Whose Culture Is It, Anyway? The Long Journey of the Stockbridge Bible

After Quinney passed away, Reverend Fred Westfall of the church entered the picture as a significant player. Claiming that he was protecting it for the Indians who “are easily influenced when money enters into the situation,” he went to Quinney’s house when his widow was not present, and reclaimed the volumes for the church. He corresponded with Choate over the next couple of years, and in 1930 she made an offer of $1000 for the Bible. Reverend Westfall, along with a four-member church committee, drafted up a resolution approving the sale. It is important to note that the sale was coordinated by a while minister, and of the four members of the governing body, only two even belonged to the tribe. But above all, the majority of the tribe was not even part of the church, and knew nothing of the transaction (Siemers 2007).

After the sale had been completed, tribal leaders were understandably upset when they found out. But they could do nothing about it: the Bible had already returned to Massachusetts and become a fixture in Choate’s Mission House museum. Only some members of the tribe ever became aware of its departure, and after a few years, “knowledge of where it resided became uncertain.” (Cooper)

After Jim and Grace Davis returned to Wisconsin in 1951, knowledge of the Stockbridge Bible’s location did reach all the members of the tribe. In the years that followed, more groups of Stockbridge-Munsee would make trips out to Massachusetts to see the Bible. 1975 marked one of the largest pilgrimages: fifteen people traveled together to the museum including nine students. The youngsters were fascinated by the Bible and pleaded with tribal elders to make a formal request to have it returned to the tribe, which they did (Guthrie).

The request made by the Tribal Chairman, however, was met by the lawyers of the Trustees of Reservations, the Massachusetts historical organization now claiming ownership of the Stockbridge Bible. The Trustees answered that “because of questions of law and on the advice of its counsel,” they would not return the Bible.

This is where the legal side of the matter gets interesting.[2] What exactly were these “questions of law” mentioned in the letter? When Mabel Choate died, she left her possessions to the Trustees of Reservations who controlled the museum. Her will stipulated that the Trustees would hold them “in perpetuity.” Because of this, the lawyers were not even sure they could legally hand the Bible back to the tribe.

Now if this trust was the only factor in the situation, one would assume it could be resolved fairly quickly. Perhaps Choate did leave the Bible to the museum in her will. But if the original sale was illegal, than this could not be binding. Let us examine the transaction further.

By all accounts, Mabel Choate appears to be a good-faith purchaser. Writing to Westfall, she says that she intended to purchase items to help the Indians’ dire financial situation, emphasizing that the items would be preserved and taken good care of in the Mission House. (Siemers 2007) But was the seller authorized to initiate the transaction? Westfall, a white minister, was the party who negotiated the sale.[3] He then had it approved by a four-person group split between whites and Indians. More importantly, the Indians who belonged to this particular church represented a small fraction of the tribe as a whole. This appears to be strong evidence against a legal transaction. But this argument does assume that the Bible was the property of the tribe. While it might seem obvious that this is the case, the question is not as clear as one might assume.

Let us return to the exact words from Thomas Coram’s original inscription, which is the best evidence we have regarding its ownership. He wrote that the Stockbridge Bible was a gift to “the Indian Congregation.” Should this be interpreted to mean that the Bible is tribal property? Or could it possibly be church property? After the gift was received, the Bible traveled with the tribe over the next 185 years while the church was anything but stable. Over this period the Bible became one of the strongest forces holding the Stockbridge Indians together, a symbol of the tribe’s endurance during the hardships of forced migration.

On the other hand, letters by Westfall and other church members from the early 1900s suggest that they considered it to be church property. The Stockbridge tribe as a whole never opposed its location at the church, but they thought this was solely for purposes of security. They assumed everyone agreed that the Bible was property of the tribe. (Siemers 2007) This could explain why the church found it unnecessary to inform the rest of the tribe about the sale, which lead to the confusion over its location. But if the sale was in good faith, wouldn’t the Reverend have made more of an effort to let the tribe know where they could find their precious relic? This question of ownership and the circumstances of the initial sale would almost certainly have been a big part of any lawsuit.

For a period of time, it appeared that the fate of the Stockbridge Bible might be decided in a nasty court battle. The actions of the Trustees and their lawyers suggested there was more at play than a simple misunderstanding relating to Mabel Choate’s trust. The tribe made preliminary arrangements to hire counsel, but were told by a member of the Trustees that if they did so, the Trustees would “hire the best lawyers in Boston to fight in court and … spare no expense to crushingly defeat” them (Siemers 2009).

Tribal attorney Kim Vele intended to bring a lawsuit, but the tribal elders, likely put off by the behavior of the Trustees, advised her not to. (Siemers 2009) Over the next several years, the two parties continued to communicate, but they accomplished little. Likely on the minds of both parties was the larger context of events and actions relating to Native American cultural heritage items.

In addition to the inconvenience of having to travel to Massachusetts from Wisconsin to see their sacred Bible, the Stockbridge-Munsee had plenty of reasons to distrust museums based on their actions relating to Native American objects in other contexts.[4]

Karen Coody Cooper writes that museums in general engage in the “hoarding (of) the material culture of indigenous peoples, preventing us from experiencing an intimacy with our own pasts.” Treatment of indigenous peoples attempting to view their own cultural heritage items ranged from unpleasant to “downright antagonistic.” Many museums were described as catering exclusively to academic researchers while restricting or denying access to the tribe itself. Although there is no evidence to suggest discrimination on the part of the Mission House museum, there were noted problems with access. Dorothy Davids, the niece of Jim and Grace, traveled to Massachusetts as a girl in 1968 to view the Bible. But the museum was closed when her family went, and the young Davids had to return to Wisconsin without seeing it (Guthrie).

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Comments

  1. So nice news for bible. I’m very impressed on this news. I like this so much. And I’m very interested to know more about this bible.

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