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Lawn signs acknowledge land grab of Mohican homelands in Williamstown

Williamstown, Massachusetts, sits on part of the homelands of the Mohican people — that's what town residents and Williams College students want to remind the public. They're using signs, banners, and a pamphlet on local history to get the message out.

Fifty lawn signs hug Fields Park, a green roundabout where Routes 7 and 2 intersect. They're part of a project called "50 Mohican Reminders: Going Beyond Land Acknowledgments".

Bonney Hartley, historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Nation, read one of the orange signs with black and white letters.

"Kpomthe'nã Mã'eekanik, which means roughly, that we are walking on the lands of the Mohican," Hartley said.

Williamstown residents had the signs made after consulting with the tribe's Cultural Affairs Department. Williams College paid for them using community outreach funds from the 62 Center for Theater & Dance.

The tribe lost its homelands in the mid to late 1700s when white colonialists claimed acreage that belonged to native people. Ephraim Williams, Sr. was one of the people who took the land. He was the father of the man who founded Williams College.

Tribal members now live on a reservation in Wisconsin. Hartley said they appreciate the town is recognizing and learning about what happened.

"It's sort of like extending the hand in a way to our tribe over the miles and over the distance of history," she said.

Hartley first came east about seven years ago to work on historic preservation. Williams College and the tribe began collaborating in 2020. The college now funds student internships and provides a three-room office for the tribe in the center of town. Hartley said in the last several years she has seen interest in the tribe grow.

"Working with students has been really remarkable," she said. "They have a genuine, deep interest in the work and it makes you feel noticed and seen and someone else cares about these historical injustices that still impact our community and residents today."

Mirabai Dyson, an environmental studies major at Williams, wrote a booklet about Mohican history in Williamstown that can be picked up at the roundabout and the tribal preservation office. It was based on research by Williams College students and others.

Dyson said learning about the history changed her thinking.

"I had kind of viewed historical research as something quite antiquated, something obviously in the past. But I don't think I really realized just how much highlighting history and just the simple act of writing and publishing what has happened, how that can be a form of social justice on its own," Dyson said.

She hopes if people read the history it will be a catalyst for change. She added she would like to see more indigenous students at Williams College, including Stockbridge-Munsee people, "if they wish to attend."

Jayden Jogwe, an American Studies major at Williams College also interned with Hartley and did some of the research for the booklet.

Standing on the stairs of the Paresky Center, a main building on campus, Jogwe points out a banner he helped get placed above the entrance. It says "Mohican Homelands" in English and in Mohican.

"We were just hoping to just have something that very clearly states that this is Mohican homelands. It's always been, always will be, and it's nice to have it in such a visible place," Jogwe said.

Randal Fippinger, a visiting arts producer at the college, coordinated the lawn sign project. He also serves on the town select board and diversity committee.

"I like to work with community members and members of the Williams [College] community to see how we can explore through performance and through art important ideas," he said.

The lawn signs went up on Indigenous People's Day. On Monday, they will be given to the Stockbridge-Munsee historical preservation office, which will offer them to residents.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.