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

The terms of agreement contain six additional numbered points. First, it requires the Tribe to “make appropriate custodial arrangements for the Bible in its Tribal Museum by installing a building alarm system and making appropriate provisions for vault storage when the museum is not open.” In addition, it demands the installation of “an appropriate locked, alarmed, ultra-violet, light protected glass display case.”

The Stockbridge-Munsee did not get the Bible back that day. Instead, they had to purchase and install these high-tech systems and write a letter when installation had been completed. Only then would the Trustees be obligated return the Bible, complete with a new inscription emphasizing their good deed in returning it to the tribe. If this did not happen in one year’s time, the agreement would be null and void, and the Bible would stay with the Trustees.

These arrangements would prove to be a bit of a problem for the tribe (Cooper) but they were able to install the security system after a few months. Justice Highgast had signed the judgment on December 19, 1990, and a tribal delegation traveled to Massachusetts on March 9, 1991 to pick up the Bible and bring it home.

The Trustees naturally wanted to ensure the Bible would be preserved and protected from theft and natural disasters. But the agreements in the judgment were quite strict and even opened up the possibility of the Trustees keeping the Bible if the Indians could not put together this expensive security system in a year’s time. These concerns about preservation were a much bigger part of the judgment than the trust responsibility (which was never even explicitly mentioned) and the language implies that the white museum curators did not trust the Indians to protect it properly on their own. Although this is less overtly discriminatory, it recalls the same themes from the 1927 newspaper articles where Jameson Quinney is described as pulling the Bible from a rubbish heap. The white museum is the only institution that knows how to protect these valuable items, and if left on their own, the Indians would mistreat them.

But if the Bible is legally the tribe’s property, a claim that will now never be officially proven, shouldn’t they have the right to preserve it in their own manner, not according to the strict requirements dictated by a dominant culture? A culture whose philosophies of preservation have been seen to directly contradict the intentions and religious beliefs of Native Americans?

Ultimately what matters, though, is the fact that the Stockbridge Bible now resides in the Stockgridge-Munsee community’s Arvid E. Miller Memorial Library/Museum in Bowler, Wisconsin, for future generations to view and enjoy it, just as Captain Coram’s inscription said.

 

 

References

Cooper, Karen Coody. Spirited Encounters: American Indians Protest Museum Policies and Practices. Lanham, MD : Altamira Press, 2008.

Guthrie, Margaret. “The Return of a Pious Gift.” The Milwaukee Journal Magazine, June 2, 1991, pp. 27-31.

Highgast, William. Agreement Regarding Stockbridge Bible. Essex Probate and Family Court Department. December 19, 1990. Full-text reprinted in Quin’a Month’a. Special Edition. Vol 13 No 1. March, 1991. (PDF copy sent to author)

“Indians’ Bible Kept in Vault.” The Milwaukee Journal, July 17, 1927. Wisconsin Local History and Biography Articles. Digitized by Wisconsin Historical Society. Accessed 12/15/2011.

Siemers, Jeff. “From Generation to Generation: The Story of the Stockbridge Bible.” The Book Collector. Spring 2007.

Siemers, Jeff. “Stockbridge Bible is Returned and Comes Home.” Algonkian Church History Blog. 2009. Accessed 12/15/2011. http://algonkianchurchhistory.blogspot.com/2009/10/stockbridge-bible-is-returned-and-comes.html

Weil, Stephen E. Beauty and the Beasts: On Museums, Art, the Law, and the Market. Washington, D.C. : Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Wilkinson, Charles F. American Indians, Time, and the Law: Native Societies in A Modern Constitutional Democracy. New Haven : Yale University Press, 1987.

Wolfe, Sara J., and Lisa Mibach. “Ethical Considerations in the Conservation of Native American Sacred Objects.” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation 23.1 (1983): pp. 1-6.

 


[1] “Stockbridge Indians” refers to the group originally living in Stockbridge, Mass., but they came mostly from the Mohican (also spelled Mahican) tribe. They banded together with the Munsee, a related group originally from Pennsylvania, around 1820. Its members are mostly referred to as Mohican today in Wisconsin.

[2] I must note that I have no legal background, and any conjectures or analyses relating to the law should be treated solely as the thoughts of an interested observer.

[3] Wesfall’s reclaiming of the Bible for the church is also suspect, as he is said to have removed it from Quinney’s house when his widow was away. There is also the question of his motivation to sell. Although he claimed to be preserving the Bible in the best interest of the Indians, his church was failing financially, and it is doubtful he intended to share any of the profits with the tribe at large. This would likely be impossible to prove, however.

[4] This information is included for context, not to argue that the Stockbridge-Munsee necessarily felt this way about the Mission House museum. These issues of ethics and access are important background in understanding the tensions between the Trustees and the tribe during their negotiations.

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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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