Perspectives: Interpreting Nipmuc, A Talk by Cheryll Holley

On Thursday, February 12th, Chief Cheryll Holley of Nipmuc Nation will be speaking at UMASS/Amherst in a series titled “Interpreting Nipmuc.” Open to the general public, the talk will go from 2:30 pm-5:00 pm in room 112 of Dickinson Hall, and is sponsored by Jean S. Forward, Ph.D. The talk is designed to introduce Dr. Forward’s anthropology 370 students and the public to current issues facing Native Americans in the Northeast.

Cheryll L. Holley was elected Nipmuc Nation’s new Chief Wunnonmetah, meaning “true heart,” on July 28, 2013.   Her responsibilities as leader of the Nipmuc peoples include servicing the needs of the nation on a continual basis, safeguarding the reservation, and as acting keeper of Nipmuc tradition.   In that later role, she is tasked with passing down the nation’s culture to future generations.  Her passion for her peoples’ history can be found in an article she authored, “A Brief Look at Nipmuc History” and in a more personal essay entitled “What It Means to Be a Native American Indian in New England Today.”

More recently, Chief Holley was a contributor to the volume of essays, Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England, edited by Siobhan Senier (University of Nebraska Press, 2014) and a consultant to Harvard Forest’s First Contact Exhibit. On top of Holley’s many commitments as Nipmuc chief, she also serves as a clinical supervisor of the dermatology clinic at UMass Memorial Medical Center as well as professional researcher/writer for PastTense Genealogy

Nipmuc peoples historically inhabited regions presently located within central Massachusetts along with parts of northeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island. Their territory was named Nippienet, which translates to “the Land of the Fresh Water People.” Like many Native peoples, the Nipmuc have a long and documented record of their own history and of the tribe’s complicated interactions with their American colonial and later state neighbors.  Most people think of Native struggles as being something in the past, but recent events remind us otherwise.

The process of federal acknowledgement, in which the United States officially recognizes a tribal entity on a nation-to-nation level, is fairly complex and controversial.  Only a handful of New England Native communities have been granted that status.  As with several other tribal applications, the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ Office of Federal Acknowledgment (OFA) in 2004 denied the Nipmuc Nation’s request for recognition, based in part, some would say, upon a significant misunderstandings of Nipmuc history and leadership.  Chief Holley is currently leading her people in challenging OFA’s decision.

As a student only beginning to scratch the surface of Native American studies, I can only hope we continue to move past these misconceptions and start a dialogue that creates meaningful change in how we perceive our interactions with a people that have every right to define themselves through their own unique culture and tradition.

For more information on the Nipmuc people, see Dennis Connole’s monograph, Indians of the Nipmuck Country in Southern New England (McFarland, 2001) and Christopher Thee’s article for The New England Quarterly, titled Massachusetts Nipmucs and the Long Shadow of John Milton Earle [TNEQ, Vol. 79, No. 4 (Dec. 2006), pp. 636-654.]

Kyle Armstrong

Image of Chief Holley and former Chief Walter Vickers courtesy of the Worcester Telegram & Gazette, via Pinterest.

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