Historical erasure and cultural recovery: Indigenous people in the Connecticut River Valley
This work explores the impact of the “vanishing Indian” paradigm on historical, museological, and anthropological interpretations of Native American Indian peoples along the Quinneticook—the middle Connecticut River Valley of west-central Massachusetts. The seventeenth century documentation of the region’s Agawam, Nonotuck, Pocumtuck, Quaboag, Sokoki, and Woronoco people is surprisingly dense, but their presence after that time is poorly understood. Sophisticated systems for reckoning and maintaining Indigenous governance, trade, kin relations, and inter-tribal alliances, and various means of preserving localized knowledges, were in operation long before colonial settlement, and survived after colonization. The records of this activity and the movements of Native families to other locales were obscured, during the nineteenth century, by local White historians. Accurate understandings of local Native histories have subsequently been difficult to reconstruct, given the lack of ethnographic information in Euro-American records, the flawed representations of Native people and events in local town histories, and the failure to recognize the lineal descendants of middle Connecticut River Valley Native families among today’s Western Abenaki populations.
I suggest that the “invisibilizing” of the valley’s Native peoples is a trick of misdirection, caused, in part, by the research interests of three local collectors: geologist Edward Hitchcock Jr. of Amherst College, antiquarian George Sheldon of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association, and zoologist Harris Hawthorne Wilder of Smith College. These men unearthed numerous Native individuals from local gravesites, and amassed thousands of artifacts, portraying the skeletal remains of dead Indians as “real,” while representing their descendants as “unreal” remnants of the presumably more authentic Native past. This project, therefore, discusses the ways in which local Native histories and oral traditions were marginalized, ignored or colonized, at the same time that Native bodies were being exoticized, fetishized, and commodified.
One means of decolonizing the valley’s Native history is a four-part process that: first, reveals the discursive processes that disconnected living Native peoples from their own histories; second, investigates the physical interferences of archaeological collectors; third, articulates the persistence of Native families over time by linking oral traditions, family names, and material evidence; and fourth, begins to repair some of the damage done by restoring and repatriating the scattered archaeological collections. To illustrate the impact of misrepresentation on local Native histories, I discuss the appearances, in various documents over time, of one local Native family lineage (from Shattoockquis to Sadochques to Msadoques to Sadoques), and their repeated efforts to make their presence known to Deerfield historians. This case study directs attention to some of the Indigenous knowledges and territorial understandings that could be used to construct more accurate regional narratives. In sum, this work aims to demonstrate how decolonizing methodologies can reveal heretofore missing connections, while establishing a more equitable social venue within which the real work of restorative history can begin.
0326: Cultural anthropology
0740: Native Americans
0740: Native studies