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Discover Mid-America January 2006
A Nation of Statesmen: The Political Culture of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans, 1815-1972 by James W. Oberly. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2005) Hardcover, 352 pages; 2 line drawings, 12 tables, 7 maps; $34.95, 0806136758. www.oupress.com
Mohicans survive because of their experience in the past
Fortunately for the Mohicans, their nation and people have long survived James Fennimore Cooper. And they have preserved and engendered an evolving-yet-stable identity for more than four centuries. James Oberly shows that the Mohicans endured numerous removals, attempts to dissolve their nation, and the vagaries of U.S./Indian relations. The feat was nothing less than outright self-determination in the face of political and social trends that sought to destroy them as a people.
Oberly worked through the mid-1990s with the tribe in a reservation border dispute. As he researched extensive government and congressional documents, treaties (ratified and ungratified by the U.S. Senate), and personal papers, he became fascinated with the ways that the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohicans created a political culture that was able to engage the United States government, other tribes and themselves. Tribal leaders imbued in this political culture promoted the interests of the tribe and created a unique identity that belonged to people more than it depended on place.
The Mohicans had a long tradition of negotiating changing circumstances. The name Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican originated with the alliance of three seventeenth-century native peoples in the Hudson Valley: the Mahicans, Wapingers, and Housatonics. (Mahican and Mohican, Oberly writes, are derived from Moh-he-con-nuck, or the “people of waters that are never still”—the Hudson River estuary.) The Munsee were Delaware people who lived on the Minisink River, a Hudson tributary in the Catskills.
The ways that Mohicans mediated change through treaties and relocations that brought the tribe to the shore of Lake Michigan in 1822 reinforced an identity. This uniqueness transcended clan and village. Intra-tribal conflict led dissident members through Shawnee Mission in what was to become Kansas from the mid-1830s to after the Civil War, and then on to an area near Anadarko, OK. While the people in Oklahoma have retained their uniqueness as Indian, Oberly believes that Mohican identity remains with the people living on the western shore of Lake Michigan.
Oberly found a wealth of information while working at the Arvid E. Miller Memorial Library and Museum in Bowler, WI on the reservation boundary dispute. Many of the Mohican leaders had been highly educated, and their correspondence and advocacy before courts, congressional committees and with the Bureau of Indian affairs was immense.
From this work, Oberly found that the Mohican people had developed three levels of political tradition. The first, which was most important before the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, was nation-to-nation political negotiation and diplomacy. The Mohican thought of themselves as a nation, a sovereign group that could and did advocate for their interests. Mohican leaders engaged the United States in treaty negotiations, settlement and damage suits, and in securing payment for removal. After 1934, tribal political diplomacy with the U.S. shifted to advocacy for tribal interests within the political structures of Congress, and state and local politics.
A second layer of this culture arose from relations with other Indian nations. The United States had treated with every Indian nation differently. Due to these relationships, tribes sometimes found themselves next door to others with whom they had to negotiate local alliances or resolve neighbor-to-neighbor disputes.
First with the Oneida in central New York, and later with the Menominee, the Mohicans worked to protect their interests but also the interests of the tribal groups in relation to American citizens, their cities and towns, and states. Mohicans later used this experience in leadership positions in the pan-Indian and American Indian movements of the 20th century.
The third, and possibly most interesting, is intra-tribal politics. Tribal factions based on family and class matured into political parties. The Citizens Party and the Indian Party were based on economic perspectives, status and class, and ideology much in the same way that the Democrat and Republic parties in the United States were. As tribal leadership moved from inherited to elective, party politics created a unique dialectic between interests, which, in turn, produced compromise and polarization.
What’s most interesting about Oberly’s work is that his animates with real people what could otherwise be a purely theoretical work. Mohican leaders and thinkers were all people of their times, who responded to outside pressures with calculation and skill: John C. Adams, John W. Quinney, Sam Miller, Jeremiah Slingerland, Albert Miller, John P. Hendricks, Darius Charles, John N. Chicks, Miller, Robert Konkapot, Harry Chicks, Carl Arvid Miller. Each worked to create a real sense of community and identity through their intratribal relationships and with other tribal groups and the federal government.
The Mohicans move through colonization, removal, allotment and termination (the effort to end support of Indian uniqueness through attempting to preempt treaty obligations and cease funding). They come through internecine struggle to confront missionaries, government functionaries, and congressional representatives to preserve and engender shared interests of tribe members.
A Nation of Statesmen is a scholarly text. But like many histories, it is lucidly and deftly written, giving access to the cause-and-effect account of events and personalities that keep the reader’s interest. Included are also appendices that tribal constitution, treaties and acts of Congress important to Mohican history.
One observation about this book: A quick Web search revealed that Oberly’s book has become a topic of discussion among present-day Mohicans. This is interesting as an outsider reinforces or denies important aspects of a wider Mohican culture. In other words, this is what Oberly says. How do the Mohicans interpret their past?
Oberly has investigated for the first time the tribe’s political culture — that conglomeration of social relationships dealing with power. Oberly’s work signals that much more work can be done on this particular topic and this particular tribe by other historians — Mohican, Native American studies scholars or Indian historians. It serves also as a blueprint for work on the political cultures of other Indian nations.
Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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