the day just that.
“If you don’t want the history, then take it out,” she said.
And at the same time, if the holiday is about history, then it matters tell the history truly, she said. And that history is bound up with politics, from the early 1600s and before, and since. Thanksgiving became a national holiday after the Civil War. The holiday itself has politics in its creation, and if the day becomes a time to remember the past, then what past it recalls and how people remember it also becomes political. A day to tell the story of encounters between European and Native peoples across this country can look very different from different perspectives.
“For us,” she said, “Thanksgiving is a day of mourning and a day to honor the survivors of plagues, epidemics and massacres.”
It becomes a reminder of all they have lost, land and people, art and music, stories and culture, and language.
One of the Cultural Affairs Department’s main tasks is to help in revitalizing the Mohican language. It is vitally important work, she said. The Munsee language has a strong presence. The Mohican language almost vanished in the last century, and steady effort is bringing it back within her community.
“We like to say it was asleep and we woke it up,” she said.
The Mohican language almost vanished in the last century, and steady effort is bringing it back within her community. ‘We like to say it was asleep and we woke it up.’
The last fluent speaker died in the 1930s, and in recent generations, with the help if a linguist in Canada, Mohican researchers and teachers have been able to resurrect it.
They teach the language to children in community Head Start programs, Bruegl said, and to people of all ages through community language classes. And right now, in the pandemic, they are expanding their programs virtually.
“People who could not join before can join in now,” she said. “Some of our members outs east can join in.”
Two members of the community who are strong in Munsee and Mohican, Brock Schreiber and Nikole Recore Webster, lead the language classes, as the community continues to strengthen this body of knowledge.
The work began with a grant, Bruegl said, to glean what they could learn and remember of the language from oral histories, documents in Mohican, catechisms. Because the Mohican people encountered Europeans early in the 1600s, because they were educated in English and interacted with missionaries, they translated Christian sources into Mohican, and they wrote their own accounts.
“Sometimes in Mohican when we are looking for a word, we can look to Munsee and other Algonquian languages,” she said.
The community gathered and to talk and share their own memories and ask elders to recall their childhoods.
“It’s an immense labor of love,” Bruegl said, “trying to revive a language. We are not necessarily speaking the same exact language (as our ancestors spoke), because we can’t hear that.”
But they can re-imagine and re-animate a language of their own.
She hopes one day to see the language taught here, she said, so that students at Berkshire colleges could study it as they can study languages around the world.
She imagines the power in speaking the languages inherent to these lands — Lakota, Diné, Arapaho, and in the East, the languages of the Mohicans, Pottawatomie, Nipmuc, Kanienkehaka (Mohawk) and many more.
Written language also has power, as it shapes the past and the future. She has been thinking, she told the students at MCLA, about archives as form of activism.
The museum and library preserves written archives back to the 1700s, she explained later, in zoom. Researchers have gathered them over decades, she said. In the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s, they traveled to cultural institutions to gather history and bring it back here. They made handwritten transcriptions and copies. And the time to scan each document and organize it in place is significant.
Now people come here from across the country and the world to hear stories and research and read documents and letters.
And in the pandemic, Bruegl is broadening the museum’s reach, working to put these archives online.
“We saw a need for a platform to search and hone,” she said, “because the museum is closed right now to visitors, and research projects don’t stop.”
The archives hold a view of history she feels is often overlooked and matters strongly in understanding this country’s past and its present.
“Since we were colonized so early on and educated in schools where English was spoken, we wrote our own history down,” she said. “We can see the importance of who we are.”
Their histories begin long before they discovered Henry Hudson sailing up the Mahicannituck, the river that rises and falls, from the island of Manhattan well north of the hills here along the Hoosic valley.
In these archives, readers can see the turbulent wars between England and France on the east coast, through Mohican eyes — almost 200 years from Henry Hudson’s arrival to the hard day when the Mohican people living in these hills rode west over the Taconic ridge on the trek that would lead them, over many years, to Wisconsin. Though they have come back regularly ever since then.
They can see the Revolution and the war of 1812, and Mohican leaders who became diplomats and lawyers in Washington D.C., as they lobbied to stay in their homeland in Massachusetts, and then in what became New York, and as they continued west. Because they knew European languages and laws, they could argue their case to leaders in the new capital city.
“Its an evolution of what a Eurocentric education could do,” Bruegl said. “ We used that to help benefit us.
She wants to share that knowledge here.
“It is a goal,” she said, “to work with institutions (in the Berkshires) and talk about the history and the land and make sure we have a presence. We want to work with organizations that care and will talk about the history.”
When people in this country think of New England, they often do not think of the Indigenous history here, she said. The Indigenous people who lived and live here are often overshadowed.
She wants to keep these stories and voices in the light.