Monday, September 21, 2009

The Stockbridge Bible: The Fight Is On

**This post is part of an ongoing series on the Stockbridge Bible***

The Trustees of Reservations explained to Tribal Chairman Leonard Miller in an October, 27, 1975 letter, that "because of questions of law and on the advice of its counsel," it could not and would not hand over the Stockbridge Bible.

Retired Episcopal Bishop Anson P. Stokes emerged as the leader of a Massachusetts group that advocated on the tribe's behalf. But ultimately the group realized it wouldn't win. The Bishop was told by a member of the Trustees that if his group tried to collect money for a lawyer, the trustees would "Hire the best lawyers in Boston to fight in court and ...spare no expense to crushingly defeat" those who were in favor of sending the Bible back to Wisconsin.

The Stockbridge Mohicans themselves eventually had their own meetings and formed a Bible Recovery Committee. The committee explored legal avenues they might use to get their tribal Bible back. But they were also looking at the issue from its moral and historical aspects. In 1981, Dorothy Davids self-published a booklet, The Stockbridge Bible: Documents Related to Their Recovery, which raised awareness on the controversy. In addition to exploring legal avenues, the tribe was now employing a new strategy: they asked sympathetic people and groups to speak out on their feelings about who should rightfully own the sacred volumes. They even hoped to embarrass the Trustees of Reservations into returning the Stockbridge Bible.

Ted Brasser was an anthropologist working at Canada's Museum of Man (now known as the Museum of Civilization, pictured right), when he became a pioneer in Mohican research. (One of my earliest posts was about his book, Riding the Frontier's Crest.) While Brasser was one of many, many people who wrote to the Trustees of Reservations, I found his letter to be particularly powerful and on-target:

In my training as an anthropologist, I have been admonished never to collect, or support the collecting of ethnographic objects that are still considered as important symbols of cultural identity and historical continuity by the ethnic group in question. This is particularly true where it involves the religious emotions of the people who own or use these objects. Working in a museum I am acquainted with the problems created by over-eager amateur collectors.
It may strike you as rather odd to treat an eighteenth-century Bible in an ethnographic context. However, it will be obvious to everybody learning the dramatic history of the Stockbridge Indians that this Bible was their Covenant's Ark during the many years of bitter hardship. Holding on to this Bible these people survived the brutalities of the old American frontiers as staunch Christians. In addition, and in spite of repeated betrayal by newcomers, the Stockbridges volunteered and fought for your ancestors in the American War of Independence, at a disastrous loss of human life to the tribe. It was around this Bible that the survivors gathered and moved west, to make way for your ancestors. Viewed in this perspective it is clear that this Bible to the Stockbridges is more than merely a valuable antique piece.

To my knowledge, Brasser's letter was never acknowledged by The Trustees of Reservations.

*Thanks to the Arvid E. Miller Memorial Library-Museum for preserving and allowing me to photocopy many documents related to the Stockbridge Bible, including Ted Brasser's letter and the one sent to Chairman Miller by the Trustees of Reservations in 1975.
*Thanks to Rev. Richard Taylor, one of the members of Rev. Stokes' Massachusetts-based advocacy group for his letter to me, of June 4, 2004.

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