Shortly after the posting of this article, the original video noted in this story was taken off of YouTube due to the public outcry. Also, Chief Chester L. Brooks of the Delaware Tribe of Indians located in Bartlesville, OK issued a strongly worded request for the video to be taken down, and the letter, which demanded immediate action from the Westmoreland County Historical Society of Pennsylvania to stop the reenactment, and expressed the tribe’s outrage that the historical society would go beyond the bounds of decency, also demanded an apology and that the removal of the video should be completed within ten days.
The letter from the tribe can be viewed in its entirety at the bottom of this article.
Good intentions may not be enough to support the Westmoreland County Historical Society’s decision to reenact the 1785 public hanging of a Native man at Hanna’s Town, Pennsylvania. A few miles southeast of Pittsburg, Hanna’s Town, founded in 1773, was the first Seat of Westmoreland County, and hosted the first English courts west of the Allegheny Mountains.
For approximately 10 years, the Westmoreland County Historical Society and local volunteers have created annual reenactments of historical court cases during their annual Frontier Court Reenactment Days celebration in June.
According to Lisa Hays, Westmoreland County Historical Society Executive Director, the June 25 and 26 Frontier Court reenactments went well and, in the interest of historical accuracy, included the moment when the first attempt to hang Mamachtaga failed because the rope broke and had to be repeated with a new rope.
A video of the public hanging was posted on Youtube on June 26, where it languished with little comment until Friday when several Native Americans began sharing the link on Facebook.
The video shows several children in the audience watching as men dressed in colonial dress hang a red-face painted “Mamachtaga.” The performance is frighteningly realistic. As his legs kick during the final death throes, several people, presumably reenactors, shout comments such as, “Dirty no good Indian deserves to be hung,” and “Murderers, that’s all that they are.”
After the initial hanging attempt fails, the hangman quipped, “It’s so hot out here, we could just bake him!” A child from the audience remarks, “Hey, I’d like to see that!”
[YouTube video was removed by user]
After Mamachtaga’s legs finally go limp, the hangman asked the crowd, “What should we do with him now?” “Let’s burn him. Let’s cut off his head and put it on a pike!” members of the crowd responded.
Several people expressed outrage over the video in Facebook comments.
“This is horrible,” commented Margaret Devine.
“What is wrong with people? Letting their kids watch this s*&t! Nothing like family bigotry,” Carrie Dickerson commented.
Many people have also directly contacted both the Westmoreland County Historical Society as well as members of the volunteer group who participated in the public hanging reenactment to let them know of their opposition to such depictions. Both Hays and Scott Henry, local volunteers who help coordinate reenactors for the Frontier Court Reenactment Days, were caught off guard by the strong emotions than many callers expressed.
“There was nothing malicious intended. We simply tried to accurately portray a case that was tried at Hanna’s Town,” said Henry. Clearly upset over the calls he’d received from those opposing the reenactment he said, “One caller accused us of perpetuating a legacy of ethnic cleansing. This has all been blown out of proportion.”
Hays agreed that neither the reenactors nor the Historical Society intended any malice in the performance. She noted that one of the main purposes of the reenactment was to depict the milieu of court sanctioned corporeal punishment of the day. “Cruel punishments such as these led to creation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. The reenactment helped give context to the need for the Amendment which prohibits the government’s use of excessive bail, fines or cruel and unusual punishments,” she explained.
According to Henry, the issue of race did not enter into the reenactment. When asked if the group would have conducted a similar performance if the criminal had been African American he said, “Yes.”
“Our Native American reenactors had no problem with performance. A man from the Lenape tribe participated,” Henry claimed but would not provide any details about the Native American participant.
Kerry Holton, President of the Delaware Nation, was skeptical that the Lenape reenactor was actually a member of the Delaware tribe. “Although we speak Lenape, we don’t refer to ourselves as Lenape; we call ourselves Delaware,” he said. “I find it hard to believe.”
“I was quite disturbed by the video and frankly wished I hadn’t watched it,” Holton said. “When I started going through my newsfeed this morning, the video of the Chicago torture popped up and then shortly after I saw this video. I understand this is a reenactment, but there is some parallel there that is disturbing, that people think it is okay for our children to witness such violence.”
Holton also disagreed about the race issue and believes that event organizers would not have gone through with a reenactment that included hanging an African American man.
“If the reenactment had included the hanging of an African American person, the community would seize on it,” he said. Since the U.S. Native population is small, however, events such as those at Court Days go unchallenged and are simply born out of ignorance. “When my colleagues contacted the Historical Society they were told that there was nothing inappropriate about the reenactment. There has got to be a way that we in Indian country can work to remedy these situations,” he said.
Horton hopes to meet with leaders at the Historical Society in the near future and provide a Native perspective that he hopes they may include in future programming. “I don’t doubt that the reenactment was historically accurate or that the events they depicted actually took place but there doesn’t’ seem to be any educational value in depicting the hanging, the historical importance could have been shared in another way,” he said.
Heather Schneider, an organizer of living history events, commented on the reenactment via Facebook. “Really getting tired of the Native living history part of events not being held to the same standards as Colonial folks. It’s not about dressing up and making up what you want. It is supposed to be about serious research and honoring a cultural group,” she wrote.
Holton was especially disturbed by the comments from reenactors during the video.
“People may have made racist remarks at the time but repeating them perpetuates the message that it’s okay to be insensitive. There was nothing healthy or educational about the hanging,” he said.
“They need some sensitivity training over there,” Horton observed.
Although the matter is under discussion, Hays doubted that the hanging would be included in next years Frontier Court Reenactment Days celebrations.