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To me, it’s like a prayer language ’cause it’s a separate language now for me and when I say it I feel I’m stepping on sacred ground…It’s a language that carried my people back and forth and yet we can still touch it. It’s like finding a seed from the past all of a sudden. It’s been there in the ground for over a hundred years and you find that you can grow that plant again and that’s what I feel like.
Interview with Bill Miller
Our third recording of “Jesu paschgon kia” reprises the collaboration between Joshua and Johann Christoph Pyrlaeus. In the 1740s, Joshua coached Pyrlaeus on pronunciation and phrasing while Pyrlaeus worked to fit Mohican sounds into Moravian musical forms. In April 2018 Rachel, Sarah, Chris, and Bill Miller came together as a group for the first time on the occasion of a public presentation and performance at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis. The day before the public event, we worked all day and late into the evening, with Chris and Bill reaching into different storehouses of knowledge to coach each other on pronunciation.75 Rachel shared bits of research from the archives about how and when the hymns had been created and sung by Mohicans in the eighteenth century. The anecdotes that resonated most with Bill were those of Joshua and other Mohican men speaking of the spiritual inspiration behind their singing and their practice of singing while hunting. Bill shared his stories of learning to hunt with the older men of his community and their practice of singing to the deer. Then Bill worked to set the words of “Jesu paschgon kia” to new music reflecting his adaptations of Native Northeastern musical styles. It is not our contention that Bill’s version of “Jesu paschgon kia” replicates the sounds of Joshua and other Mohican men from Shekomeko. Rather, our project reprises the collaborative process enacted by Joshua and Pyrlaeus, this time privileging the experience and voice of a contemporary Mohican musician, with Mohican-language assistance from a non-Native linguist.76
Bill’s version of the hymn also corresponds with further evidence from the mission records that provides a broader view of Joshua’s engagement with Moravian Christianity. The same hymn booklet that revealed Gottlob Büttner as the author of “Jesu paschgon kia” preserves the authorship of several hymns by Joshua and others by him and his wife, Bathsheba, all of which focus on the wounds of Christ. These verses suggest a resonance between Moravian blood-and-wounds theology and Native understandings of spiritual efficacy. For Joshua, singing about the wounds was a means of spiritual empowerment that could be used to provide for individual and communal well-being.77
One of the first hymns attributed to Joshua dates to September 1747—just a year after his first wife, Salome; their two sons; and many friends died from smallpox—and begins, “Hide us in your side, / which is open to our souls. / Take away what does harm / and bring us to safety, Jesus!”78 The loss of so many loved ones clearly weighed heavily on Joshua, as he explained in a conversation with Christian Rauch soon after he had written the hymn. He had been hunting, he said, and unable to concentrate on the deer he sought when the Savior appeared to him and communicated something to his heart. He lay facedown on the ground and cried, remembering his many friends and Salome, and he wished the Savior would come for him also.79 That dream seems to have marked the low point in Joshua’s life. In the months and years that followed, Joshua often hosted visitors and traveled to other communities—Pachgatgoch, Meniolagomekah, Wyoming, and others—and during his travels he served as a musical instructor and translator, guiding missionaries and Native residents alike.80
During the first years after the introduction of Mohican hymns, most references to hymns in the Moravian mission records are to communal singing: on the occasions of love feasts, Singstunden, and burials. Over the next several years, hymn singing became not only a congregational practice but an individual and small-group practice undertaken both away from missionary presence and outside the town, as suggested in a remarkable exchange recorded by the Gnadenhütten diarist between Joshua and a white visitor to the community in 1750. When the visitor asked Joshua if he was able to read, Joshua responded, “Yes, not much, but I know five important letters and my brothers in Gnadenhütten know these letters too. I read these letters day and night, and when I go in the woods to hunt, and I shoot deer, so I read these letters, not with my head, but with my heart.” Mirroring the language of the hymn texts he authored, Joshua then showed the visitor his picture of Jesus, pointed to the wounds, and said, “See, these are my five letters that I love to read. They give me strength and power in my heart. I think about them all day long, wherever I am.”81 Similarly, the Gnadenhütten diarist noted that Nicodemus, who frequently shared his theological insights with the missionaries, “often walks alone in the woods and sings verses.”82
Joshua and others sang hymns, it seems, as a means of entreating spirits for assistance. For example, Joshua and several hunting companions returned with three large bears and two deer in late January 1754, and Joshua reported to Johann Jacob Schmick, missionary and student of the Mohican language, that he had led singing services every evening.83 On another occasion, Schmick visited the hunters in their lodges and reported that Joshua and Augustus had been holding regular eventide services at which they discussed the “astonishing love of the Savior”; both morning and evening, the hunters sang hymns. The missionary subsequently noted that “in hunting, they are especially successful.” He did not make a connection between the singing and the success of the hunt, but we wonder whether the hunters did.84
As Bill, Chris, Sarah, and Rachel worked together to sing and record “Jesu paschgon kia” for the first time with non-Moravian music, we felt as if we were once again reprising the experiences of the eighteenth-century collaborators. In the course of our rehearsals, Bill again and again emphasized the importance of listening: listening to the elders who encouraged him to listen in the woods as he learned to hunt, listening to the musical teachers who taught him to listen to the sounds of nature to learn to play traditional Native American flute, and listening to Chris, shutting his eyes to better hear the sounds without the distraction of the written word. Bill made all of these connections explicit, linking the various acts of listening to finding the inspiration to put new music to the words of the Mohican verse: “it’s very sacred to me and I know what I heard in the woods with the other hunters. I know what I heard at powwows with these old men, how they sing. . . . And that’s what I did yesterday. And last night.” In the end, Bill’s recording that evening was one culmination of years of collaboration and, ultimately, inspiration (Recording V). “It’s bringing the past up to now and it is powerful to hold this thing, this song hundreds and hundreds of years old and then put it in my breath and put it in my soul and then bring it out in the present tense.”85
The public presentation of our historical, linguistic, and musical work, combined with Bill’s hallmark performance style mixing deeply personal stories of life as a Native American in modern America with his inspired and inspirational music, drew more than two hundred people to the Eiteljorg Museum for an event that many in the audience found deeply moving. As Indiana’s former poet laureate Norbert Krapf wrote in a Facebook post, “I have been to countless concerts in the U.S. and Europe, but never have I witnessed a singer-songwriter so generously reveal more of himself in his comments and singing than Bill Miller did last night. This was the most spiritually powerful musical experience of a lifetime!”86 Like that of Joshua and other Mohicans involved in the development of a Native Moravian hymn tradition, Bill’s music reflects his life experiences, his sense of connection to a sustaining spirit, and his commitment to connecting with others through his work. For Bill, the project is about “the connection between me and my past and America.”87
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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