BY RENN ELKINS ’20
“One of the things that I love about teaching at Mount Holyoke is being able to work with people like Christine DeLucia,” said History Chair Mary Renda as she introduced the Odyssey Bookshop’s March 28 speaker.
DeLucia, a professor of history at Mount Holyoke, was there to discuss her recently published book, “Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast.” DeLucia specializes in indigenous history. “Memory Lands” retells the narrative of a 17th century uprising in which the native residents of southern New England fought to expel the English colonial presence that infested their homeland. Renda described the book as a “work of great sophistication, breadth and innovation.”
“We are in the Kwinitekw River Valley,” DeLucia cited the original name of Massachusetts’s Connecticut River Valley. “[I hope to] get away from notions of ‘The Pioneer Valley.’” This simple yet weighted statement laid the foundation for her half-hour talk, which focused on the exploration of “alternate histories.”
DeLucia began her talk by connecting with the audience: “If you have flown into Logan Airport,” she said, “you have seen this place: Deer Island.” Deer Island, now home to a sewage plant, was once an “enormous site of suffering.” During King Philip’s War, it served as a prison for captured indigenous people for the duration of a cruel winter, resulting in numerous deaths.
She described her own experience with Deer Island, and specifically recalled a time in which she and several others boarded canoes to conduct a memorial ceremony for these lost lives. “We were warned to stay away from the shore. This warning came from Homeland Security,” she said. After reflecting on the irony of this moment, the fact that the Department of Homeland Security perceived a threat in a peaceful ceremony held by the land’s original occupants. DeLucia said, “that is one of the things that I try to bring forward in this book — how the view is different from the canoe, from the island… you can land in a plane at Logan Airport and have no idea.”
Her next story concerned Turner Falls, a waterfall less than an hour by car from the College. This waterfall, DeLucia explained, was named after William Turner, a man responsible for a massacre of over 300 indigenous people from several different tribes at the same location during the rebellions of King Philip’s War. Turner Falls was once a site of plentiful spring fishing where different groups gathered. Turner “[turned] the land and the water itself against them.”
DeLucia then explained how she garners these alternate histories largely through unconventional documentation. “These kinds of multilayered histor[ies] are there if you know what to look for,” she said. “I’m pushing back on some of the ways that historians work, how they idolize ‘an archive.’” DeLucia explained how she does not believe that a “paper trail” is more reliable than collective community memories. Herein laid the thesis of her talk and her book: that there are multitudinous different histories running through the land, many of which have been overshadowed by the dominant narrative of America’s colonizers. She intends to change this, and to bring light to the past and present of indigenous people living today.
DeLucia finished her talk by reminding the audience that history, though it concerns the past, is crucial to the present. “I want to stress how this is still happening,” she said, referring to the lack of indigenous stories and voices. “One of my biggest hopes is that students will pick up the threads, read a footnote in my book and continue this collective work.”
One of these students is Fern Stidham ’19, an environmental studies major who took DeLucia’s course “Place and Power in the American West and Pacific World.” Stidham said that DeLucia “completely changed the way [they] view history and place, as well as teaching [them] skills to analyze material culture.”
“Having taken her courses before, I knew some of what to expect from the talk, but the emphasis on indigenous place names and both the gain and loss of local knowledge in the ‘Pioneer’ valley definitely changed the way I think about local geography and history,” said Stidham. “The ties of people to land are severed by colonialism and the emphasis she placed on specific histories and stories of indigenous life both historically and today was really enlightening.”
While this is DeLucia’s final semester at Mount Holyoke before she goes to teach at Williams College, her mission of spreading these stories will not be abandoned. She has left a lasting impact on students like Stidham, who provided several ideas of how to continue DeLucia’s work.
“I hope to continue seeing work by the MHC Art Museum to decolonize our collections and ideally to make that process more public and emphasized on campus,” said Stidham. “The Five College Native American and Indigenous Studies program is also incredibly important. Mount Holyoke should try to host more talks like this, but especially with Indigenous scholars in the area and from outside the valley, and publicize events like these better.”