We’ve been delving into much of Berkshire County’s history working on African American Heritage in the Upper Housatonic Valley. But yesterday Liz Steffey and I went a step further into the area’s history, when we were introduced to the descendents of the original Berkshire residents, members of the Mohican Nation, known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. A busload of people from the community had come from their home in Bowler, Wisconsin, to visit New York and their Stockbridge-area roots in the Berkshire Hills. Our office neighbor, Scientific American editor Mark Fischetti, had met the group when they were hosted for dinner by the Stockbridge Congregational Church on Sunday — and invited us along for lunch in Great Barrington with the visitors.
Talking with some of the younger people and with some of the elders, we learned a good deal in a short time about life on the “reservation” (a term still used informally), especially that the Stockbridge-Munsee Community is truly that — a community with its own government, businesses, services, and entitlements (such as a $10,000-per-year stipend for a college education) for those tribal members who can document they are at least 1/4 Stockbridge-Munsee Indian blood. In turn, our visitors were curious about life in the Berkshires today.
Most of the people who live in the community work at the Mohican North Star Casino. Mark noted that many people in the Northeast (myself included) wish that there were other ways besides gambling to shore up local economies. The elder we spoke with, however, made a convincing case of the benefits of their casino — explaining that unemployment had gone from 50% to 5%, in an area that would not have drawn many visitors (or business investment), save for a casino to attract them.
Later I went online to the website of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community to learn more. I found out that the Stockbridge Indians had lost Stockbridge to what they term “unscrupulous dealings of the white settlers there” and moved on to land deeded to them by the Oneida tribe in New York. In the early 1800s, they had been pressed to sell their land to New York, and the tribe was relocated to Wisconsin. The website has a great deal of information about the tribe’s history and current life, including the fact that there’s a strong emphasis on AODA (alchol and other drug abuse) programs. Indeed, the bio of the Esteemed Elder we had met noted that he was an AODA counselor and had celebrated more than 50 years of sobriety.
All in all, a fascinating glimpse into the real world of an Indian community.