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The various methods of musical reconstruction we have deployed in these three recordings, and the dramatically different end results, help us to “hear” more clearly the presences and absences of the eighteenth-century textual sources. Using the standards of historical musical performance for the first recording, we were able to make use of the rich Moravian records to create what might mistakenly be seen as a highly authoritative musical reconstruction. The absence of Native voices in the Moravian records is reproduced in the recording—the German-ness of the musical sounds completely overshadows the Mohican-ness of the words. This recording serves as a reminder of the archive’s silences, rather than as a comfort that we are hearing history as it really sounded.
Although the archival records are silent on the extent and nature of Mohican musical adaptations of Moravian hymn traditions, we should not assume that Mohicans did not actively modify and adapt the hymns to suit the needs of the community. Our second recording, undertaken on the reservation in Wisconsin, speaks to the ways that Native communities past and present have navigated the mixing and melding of inherited tradition with new resources in support of the aims of strengthening community and facing current challenges. The congregation of the Church of the Wilderness does not represent the whole Stockbridge community, but it represents methods that one segment of that community seeks to strengthen ties both to their ancestral language and to a historical Mohican-Christian tradition in ways that might evolve into new traditions in service of communal goals. Finally, our third recording presents the experiences of one Mohican man, a musician for whom setting centuries-old Mohican words to music was a deeply spiritual process that reprised his experiences of learning to listen in order to allow for the presence of spirit. Bill Miller’s performance that evening at the Eiteljorg Museum was his offering to a broader community of the gifts from the spirit.
In highlighting these examples, we seek to avoid reinscribing colonial narratives by reprising historical music in ways that center Native agency. The prioritizing of community interests can be seen in many different modern-day Native-language hymn traditions, such as the Catholic and Protestant hymns of the Anishinaabe or the adapted Christian repertory of nineteenth-century Inuit Moravians. In both instances the musical forms were originally introduced by missionaries as a strategy to extinguish Native music and worship, but for many Anishinaabe and Inuit people today, singing these pieces in Native languages and adapting their performance practice have become means of defending communal integrity in the face of rapid globalization and cultural instability.88 Historical repertories such as the Mohican hymns reveal the fluidity of musical practices across centuries. They show us, as well, the often-hidden labor of Native musicians and hymn writers and the necessity of collaboration in sounding them and appreciating a fuller range of their meanings today.
Over the years, Box 331 has drawn many visitors, and in a way it can be said to have brought those visitors into conversation with each other. Those conversations and collaborations led us to discover that our ancestors had been bound together in surprising ways. Rachel, Sarah, Bernice, Dorothy, Brent, and Bill were all drawn to Box 331 directly or indirectly in a search for our ancestors. Rachel grew up in New England, within a one-hundred-mile radius of where more than three centuries of paternal ancestors lay buried. Most Thanksgiving dinners were eaten under the gaze of her five-times great-grandfather, Timothy Pickering, whose portrait hung on the wall at her grandparents’ home. Her fascination with New England history came from a childhood steeped in stories of ancestors who seemed all the more real because their dishes, portraits, and furniture were the stuff of everyday life. It was only in graduate school that she came to realize the extent to which her ancestors were bound in deeply personal ways to the region’s Native peoples. Pickering, that stern yet familiar presence, had served as Commissioner of Indian Affairs under George Washington.89 In that capacity, he had regular dealings with Stockbridge Mohican leader Hendrick Aupaumut, common ancestor to Bernice, Dorothy, Brent, Bill, and many other Stockbridge Mohicans living today. Sarah grew up in Lanse, Pennsylvania, roughly two hundred miles from where her Moravian ancestor, Johann Jacob Eyerly, arrived in 1753. Shortly after landing in Pennsylvania, he was assigned to the mission at Gnadenhütten, where he likely knew Joshua, Bathsheba, and Pyrlaeus, the authors of many of the Mohican hymns. Of course, the forces that drew Sarah’s and Rachel’s ancestors to New England and Pennsylvania and enabled them to stay put also underwrote the removal of the Stockbridge and Shekomeko Mohicans in move after move. The Gnadenhütten (Ohio) massacre of 1782 marked the end of a distinctive Mohican-Moravian community. Though the Stockbridges endured fewer moves than the Moravian-affiliated Mohicans, they have been able to bury their dead in the same plot only for the last seventy-five years. That stasis and movement created a very different relationship with our own ancestral histories: our path to our research subject was in part driven by a desire to know more about our own heritage, but it was decidedly not a struggle for cultural survival and sovereignty.
We have come to appreciate through this process that historical scholarship—often conceived as a solitary endeavor where we each hunch over a set of manuscripts whose meanings we will reveal through the alchemy of more solitary hours hunched over our computer keyboards—can be far more generative when undertaken collaboratively. Pursuing a deeper understanding and appreciation of the hymns as both text and music has revealed to us an extensive web of relationships behind their original creation. This pursuit has also led us to discover new webs of relationships in the present that have profoundly altered the way we view this simultaneously familiar and challenging set of Moravian records. The recordings that resulted from these relationships underscore the notion that the writing of history is the unfolding of a relationship between the living and the dead—and, it might be added, among those who remember the dead, as Native literary critic and historian Lisa Brooks has written. In describing her methodology, Brooks recalls the words of Abenaki basketmaker and ethnobotanist Judy Dow: “We all have pieces of the puzzle, and it is only by coming together that we can hope to reconstruct the full picture.”90
The very process of creating these recordings has been an invaluable part of the research process, raising questions we might not have asked otherwise, which in turn led us to seek out collaborations with other scholars and community members. Our project, in a sense, is bringing to fruition a daydream many of us bookish types remember having in our earliest days visiting libraries and checking out books. On the checkout card, you could see the names of those who had held the book before you. Sometimes you recognized the names, but, of course, most of the time you did not. You wondered what brought those readers to that same book. What impact did its words have on them? What kinds of conversations might you have had with those other readers? This project has allowed us to ask those questions, have those conversations, and explore the connections that drew many visitors to the Mohican hymns of Box 331.
Rachel Wheeler and Sarah Eyerly, “Singing Box 331: Re-sounding Eighteenth-Century Mohican Hymns from the Moravian Archives,” digital companion version, William and Mary Quarterly, October 2019, https://oieahc.wm.edu/digital-projects/oi-reader/singing-box-331-rachel-wheeler-sarah-eyerly/.
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