The canoe draws the eye at the center of the room, a long tapering organic shape ribbed like a whale, with the warm patina of old wood. Above it, the shape of a wave crosses a banner in a web of blue lines — like a three-dimensional digital model, or a weaving.
Past and future come together in Mu-he-con-ne-ok, the Mohican people, people of the waters that are never still, at the Berkshire Museum. Come in and stand quietly, and you will hear their stories in their own voices.
From the Stockbridge-Munsee Nation, Eunice Stick and Sheila Powless, Dorothy and Bruce Davids, Betty Putnam Scheil and Clarence Chicks talk about their experiences over the generations. They talk about young people leaving to work in the city, the cost of education and the resources it can bring — the challenges of learning forestry and preserving birch trees or running for office within the Tribal Council.
It’s powerful to hear them here, in their traditional homeland, said Heather Breugl, director of cultural affairs for the Stockbridge Munsee community of the Mohican Nation.
Working through the pandemic, she has curated an exhibit on the her own people, here in land where they lived for centuries and have relationships and a living presence today.
In August after a year and more of planning, Mu-he-con-ne-ok has opened at the Berkshire Museum, one of the first new shows in the museum’s newly rebuilt second floor, as the museum itself reopens after a year of renovations — and nearby the Mohican nation has opened an exhibit at the Mission House in Stockbridge, more than two years in the making — telling their own story, for the first time, in a house museum devoted to the township and the mission they founded here.
At the Berkshire Museum, the exhibit finds its name in the rivers the Mohican people drew their name from, the tidal river, the Mahicannituck, now called the Hudson, and the Housatonic and Hoosic rivers here where Mohican families lived.
“We would travel the rivers and waterways,” Breugl said. “They were our highways.”
They would move familiarly between this valley and the valley to the west. They lived here, and while European incomers forced them out, they have always returned and kept in touch. When Berkshire Museum approached her to curate the show, she said, she approached the story as both a contemporary and historic one, and as necessary today.
“I’m an advocate for truth-telling,” she said. “I don’t sugar-coat history. We need to tell this story, and when we’re telling that story in our homelands — and the Berkshires are unequivocally part of our homelands — that’s key.”
She has worked with local groups to contribute objects, she said, seeing what she had available, physically close by, and building the show around them. She has gathered knowledge, brainstorming and energy, working with the Arvid E. Miller Museum and Library of the Stockbridge-Munsee Nation, the Berkshire Historical Society at Arrowhead, the Trustees of Reservations and the Mission House, the New York State Museum, the Connecticut Historical Society and Historic Huguenot Street.
Walk into the long museum gallery today from the east, wãapunaak, where the dawn is, and you will will see an eastern painted turtle, toonbaw — and from the west, a’nitupeet, the place where she or he sits, a young black bear. Breugl centers the room around four compass directions and four clans, the bear and the turtle, turkey and the wolf, still honored in the nation today. They are part of the nation’s structure, and their symbols show on the Mohican flag flying outside the Mission house.
It matters to her strongly to have the language here on the walls in Mohican and English. For some time, she said, Mohican has not been a spoken language, in the sense of fluent speakers, people who grew up speaking the language familiarly. Munsee is a living language and close kin to it, and the Stockbridge-Munsee are reclaiming the Mohican language, rediscovering it through written records and similar living languages, and teaching it in workshops and classrooms.
“It’s the language the land knows,” she said. “It may not be verbally spoken now, but our ancestors still know it. Having it back in our homeland is very important.”
Conversations on the language are growing across the county, she said, and this year the Trustees of Reservations has worked with the Stockbridge Munsee to rename trails on Monument Mountain with respect.
“It’s important to know about the history of this land,” she said. “It’s older than all of us.”
She wants to build tools for teachers, when they talk about the history of this land and this place in their classrooms, and the lives of local Native people.
In this show, she looks to the future, in the contemporary challenges her people face, including ignorance and caricature. She looks at companies that have used the names and images of Native peoples, or inaccurate names and images of them, in their branding. And she takes a local look at a national debate — sports team mascots built around insulting, denigrating images.
“Mascots are something we’ve tried to combat,” she said. “We have a resolution passed by the Tribal Council that says we do not condone them.”
To show that perspective individually and personally, she has brought together photographs from a recent protest when the Green Bay Packers played what is now the Washington Team. Wisconsin is home to 11 nations including the Stockbridge Munsee, she said, and members of her community went to join the protest with a message in a few clear words: We are people. We are here. Teach respect.
As her storytellers say, their voices running together above their photographs, “look into the future as much as you can and realize there will be a change.”