Conversation with Rachel Wheeler
Linford D. Fisher
Recently I caught up (via phone) with Rachel Wheeler, Associate Professor of Religion at Indiana University-Purdue University—Indianapolis, to talk about her 2008 Cornell University Press book, To Live Upon Hope: Mohicans and Missionaries in the Eighteenth-century Northeast (which, by the way, was a recent finalist for the American Academy of Religion Best First Book Award). In addition to being a first-rate contribution to the field of Native American history, it also tackles directly issues relating to religion in American history, particularly evangelization, indigenization, and religious and cultural hybridity.
LF: How did you first get interested in this project? What are the intellectual origins of the way it is framed, conceived, and executed?
RW: This project started when I was at Yale fishing around for a dissertation topic. I wanted to do something with Indians, and I was also interested in intellectual history, and so Skip Stout said, “Well, you know, nobody’s ever really looked at [Jonathan] Edwards’ time in Stockbridge.” So I started looking at that, and then discovered that there was also this Moravian mission nearby and I thought “Oh, a perfect comparison: they start within five years of each other, to the same group of Indians, what could be better?” But as you know, working with the Moravian sources is tough, and I didn’t know German at the time, didn’t know how to read the handwriting, but somehow I convinced my advisors to let me go ahead using the English that is in the sources and the [Fliegal] index. But it was clear that if I was really going to do a book on it I had to do the German to be able to use those sources. With regard to the larger issues, I was interested in this intersection of Indians and whites and just felt like some of the previous accounts didn’t make sense of the human component of that interaction. The [James] Axtell “contest of cultures” approach just couldn’t account for all those experiences of colonialism.
LF: Can you give a cocktail version of the book for blog readers who might not have read it (yet)?
RW: Basically, this is a comparative community study looking at two Mohican groups and how they encountered and adapted Christianity [through Congregationalists in Stockbridge, MA, and Moravians in Shekomeko, NY]. The Mohicans are a group who have had over a century of contact with Europeans, so this was not a new thing, which means it is different from the perhaps more familiar stories of missionary encounter. Moravians and Congregationalists obviously are very different in their missionizing and they inhabit very different places in the political and social structure of colonial America, and that shapes their respective Christianities. So I’m interested, rather than assuming as many previous studies have done that Christianity often just serves as one arm of colonialism, in just how different these two forms of missionary Christianity were and how various Indian peoples responded differently to them. And I wanted to ask a different question that I think isn’t asked in many studies, that is, “What does Christianity become in the hands of Native peoples?” (rather than “Did they understand Christianity?” or “Were their conversions authentic?”). I see that as the central question of the book. So in the case of the Moravians, because of the similarities between Mohican and Moravian religion—which centers around what I call “spiritual efficacy,” that is, how do you engage the spirits for distinct purposes in your life—the Moravians’ god becomes the new spiritual tool that is similar to other Mohican spiritual tools, but one that can be used to address the new problems that come with colonialism.
LF: That reminds me that one of the things that stuck out to me in your book is this question of functionalist or instrumentalist approaches to Indian religion. In the broader field of religious history, there is a lot of discomfort with seeing religious decisions as being tied to practical concerns. In your book, you are careful to say that you do not have an instrumentalist approach to religion, and yet so much of what you describe seems to center on Native practicality and their view of efficacy as a test for religious truth. So in terms of a broader approach to this question of functionalism, how might attention to Native American sources wean us from this discomfort?
RW: I think it is a Protestant discomfort; what’s most important in Protestantism is belief. In Protestantism, you don’t pray in order to get something, so I think that carries over into scholarship, that “true” religion or “authentic” religion is about belief no matter what the outcome is. Whereas in Native American religion, traditionally, if it doesn’t function in ways that you need it to, then you question it. But I do think there is a difference between the efficacy that I am talking about and the functionalism of postcolonial discourse concerning Native American conversions. When they use “functional” in that context, they mean that the Natives don’t really believe, that they are just pulling a fast one over the missionaries, which is not the case here. I think a lot of the Lived Religion focus has called attention to the efficacy part of even Protestantism.
LF: Another thing that stuck out to me in your book is the amazing amount of detail regarding the Moravianized Mohican lifeworlds (men and women), which, as you mentioned before, largely came from the Moravian records. What did it take to access these Moravian records in terms of language acquisition, and, secondly, what was the payoff? How does accessing these records revolutionize what we think about the missionary project?
RW: The Moravian records are amazing, and I never thought as a colonial historian I’d have the problem with too many sources. So in terms of how I was able to get into them, I didn’t really know German, so the first thing I did was to take the Moravian Archives class in handwriting. After the class, I thought, okay, this is doable, so I made an effort to beef up my German. And, yes, the things that that opened up is just incredible, the kinds of sources that you just can’t find anywhere else about Native Americans in the eighteenth century. The Moravians just wrote so much, with long descriptions. I think my favorite source was a letter dictated by Rachel (a Moravianized Mohican), married to the Moravian missionary Christian Post; Christian knows German but doesn’t know much English; Rachel knows broken English from having grown up surrounded by English. I kept trying to read this letter and it wasn’t making sense, and then I started reading it out loud, I realized it was English even though it was written in a German script. So Rachel is dictating it to Maria Spangenberg, who is her spiritual mentor; Rachel’s husband is taking down the dictation but he doesn’t really know English and doesn’t really understand what she is saying, so he writes what he hears with German phonetics, but it is actually English. So “very” is “were” and “cry” is “krei,” and so forth. To me, it felt like the most unmediated document that gave us the perspective of a Native American woman from that time period.
LF: Okay, I’ve got to ask this, since I’m sure blog readers will want to know: What is up with the word “Mohican”? Isn’t that just a tribal designation invented by James Fenimore Cooper? (Vs. Mohegan and Mahican) And—while we are on the topic—was there a “last” of the Mohicans?
RW: Mohegans are the people of southern Connecticut; Samson Occom is probably the most famous. Mohicans are different; the people today descended from these people—so no, there was no last of the Mohicans—they call themselves Mohican, that’s ultimately why I went with that term. Historians have generally used Mahican, coming from the original Dutch Mahikkander. Mohicans themselves from the beginning of my story called themselves Mahicanuk, at least the Stockbridges used that term. Up until the book, I always used Mahican in all of my work, but given that the people today use Mohican, and that’s the more familiar term, I decided to go with it.
LF: That’s helpful. And did you have a lot of correspondence or interaction with present-day Mohicans while working on this project?
RW: Not a lot, but some. I participated in a 2001 conference on the reservation in Wisconsin (descendents of the Stockbridges) who, incidentally, featured in an episode of The West Wing a while back. It was really interesting to tour the reservation and to spend a couple of days there. Probably the majority of Stockbridges today are Christian; some of them were very interested and happy to hear about my work on the Mohican Christians, but some of them were not (usually the non-Christians). I also got to know Bill Miller, a Christian Mohican musician who several years ago won the Best Native American Grammy, and that was probably the most important response I got from my book—I sent him a copy, and he very much appreciated it, especially the Moravian stuff. He really felt a strong sense of identification with those Mohican men who were among the first Christians.
LF: What is your next project on?
RW: It’s going to follow the life of Joshua, who is in one of the final chapters of my book. Joshua lives this amazing, incredible life, where he shows up in the most important events of American nation-building, even though he is from this obscure Christian Mohican community. I think telling his life story against the backdrop of these other important events will give us a very different perspective on the events of American nation-building, while also just being a very fascinating glimpse into the lives of individual Native Americans. He will be the main focus, but it will be a five-generational family study. He is born in 1740, the year before the start of the Moravian mission, his parents convert, his grandparents convert; he grows up in this bi-cultural world speaking German, speaking Mohican; he learns to play the spinet; he’s a cooper, he’s a hunter. His community keeps moving west hoping to move out of the current theater of war. In the 1740s, they move from New York to escape King George’s War; they land in Pennsylvania but then the French and Indian War heats up; they move west again to Ohio and land right in the middle of battles over territory there between Britain and America, during that time Joshua is hauled away by the British who accuse him of spying for the Americans. Meanwhile the community where they now live in Gnadenhutten, Ohio, is attacked by an American militia and 96 Indians are killed—all pacifist, Moravian Mohican Indians—including two of his teenaged daughters. They move west again to Indiana, settling with a refugee community of Delawares, and then the Shawnee prophet comes around in the early 1800s and tries to get Joshua’s community to join [in a pan-Indian uprising], and they say no, we are pacifists. Joshua is accused several months later by the Shawnee prophet of witchcraft and is burned at the stake. I think the story is gripping and will also give a whole new perspective on these events.