- Speaking TogetherThe Brothertown Indian Community and New Directions in Engaged Scholarship
Kekuttokâunta, “Let us speake together.” This phrase appeared in Rhode Island colonist Roger Williams’s A Key into the Language of America (1643), in which he attempted to translate between Narragansett Indian words and phrases and English (57). The accuracy of Williams’s translations has rightly been questioned, since his efforts to interact with native peoples likely achieved only a partial picture, one contoured by his own cultural and religious commitments as well as outsider status (Rubertone). Williams nonetheless labored to understand the Narragansetts, within their ancient homelands, and to hear their own conceptions of humanity, the cosmos, and a multitude of relationships that connected them to the earth, kinship networks, and spiritual powers. Williams hagiography aside, to a certain extent he did recognize the opportunity for genuine dialogue in which all parties, not only Euro-Americans, had valuable words to speak aloud.
Whatever optimism figures like Williams might have harbored for native-colonial coexistence in a shared space dampened dramatically over [End Page 167] the century after his publication appeared. Epidemic disease, colonial pressures on tribal lands and sovereignty, and devastating outright violence confronted the Narragansetts and other Eastern Algonquian peoples of southern New England and Long Island Sound. By the mid-to late eighteenth century, Narragansetts numbered among a group of tribal peoples seeking to migrate westward, away from their traditional grounds in the Dawnland, to establish a new, Christianized Indian community. Called Brothertown (or Brotherton), this movement constituted a novel experiment in “speaking together.” Tribal peoples from diverse native communities, some with long histories of opposition toward one another, reforged their identities into a new collective. Relocating first among Oneida lands in upstate New York, then in Wisconsin, the Brothertowns sought to establish an Indian enclave involving plow agriculture, English-language literacy, and other trappings of Euro-American “civility,” in a striking bid for indigenous survival.
In considering recent publications on Brothertown, I have been reflecting on what “speaking together” can mean. On one hand, it has been a historical phenomenon among communities in the throes of reconfiguring their identities, lands, and external relations. The Brothertowns undertook such a project by forging solidarities that linked historically distinct groups and helped them negotiate the expectations and (mis)perceptions of colonial neighbors, who seldom understood the full dynamics of this coalescent community. English became the lingua franca in which many Brothertown members expressed their place in these shifting landscapes. At the same time, “speaking together” can be a form of scholarly practice. Academics, including early Americanists, are increasingly reckoning with the opportunities and obligations of conducting research about and with native peoples. Drawing on an array of engaged, consultative, and collaborative research practices, which aim to bridge gaps that have long separated living native descendant communities from scholars outside them, these models suggest emerging paths for early Americanists. David Silverman, in Red Brethren: The Brothertown and Stockbridge Indians and the Problem of Race in Early America, and Craig Cipolla, in Becoming Brothertown: Native American Ethnogenesis and Endurance in the Modern World, offer provocative insights on both dimensions of this topic.
The story of Brothertown is now familiar, in its broad contours, to many early Americanists, particularly through the figure of Samson Occom (1723–92). [End Page 168] A Mohegan, from lands surrounded by the colony and later state of Connecticut, Occom trained with the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, became a missionary and schoolteacher, and cultivated wide-ranging networks with regional native communities through his ministry and attendant labors. He conducted an eminently successful fund-raising tour in Great Britain to support Indian education in New England, operating transatlantically to strengthen indigenous schooling. But as his mentor Wheelock’s devotion to that cause waned, becoming directed instead to the largely white institution of Dartmouth College, Occom’s relations with him deteriorated. In the wake of this disappointment...