Saturday, January 10, 2009

Smithsonian "Error" Corrected: Etowaukaum not an Iroquois


The headline in the 1/15/2009 issue of Mohican News which I received today is "Descendant Finds Error in National Historical Exhibit - Seeks Correction." The item in question: a variation of the portrait you see on the right. Depicted is Etowaukaum (or "Etow oh Koam" if you prefer the Smithsonian's spelling), Chief Sachem of the Mohican Nation in 1710. That year he joined three Iroquois Chief Sachems on a trip across the Atlantic where they appealed to England's "Queen Anne to send a force against the French and Indians there"(see Frazier, 1992, page 9).


The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery appears to have erred by referring to Etowaukaum as being one of the four Indian "Kings" leading the Iroquois Confederacy. The question of whether they should have been referred to as "Kings" is something that I'll save for another post, the error the Mohican News is referring to, of course, is that as a Mohican, Etowaukaum belonged to the Algonkian or Algonquin language/cultural group, not the Iroquois language/cultural group.

The Mohican News tells how Terry Shepard (whose father was Rev. Gordon Shepard, an enrolled member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians), alerted the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery of their alleged error via e-mail and copied the Canadian National Portrait Gallery in on the message. Here the plot thickens. According to Mohican News, Madeleine Trudeau, the Acting Curator at the Canadian National Portrait Gallery, sent Shepard a reply which explains added complexity: in 1710 the Mohicans were politically in alliance with their former enemies, the Mohawks. As a result, referring to Etowaukaum as a leader of the Iroquois Confederacy can be regarded as accurate, at least from a political or military standpoint. (Trudeau's claim is backed up by Patrick Frazier, who, on page 7 says that the "two tribes now spoke of each other in kinship terms. The Mohicans called the Mohawks uncle and they showed deference to their uncle.")

Mohican News reported that Shepard returned to the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery for a follow-up visit on January 4th and observed that the portrait in question now identifies Etowaukaum as a Mohican but he continues to have other "issues with the overall exhibit" and up to that point, he didn't find any changes on their website.
(The screencapture below is from that website on January 15th, 2009)
Mohican News relates that another bone of contention brought up by Shepard is that Etowaukaum is referred to as Chief of "the River Nation," which Shepard complained about - not for being inaccurate - but for being "an Anglicization." Of course, the word "Mohican," is also an Anglicization of "Muhheconnuck," but may I point out that - according to Patrick Frazier - "Mohicans" and "River Indians" aren't exactly the same. On page 6, Frazier says that the "Mohicans and the Indians at Schaticoke were collectively called 'River Indians' by their allies" (emphasis added). If Frazier is correct, then it likely is more accurate to say that Etowaukaum was representing the River Indians than the Mohicans.

The past can be so complex that we have to split hairs to understand where other people are coming from...but in the end, pride matters and too many people have only read the word "Mohican" as a reference to an old novel. So...

Let it be known that Etowaukaum was a Mohican!

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