President of Stockbridge-Munsee Community Shannon Holsey delivers Claiming Williams morning keynote on history of the Mohican Nation

Charlotte Staudenmayer

President of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians Shannon Holsey presented the morning keynote for Claiming Williams Day on Feb. 3. Holsey delivered a presentation on the history of the Stockbridge-Munsee community, a band of the people formerly known as the Muhheconeew, or Mohican Nation, and the tribe’s forced removal from the College campus and Berkshire County. After her address, which took place on Zoom, Holsey answered audience questions about her role as a community leader and how institutions such as the College can work to build relationships with Indigenous communities and reckon with their past injustices.

Jayden Jogwe ’24, who participated in an independent study during the fall semester titled “Mohican Nation in Williamstown: Past, Present, and Future,” moderated the event. “I just really want to emphasize just how monumental it is to have President Holsey here,” Jogwe said. “This very well might be the first visit, albeit virtually, by a tribal sovereign nation leader to the College after its founding.”

Holsey’s speech explored the 2022 Claiming Williams theme, “Breaking Cycles: Where Do We go From Here?” The day’s programming investigated how to move forward from harmful cycles at all levels — from destructive thought patterns to systemic injustice — that persist in the College community and beyond.

 “It is my hope that today is one of many conversations…that we have as people, as the human race, because we are all interconnected in some form or fashion,” Holsey said. “I want to speak to you and engage you and invite you into the conversation… knowing that there really are no questions off the table.”

Holsey began her talk by sharing her personal history, followed by exploring the history of her tribe. After eight years as a member of the Tribal Council, the main governing body of the nation, Holsey was elected president of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community in October 2015, making her the tribe’s second-ever and longest-serving female leader — a role that she said is “not for the weak of heart.” Holsey is also president of the Great Lakes Inter-Tribal Council, representing eleven tribes spanning 45 counties in the Great Lakes region, and also serves on the Wisconsin State Legislature’s Special Committee on State-Tribal Relations.

Holsey grew up on the Stockbridge-Munsee Community’s reservation in Bowler, Wis. She explained that the tribe is descended from the Munsee and Mohican tribes. The Munsee is a sub-band of the Lenape tribe and the Mohican are a tribe related to the neighboring Lenape that lived in Stockbridge, Mass., during the eighteenth century. Holsey said that the tribe’s original territory spanned between the Hudson, Potomac, and Delaware Rivers, but in the 1780s, European settlers forced the Mohicans from their ancestral territory in Massachusetts. Holsey also spoke to this history’s connection to the College. “Mr. [Ephraim] Williams Sr. was a main cause of the reason that there was a forced removal in Stockbridge,” she said. 

The Mohicans then moved west and joined the Oneida Nation in New York, until European colonists once again forcibly removed them. Holsey noted that the Mohicans signed a treaty in 1821 that allowed them to settle alongside the Fox River by the Green Bay in Wisconsin. “By 1850, most of our tribe was living in Wisconsin,” she said. “There was a continuation to remove the tribe and a persistence of us moving.” 

She said that the U.S. government in 1846 unsuccessfully attempted to force the tribe to move to Montana and ten years later, the government forcibly relocated the community for the last time, displacing them to Red Springs and Bartelme in Shawano County, Wis., where the Stockbridge-Munsee reservation exists today.

The Stockbridge-Munsee Community’s enterprises in Wisconsin include a casino, a health and wellness center, a food sovereignty initiative, a golf course, and a gas station. “Just to give some perspective — how things come full circle — we are now in our respective county the largest employers,” Holsey said. 

“A lot of people consider Indigenous communities… the descendants of subjugated people, and I always tell people that Indigenous people were never really conquered, through forced removal…or genocide,” Holsey said. “Our spirits, and our will, and our willingness to adapt really don’t precede the idea of subjugation… I’m the seed of the descendant who was adaptable and who was never conquered.”

Holsey said that the Stockbridge-Munsee Community has made it through the pandemic debt-free so far and established public health orders in their various enterprises — even when the state government was unable to. According to Holsey, the Stockbridge-Munsee Tribe was the first in Wisconsin to provide vaccinations to its employees along with its tribal members. “Tribal nations are community-centric,” Holsey said. “They think collectively, they don’t think individually.”

Holsey added that tribal nations are self-governing, meaning that “we are not sub-sovereigns to the state, we are sovereigns, we are political bodies,” she said. 

After the historical talk, Holsey started taking questions from the audience, many of which were about policies and recommendations towards better appreciating and recognizing tribal histories. She said that moving forward, it will be important to “[make] sure that there isn’t a continuation of erosion of tribal governments — who are self-governing — and who have our own laws and our own jurisdictions, but [to make] sure that there is a reciprocal conversation about things that matter to us.” Holsey said that equitable access to healthcare and education, as well as mitigating climate change, are some of her policy priorities.

Holsey said that these “reciprocal conversations” are important on a smaller scale as well, within institutions such as the College. “It really starts with a greater depth of understanding and…an acknowledgement of the long misrepresented history of indigenous cultures,” she said. “Perhaps there’s an open invitation where my people can come and engage and do teachings, and have a broader conversation.”

In October 2021, the College adopted a land acknowledgment — written in collaboration with the Stockbridge-Munsee Historic Preservation Office on Spring St. — in recognition of its place on the ancestral territory of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. Holsey said that “mere acknowledgment” is a crucial starting place that should be followed by “looking at ways to…set priorities in terms of the reciprocal relationship, and how we can involve that partnership in a way that is meaningful not only to people that are being educated by [the College], but meaningful for my people.”

Holsey said that doing this work at the College in particular has the potential to be extremely meaningful. “Williamstown is home to an ancient site of our ancestors, shown from artifacts found in the campus and vicinity,” she said.

Holsey plans to visit the College in person soon. “My ancestors are still there…they were buried there, they lived there, they’re Indigenous there, and every time I visit the Berkshire [region], there’s a connection to our ancestral homelands that I have, and it really can’t be explained,” she said. “It’s just something that must be felt. And I could imagine that, when I visit Williams College soon, that I will probably have that same spiritual connection.”