Rooted in Movement: Spatial Practices and Community Persistence in Native Southwestern New England

Christine N. Reiser
Dept. of Anthropology, Brown University
July, 2010
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In Native New England, the struggle to demonstrate "community" is a necessary, but fraught, enterprise in Native groups' fights for social and legal recognition. Groups today are assessed, in part, on whether they can document group maintenance according to narrow and standardized social-legal definitions of community. For Native groups in New England, these understandings of community often bear little resemblance to the intricate and extensive ways by which people maintained connections to one another, particularly as they navigated changing colonial landscapes. This dissertation takes a different perspective in understanding community, complicating narratives of Native community loss by considering carefully how community and mobility interrelate. This study examines the material and spatial practices by which Native community members sustained ties across distance in 18th and 19th century southwestern New England. Rather than focusing on reservations or on large, landed communities, it centers on small community clusters and rural hamlets at the "fringes" of settlement in the Housatonic River Valley in western Connecticut. Historical accounts have portrayed these kinds of locales as marginal, isolated, and tenuous. By contrast, bringing together archaeological, documentary, oral, and ethnographic histories makes it possible to track the interconnections of Native families and individuals moving between these places, and to contextualize the continuing practices of communal living within and across these spaces. Rather than upholding that Native communities were lost when ties to place were disrupted, this dissertation shows that dispossession did not entail disconnection. Together, this joint archaeological and ethnohistoric methodology contributes to recent scholarship which privileges better understandings of the breadth, diversity, and persistence of Native space in colonial New England.By framing this research through a conceptual focus on community, this study draws attention to the shortcomings of conventional treatments of communities as place-bound collectives. These insights add historical depth to anthropologies of mobility, particularly to concerns for understanding place and placelessness, rootedness and dislocation, and the effects of displacement and mobility on community maintenance over space and time. Articulating these relationships more clearly carries important implications for groups who fight today for stronger recognition of their heritage and identity.