Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Comments on the Rae Gould/ Pam Ellis presentation "Sacred Landscape, Sacred Memories"

For anyone hoping to either learn about the 'mysterious' stone structures in the woods or to gain allies among the Nipmuc in the fight to study and protect these structures, last night's lecture would have come as a bit of a disappointment.

We heard a discussion of the history of a small piece of land in Grafton, the Nipmuc reservation, which has always been in the possession of one family. We heard about John Elliot, who evangelized. We heard about the "Christian Mission Communities" - also known as the "Praying Indian Villages". The audience was pretty knowledgeable about these topics - I saw two groups of rock pile people I know from Acton, people I know from Littleton, and from Upton. Most of last night's discussion covered information that has been commonly known to this audience, since it was written about by Mavor and Dix in Manitou. Very similar information appears in the writing of Thomas Doughton. (Update: and a lot of it is contained in Tresspassing by J.H. Mitchell)

At no point was the word "sacred" given a lot of substance. Except for the maps from Manitou showing relationship between seismic activity and the placement of the Chirstian Communities. Rae Gould, the historic preservation officer, comes from the academic environment of U.Mass - the same environment of Dina Dincauze and (I think) Brona Simon. This is an environment that is reputed to be hostile to the idea of Native American stonework. Rae Gould has read 3,000 Nipmuc related historical documents and she and Pam Ellis provided an authoritative discussion of the persistence of the Nipmuc in this inland Massachusetts area. We learned that Nipmuc speak the "L" form of Algonquian not the "N" form used by the coastal tribes. We did not learn much about their relation to the Narragansett or to the Wampanoag. One mention of Mt Wachusett (something I was listening for) came from a teenage girl pictured in a short video presentation - who indicated that the mountain belonged to the Nipmuc.

To be fair, I almost got a "tear in the eye" listening to Pam Ellis and looking at her face. Yes the Nipmuc are still here and it is a wonder. But was it their ancestors who built the large stone burial mounds in Fitchburg and Leominster, looking out toward Wachusett? I do not think we will learn this from them.

I thought about asking questions but did not. Someone from Upton asked about all the "amazing" stonework and this was not met with much interest by the speakers. My understanding is that the Nipmuc got quite close to tribal recognition, just before G.W. Bush discarded all current business of the former administration. So the main priority of public Nipmuc presentations, like last night, is focused on the political battle. Trying to show that the Grafton land is a reservation and not a single family's "allotment" would be a primary concern. I keep wondering if the nearly 1,000 "documents" that I have examined (the rock pile sites) might not help them in their quest for sovereignity. After all, the rock pile site concentrations seem to fit well within the borders of defined Nipmuc territory. But, as FFC put it afterwards, "They are too busy to be interested in details".


Tim MacSweeney said...

1,000 plus stone documents! Why believe the truth before your eyes when you have a perfectly good fable available, hammered into people's heads.

pwax said...

As I think about it, a few weeks later, since their primary mention of "sacred" came from an idea borrowed from Mavor and Dix, maybe they should remain open to other outside ideas and would get other deeper appreciations of the potential for claiming a sacred relation with much more of this landscape. I think they have a good case for occupation of all of this territory - and it is an argument they should learn to make.

Thomas Doughton said...

A friend brought this posting to my attention and I'd like to post a brief response about Nipmuc myths:
1. There was never a 'reservation' at Grafton nor is there a single historical source for this 20th century invention.
2. There is no historical documentation that anyone occupied the space that became Grafton prior to John Eliot's 'praying village' That it is a traditional 'sacred' site is pure invention.
3. There was never a Nipmuc language before it was invented in the 1980s by George Munyan a want-to-be Indian calling himself Kitt Little Turtle; he photocopied Cotton's Natick dictionary and cobbled together 17th century grammars and called it Nipmuc. The Nipmuc language is a hoax.
4. The Nipmuc were inland or 'freshwater' Massachusett. There was never an historical Nipmuc tribe or nation. The term referred to the Massachusett of southern Worcester County and northern Connecticut. Even alleged Nipmucs like James the Printer is a son of William of Sudbury, a Massachusett Native. Nipmuc derives from a place designation indicating inland Massachusett and not some separate people, In fact, there is only one single historical document even vaguely suggesting a Nipmuc political organization, and this during during the King Philip War when leaders at Worcester, Dudley, Woodstock and Brookfield signed off claiming they would not assist King Philip.
5. Sarah Cisco who began calling himself Princess Zara Ciscobrough, squaw-sachem of the Nipmuc people [bit of counter-factual self-promotion supposedly justifying a fictive succession of leadership for a tribe that never existed] in the 1960's created a counter-factual notion that Nipmuc territory extended from eastern Middlesex County to the New Hampshire border to the Connecticut River Valley and along the Connecticut border. This is untrue, despite how often it's repeated. Natick Nipmuc? Sudbury River, etc? Utter nonsense. Natick was a Massachusett community. Natick Nipmuc is also nonsense and counter-factual.
6. Sacred landscapes? many of the folks who perpetuate this notion were involved in a controversy surrounding an expansion of the ski facility at Wachusett [such a 'scared' site that its name is merely 'Big Hill.'] There was an outrageous claim of scared herbs growing there that grew nowhere else, etc. There is, again, not a single historical or oral historical source justifying such nonsense.
My grandfather's grandfather, Charles Dorus and his brother Esbon Dorus, were the last owners of record of Indian tribal land at Wabaquasset or Woodstock, Connecticut. I am, accordingly, connected to the aboriginal people of this region. I am not a Nipmuc tied a make-believe reservation, a make-believe language, or make-believe customs like Nipmuc Nikkomo [also a product of Kitt Little Turtle.] I can only marvel of the naivete of non-Natives of good will taken in by so much posing. It's like individuals getting teary-eyed on hearing the 'traditional' Nipmuc prayer at pow-wows not realizing this is another invention of the 1980s a la Kitt Little Turtle.
Thomas Doughton

pwax said...

I apologize for being taken in by the word "Nipmuc", but using the words "inland Massachusetts" suits the sentiment reasonably well too.

pwax said...

And I also apologize for seeming to express feelings for someone else's ancestors. I see things in the woods that other people do not. There is no one overlooking the interests of those structures and no one to speak for those people - whatever you call them.