Access to the Past

Access to the Past: A New Tribal-Friendly Approach Explains Old Archives

Varied types of documents are included in the online archives. Tribal petitions, correspondence, journals, maps, diagrams and photographs, all covering a broad range of topics: aspects of Native history and culture, including sovereignty, land, gender, race, identity, religion, migration, law and politics.

Certainly more complete access to materials in a single repository is a good thing. But of unique value is the interweaving and the “dialogue” that is generated when related materials in multiple institutions and collections can come together, laying the groundwork for a deeper, richer understanding of the topic under consideration.

Accordingly, instead of one archival collection from a single repository, we chose to include several institutions, large and small, from across New England and the United Kingdom. The libraries of Yale and Harvard Universities, the National Archives of the U. K., the British Library, the Connecticut State Library, the Massachusetts Archives and the Connecticut Historical Society are just a few of our partnering repositories. The number of participating institutions continues to grow as our outreach efforts expand.

Telling Tribal Stories

By including records from many different places, the information escapes the restrictive siloing effect that often comes from using one resource or even one repository alone and becomes dynamic.

Consider the examples of these three women.

Through his papers at Yale’s Beinecke Library, the 18th century minister Ezra Stiles recounts the story of the wife of the Narragansett sachem Ninigret II who by sleeping too close to another man around a campfire earned her husband’s suspicions of adultery. As a result, her face was disfigured by several knife strokes and she was sent back to her home community in disgrace around 1710. The story is usually told, imperfectly, as an example of Native New England divorce practice, and not much more of the woman is ever provided.

In the Connecticut Archives’ Indian Papers Series, one can read about Oskoosooduck, the daughter of the Eastern Pequot sachem Momaho. A leader in her own right, in 1723 she went before Connecticut authorities and successfully challenged trespasses into tribal lands by colonial neighbors, a feat not accomplished by many of her male counterparts.

And next, there’s the unhappy story that emerges from early Connecticut inquest records at the State Library. Mary Sowas, a 90-year-old Eastern Pequot woman was murdered by her husband, Samuel, in 1752 after a domestic dispute in their son’s wigwam.

It was only in adding a fourth item, a newspaper account of the couple’s death from Yale’s newspaper collection, that it became clear to us that the three women – Ninigret’s wife, Oskoosooduck, and Mary Sowas – were the same individual, with a long, successful but tragic life.

While several New England Native communities have recently begun to reclaim parts of their documentary record to better understand and tell their tribal stories, access to the materials in the Yale Indian Papers Project Collection can sometimes add depth to stories already known.

Take, for example, the moving and eloquent Mashpee petition to the Massachusetts legislature in 1795, remarking upon the irony of the Indians’ political situation. Having fought in the Revolution for the same liberty and freedom as their white neighbors, the Commonwealth’s Indians were made wards of the state with legal guardians to watch over them.

At the close of a long & successful war, in which we had been honourably distinguished & had profusely bled, how are we disappointed! How could we conceive it possible that a people who were exhibiting Such illustrious proofs of their attachment to freedom, & so enlarging ideas of the principles of civil liberty & of the original design of Government should not respect the Rights in others, which they so warmly contend for themselves.

The petition and those that followed, no doubt, set the stage for William Apes’ wellknown Revolt of 1833.
In the winter of 2015, we came across an interesting 1776 account of the deathbed testimony of a Christian Mohegan woman. The author, however, was not discernable.

Paul Grant-Costa, the executive editor of the Yale Indian Papers Project, holds degrees in law, history and linguistics. During the past 35 years, he has worked extensively with Native communities in New England on a variety of legal and historical concerns. Tobias Glaza is the assistant executive editor of the Yale Indian Papers Project. For the past 20 years, he has worked with tribal communities in the Upper Midwest and New England on issues of natural resource conservation, land management and history.

The Yale Indian Papers Project is funded, in part, by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC), the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR).