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Williamstown Panel Looks at Context of Historic Monuments
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
03:46PM / Tuesday, August 11, 2020
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The sign on the Field Park rotary explaining the 1753 House, seen in the distance.


A sign erected by the Williamstown Historical Commission to recognize the site of the 18th Century West Hoosac Fort.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town's newest committee Monday got down to the business of finding ways to talk about the truth of the Village Beautiful's founding.
 
The Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee discussed two historical markers and whether they do more to sanitize that history and marginalize Native Americans than they do to educate the public.
 
Lauren Stevens of the 1753 House Committee told the DIRE Committee that his group has discussed how to properly contextualize one of the highest profile structures in town, a replica of an 18th-century dwelling built in 1953 with period-specific techniques to help celebrate the town's centennial.
 
"Bilal [Ansari] was talking at the Friday afternoon Black Lives Matter rally, and he mentioned in a passing reference to the 1753 House that there were, indeed, people in this area before those being honored by the settlement in 1753," Stevens said.
 
Stevens said he talked to organizers of Friday's Field Park rally and a professor of Native American studies at Williams College before ultimately contacting the Stockbridge-Munsee Community Band of Mohican Nations.
 
The plan by his committee is to add to the large signs on both sides of Field Park that explain the replica additional signage that reads "Mohican Homeland" in both English and the language of the Mohican tribe.
 
Since the current signs are designed to be legible to occupants of vehicles going around the rotary, the text size does not allow for much more in the way of information about the pre-European history of the region, Stevens said.
 
"But there's another opportunity to tell the story nearby," he said.
 
Across Main Street (Routes 2 and 7) from Field Park is an area on the lawn of the former Williams Inn where there are two markers dedicated to the colonists' settlement during the French and Indian War -- the conflict during which Williams College and town founder Ephraim Williams earned his fame.
 
"There's a recognition for a fort, actually a fortified block house, that appeared there," Stevens said. "The sign, unfortunately, is not very good about creating the context. It talks about soldiers being scalped but doesn't say much about what was happening to Native Americans at the time.
 
"We were thinking it's an opportunity to do something more in interpretation, to talk about what was going on in the days previous to the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War."
 
Stevens said the latter project is beyond the purview of his committee, which is dedicated to preservation of the replica house. But he encouraged the DIRE Committee to work with the town and the college, which owns the property where the inn currently is being demolished, to think about how the space could be used.
 
Williams professor Christine DeLucia told the committee she is talking to the tribal historic preservation manager for the Stockbridge-Munsey group about how the town and college could better support the Native American group, in part because of "the Williams family's instrumental historical role in dispossessing the community."
 
"I appreciate the call to connect more directly with the college on the issue of historical markers, signage, markers, memory," DeLucia said. "There is a memorial terrain here that I think many of us know about that is challenging, troubling, exclusionary -- pick your word. This seems to be a vital moment for us, or an array of groups to reckon with those signs and those markers."
 
The DIRE Committee's Mohammed Memfis noted that the nation's treatment of Native Americans is rooted in events like the founding of Williamstown but by no means limited to that era.
 
"Even though this is a historical commemoration we're discussing, we should remember that our treatment of indigenous people has not gotten much better over the course of the last 200 years," Memfis said. "Federal policy toward them has been: If you don't see them, you won't hear their complaints."
 
Ansari added that white settlers' treatment of Native Americans was tied to how they treated Blacks.
 
"We cannot forget the Black peoples, the Negroes, that escaped from the plantations in New York and Virginia and made their way to Williamstown and found a haven and a refuge in these hills in the 18th century, before the 1753 House," Ansari said, adding how White Oaks had once been known by a racist moniker because of the many Black familes that had lived there. "That history needs to be told. That history needs to be honored.
 
"If you rebuild one house, rebuild those shanties."
 
Committee member Jeffrey Johnson agreed that new markers may not be enough.
 
"Why would one group get a sign and the other one get a house?" Johnson asked rhetorically. "Being someone who does have Native American ancestry …. I see this as, are we going to support another slight or try to do something different.
 
"Why wouldn't we work with the college and try to build a house similar to what the Mohicans built in that time? Simultaneously, we could talk about the language and getting it right."
 
On Monday, the DIRE Committee took no steps beyond expressing its support for the efforts of the 1753 House Committee and asking DeLucia to keep the panel abreast of her conversations with the Stockbridge-Munsey group.
 
The committee also decided to craft and begin its meetings with a Land Acknowledgement, a formal statement recognizing the presence of indigenous peoples prior to the colonization that led to the town's incorporation.
 
In other business on Monday, the DIRE Committee tasked its engagement working group with starting to develop a procedure to recommend to the town that would allow residents to report incidents of "hate, exclusion or intolerance," and the committee voted unanimously to recommend Tuesday's town meeting's passage of two articles, Article 36 and 37, that seek to make the town more inclusive and welcoming to all people.
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