Tuesday, October 4, 2011

The Mohicans and the Mahicans

The beautiful scene below was "borrowed" from the official website of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community (they are usually referred to here as the Stockbridge Mohicans).

In July, my post "The Mohicans and the Stockbridge Mohicans" was intended to raise the issue of how current and historical tribal names have brought about a lot of confusion. Or, to be more precise, names by themselves don't necessarily generate confusion, but a tribe that is made up of remnants of various tribes may want to be careful in what they choose to be called.

Comments that were posted to that post have raised a possible solution. In particular, a tribal elder - she uses "Maaliish" as her screen name - used the words "Mohican" and Mahican" in different ways - without explaining the difference. Well, I think the difference for that tribal elder is based on something that James Oberly (2005, page 5) wrote:
Anthropologists say that the term "Mohican" characterized the seventeenth century union of three groups of Indian villages in what is now the Hudson River Valley of New York State: the "Mahicans," the Wappingers, and the Housatonics.
From that passage it may seem that the term "Mahicans" is now only used for the original 'full-bloods' as it were, while the word "Mohicans" is only used to describe the modern tribe that includes the descendants of "Wappingers" and "Housatonics."

But I don't take Oberly literally there. I mean, do you really think that "anthropologists" went to the trouble of defining a distinction between "Mahican" and "Mohican"? Even if anthropologists came to an agreement on the proper use of those words, do you believe that a critical mass of ordinary people (like you and I and members of the tribe) have changed their speech to properly reflect the pronounciations and meanings that were coined by those anthropologists?

I give James Oberly a lot of credit for addressing the issue that I raised in "The Mohicans and the Stockbridge Mohicans" and I don't blame him for making it seem like it was already addressed by anthropologists. He needed to address it but didn't have the time to bother writing whole paragraphs on it like I did.

Furthermore, I give Maaliish a lot of credit for using Oberly's distinction. But that is exactly my point: Except for a few people who remember what Oberly wrote on page five, I'm afraid to say the distinction doesn't exist.

I have promoted James Oberly's book here in the past and I really don't see what I'm saying now as negative. In my experience, something that is mentioned once in a book seldom changes our language.

But if the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians really wants to stop the confusion, it can be done. It can be done (partly) by addressing the issue in the tribe's newspaper. It can be done (partly) by addressing it at the tribe's museum. And it can done (partly) by addressing the name issue legally the next time a new tribal constitution is written. Since I haven't been keeping tabs on the tribe lately, maybe this kind of thing is already being done. If so, I'd like to hear about it.

And maybe I'm just a raving lunatic. I mean, I like things to be clear. A lot of other people - on this issue and other issues - don't seem to mind if the waters are muddied. What do you think?


thepowmill said...

I believe the language holds the answer to the question. For example, when I think of all the algonkian based languages (Ojibwe, Ojibway, Chippewa ,Cree, Algonquin Saulteaux , Odawa and many other names for the same peoples, they all call themselves 'Anishinabe' in their language. I wonder what the answer is in this case?

Jeff Siemers said...

Glad that you brought that up. Both "Mahican" and "Mohican" may be considered to be English words. The Algonkian was something like "Muh-he-con-new" and "Muh-he-con-nuck" depending on how it was used.

Fabio said...

Nice explanation Jeff.