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This is exciting. This is the first time in a long time that a Mohican hymn has been sung. I’m sure we’re gonna mess up along the way. I’m sure the pronunciation is gonna be wrong, and somewhere up in the sky, our ancestors will be going, “what?!?” But we all gotta start. And this is a start. 

Greg Miller
Church of the Wilderness 62

Interview with Brent Michael Davids

Church of the Wilderness

The contextual clues about the use of hymnody among Mohican Moravians suggests that communal hymn singing served as a means of preserving community among and between various Native communities and forging new ties with European settlers in the face of colonialism’s pressures, while also being an occasion to give thanks to the spirits who provided for the well-being of the community. Although we lack the information needed to make any definitive conclusions about the extent to which Native musical practices may have been adapted into hymn singing in the eighteenth century, another important aim of our collaboration has been to render these hymns usable to the Stockbridge community today, in keeping with their ongoing project of historical and cultural preservation and language revival.

The congregation at the Lutheran Church of the Wilderness already incorporates the doxology in Mohican and includes the singing of hymns from current Lutheran hymnals as well as other favorite hymns.63 During our trip to the reservation in August 2017, the pastor of the Church of the Wilderness, Paul Johnson, and its council president (and Tribal Council member), Greg Miller, expressed considerable interest in learning Mohican hymns as a way to connect with their heritage and reinforce bonds of community among those who identify as both Christian and Mohican (Figure IX).

Based on Sarah’s work reuniting tune and text, and with Chris’s help with word separation and pronunciation, Stockbridge Mohican composer Brent Michael Davids was able to undertake the work of cultural translation to render the distant eighteenth-century hymn tunes accessible to a contemporary congregation affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Brent updated the arrangements and harmonizations of the chorale tunes (Figure X), from which we created a hymnal including eight hymns.64 Brent’s involvement reflects the long-standing Mohican tradition of valuing community over orthodoxy: though he is an avowed atheist and not a member of the congregation, he views his work on this project as supporting his community in their varied religious expressions while connecting to Mohican history and language.

Brent is committed to promoting musical education among Native youth locally, regionally, and nationally, including collaborative projects with Robert (Bob) Gehrenbeck, the director of choral programming at the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater. Bob recruited five choral students to help as lead voices for the recording session. The students prepared by using recordings of Brent’s arrangements done by Sarah’s choir during the FSU recording session.65

At Brent’s suggestion, we scheduled our recording to coincide with a Mohican history seminar held at the North Star Casino on June 22, 2018.66 The next day, a Saturday, we gathered at the Church of the Wilderness on Moh He Con Nuck Road, just up the road from Brent’s recording studio and adjacent to the Stockbridge-Munsee powwow, camping grounds, and community cemetery. Flowing nearby is the Red River, which reminds the community of their ancestral homelands along the Mahicanituck (Hudson) River, whose name means “the waters that are never still.”67 Pastor Paul Johnson and Greg Miller had put out the word about the day of learning and recording the hymns. We arrived early to set up recording equipment, and soon members of the congregation and community—ranging from small children to the elderly—as well as the choral students began to arrive.

Once the participants had settled in, Greg welcomed us and said a few words about the project. We started with “Jesu paschgon kia,” with Sarah speaking the words line by line and the congregation repeating them. Then choral student Amanda O’Donnell sang a line of the hymn and the congregation repeated it. We made our way through the texts this way, building up to singing a whole verse, practicing it several times, and then recording it, with Brent at the recording controls. We recorded four hymns, broke for lunch, and then recorded the remaining four.

Over the course of our visit, in conversation with community members and in Greg’s welcoming remarks, several themes emerged that suggest a remarkable survivance from the eighteenth century to the present. Again and again, maintaining community and sustaining relationships beyond the immediate community surfaced as the foremost ethical priorities. Incorporating the Mohican language into services affirmed a connection with the ancestral community of Mohicans, regardless of religious affiliation. Further, re-sounding these hymns seemed to give literal voice to an ongoing sense of communion with the Mohicans of Shekomeko that remains present to this day, to our admitted surprise. And finally, the connection to the Moravians further facilitates the ongoing effort to define membership in a Christian community that values rather than suppresses a distinctively Mohican ethos.

In Greg’s welcoming remarks, he spoke of the tribe’s history, recalling the introduction of Christianity by various denominations and stressing that affiliation with mission projects was not an abandonment of tradition: “speaking from my heart, I can tell you the Mohican people . . . always embraced the teaching of their elders . . . that each one of us is born with all that we need to know.” He emphasized that, regardless of denominational affiliation, reliance on an internal authority was a constant: “We don’t need the Bible. We don’t need to argue over all kinds of different things, over what’s right, what’s wrong. It’s in our hearts. And that’s what our people always taught us.” Rather than prioritizing doctrinal orthodoxy, Greg maintained, Mohicans had long emphasized the importance of community: “I just think that our ancestors throughout the years worked towards keeping community together. And what people think they gave up to do that we didn’t necessarily do because with a wink our parents have always taught us. . . . about what it took to keep us as a community strong. . . . And we blended those together and we kept that strong and we do that yet today.”68 This sentiment is remarkably similar to that of Stockbridge Mohican sachem Hendrick Aupaumut, who responded to the overtures of an unnamed Native prophet in 1805: “We give liberty to our young men and women to go and hear the Ministers of the gospel anywhere” and also “to hear and see the Ancient way of worship of your forefathers.”69

Greg’s sentiments echo the use of the Mohican verses in the eighteenth century as a means of solidifying community. The Church of the Wilderness’s interest in the Mohican-Moravian hymns is an affirmation of community in several ways. First, it reflects a desire to be part of a Christian community that affirms Mohican identity and cultural heritage. Connecting with the history of the Moravian missionaries, who had a less culturally aggressive mission policy than their Anglo-Protestant counterparts, furthers ongoing efforts to express Christian and Mohican identity without the cultural dissonance long required by such a hyphenated identity. Greg called attention to the long-standing efforts by missionaries at Stockbridge to stamp out Mohican language and culture, and he expressed his gratitude that the Moravians did not share that agenda, with the result that “some little thread of our language is still here” in the hymns.70 But, more than a connection to a distant history, the embrace of the hymns is a renewal of long-standing ties between the Mohican communities at Stockbridge and Shekomeko, which we had wrongly assumed had faded in the two centuries since Stockbridge sachem Aupaumut mentioned hearing the news of the death of Joshua Jr., son of the hymn writer Joshua (also Nanhun/Tassawachamen), in 1806.71 When we mentioned during rehearsals at the Church of the Wilderness that the verse “Paquaik Asanaik” (Strong Wounds) was written by Joshua/Nanhun, one participant, Katie Lewis, remarked that she had visited his grave at Gnadenhütten, Ohio, where he had died in 1775. As a teenager, she had participated in one of the many trips to visit places of historical and cultural significance to the Stockbridge Mohicans, which included Stockbridge, Massachusetts, and various locations in New York, as well as the Mohican-Moravian sites at Gnadenhütten and Muncie, Indiana, the location of a Mohican-Lenape Moravian community on the White River. Hearing and speaking the language, however imperfectly, provided a sense of connection to “the old folks . . . and what they went through,” as well as the opportunity “to learn from my ancestors.”72

The reintroduction of Mohican-language hymns authored centuries ago in a collaboration between Mohicans and European Moravians affirms the congregation’s commitment to a Christianity that stands in contrast to the “civilization before Christianization” strategy that characterized the origins of the Stockbridge mission in the eighteenth century as well as the Indian boarding schools in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including a Lutheran school on the reservation that operated from 1902 to 1958. Shekomekoans in the eighteenth century adapted the Moravian tradition of hymnody in ways that preserved the Mohican language and reinforced many of the communal functions of ceremonial song. The recording of “Jesu paschgon kia” made at the Church of the Wilderness in June 2018 reflects a different set of priorities for engaging with the eighteenth-century hymn texts than those that guided the FSU recording. This recording highlights the desire of members of the Church of the Wilderness to support and strengthen their community by incorporating the language and music of their ancestors into their current practice of community (Recording IV). Greg summed up the significance of the project to him: “Today, singing these songs that our ancestors probably never heard for over 200 years made my heart grow fond. . . . So we thank this project, for coming together, recognizing that we are not the last of the Mohicans. . . . Probably 300 of [us] are with the Lutheran affiliation, but there’s many more of other denominations. We are a strong voice and we welcome partnerships like this.”73

Recording session at Church of the Wilderness
Recording session at Church of the Wilderness

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,

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