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Our Undying Past

Philadelphia's Indian Set-Aside


It's believed that the so-called Wampum Lot would have touched on the southern edge of Welcome Park and run toward Bookbinder's, as shown in this photo by Nathaniel Popkin.


The listener’s question last week stumped me. “Is it true,” she asked, “that William Penn set aside land in Philadelphia for the Indians’ permanent use?”

At author appearances for Visions of Teaoga, my historical novel about Indian-settler conflict, I’ve welcomed the various questions that have come: Why did I tackle this topic? How does one research it? What are the lessons for today?

But this query, about a possible Indian reservation right in Philadelphia, brought me up short. It came during a talk-back portion of my presentation at the Ethical Society on Philly’s Rittenhouse Square. I responded that it was news to me, though it was plausible given Penn’s early good will  Read More 
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Learning, the native way

Imagine it. Three thousand hours of American Indian oral recordings, brought out of the archives after decades, digitized, and made available to the public – that means you -- for free. A database of six thousand traditional Iroquois names, now searchable by clan affiliation.

Those and other precious native holdings of the American Philosophical Society have been brought forth for sharing in a respectful new collaboration between that eminent Philadelphia institution and a host of native tribes across North America.
I knew nothing about this remarkable initiative, which was highlighted at a conference organized by the University of Pennsylvania’s Native American and Indigenous Studies program. Looking to attend a good event on November’s Native American Heritage Month calendar, I happily located this one, which showcased what it called “innovative approaches to recovering and engaging with Indigenous knowledge in the classroom and in the field.” As a sign of this native partnership with the academy, a banner displaying the Hiawatha belt was prominent on the stage.

Timothy Powell, who directs the philosophical society’s Native American Project, told the audience how his team has been digitizing and sharing papers and other holdings with more than 100 native communities  Read More 
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About that mascot ...

This weekend I’ll be heading off on a book tour along the New York-Pennsylvania border. Being on the fringe of Iroquois country, it’s the very territory that’s featured in my historical novel Visions of Teaoga. It’s also an area touched by a hot national debate – about the term “redskin” and its use as a sports nickname.

You no doubt know about the pressure on the pro football Washington Redskins to change its team name, and the organization’s refusal to do so. Critics call the term an anachronistic slur, while the other side argues that it's benign, even respectful.

Slur or not, the Redskins name is still in use by several dozen high schools around the country, most of them majority-white. And one of them is Sayre High School, located just four miles north of Tioga Point, the epicenter of the Indian-settler conflict zone that Visions of Teaoga captures.

North of Sayre, in upstate and western New York, seven other schools have mascots with Indian references: the Watkins Glen Senecas, the Southern Cayuga Chiefs, and the Indians of Candor, Groton, Odessa-Montour, Owego Free Academy and Stamford. This is according to an article two weeks ago in the Elmira Star-Gazette. Only one school in that region, Sayre High, keeps the R-word.

The Redskins nickname is a thing of the past now on the collegiate scene since the last two schools gave it up a few years.  Read More 
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Marking Pa.'s Last Indian Removal

The blow-by-blow of how our Eastern Woodlands Indians were dispossessed gets sorely limited treatment in history classes, in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. This weekend, a painful chapter in that history will be commemorated by the Seneca Nation along the New York-Pennsylvania border.

The events of “Remembering the Removal, 50 Years Later” will mark the Army Corps of Engineers’ ouster of the Senecas from their very last toehold of ancestral land in Pennsylvania. In the late 1950s, the Corps set out to build a hydroelectric dam that would effectively flood 10,000 acres of the tribe’s so-called Cornplanter Tract, which is about 70 miles east of Erie, Pa. The Supreme Court cleared the way, allowing a treaty to be broken and forcing the relocation of more than 600 Seneca families north to New York.

Not familiar with the story? You’re hardly alone.

The Seneca Nation wants to raise public awareness about the Kinzua removal. Read More 
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Why Teaoga? It's in history's vortex

During the recent virtual-blog tour held as part of my Visions of Teaoga book launch, I was asked to reflect on why I wrote this historical novel. A fine question. Here's my answer:

Teaoga is a place that smacked me upside the head. Grabbed me and shouted, “Listen!”

Seriously, I wrote Visions of Teaoga because of the story it has to tell. Multiple stories, in fact – a crazy cavalcade of stories. Ever since I was a boy, I’ve been the type to lie back in the grass and sense the mysterious hum of the land and the people who came before. If you’re at all like that, you know what I mean. Not that I’m all supernatural. I’ll feel a place’s vibe--but I’ll also study up on the facts of its history.

So when a road trip a few years ago took me into Teaoga, now the quiet, seemingly idyllic riverfront community of Athens, Pennsylvania, its past reached out and smacked me. You may not have heard of this town, but it stood on the front lines of many of the conflicts and upheavals that swept the Eastern Woodlands in the colonial and Revolutionary era. It was at various times an Indian stronghold, a Christian mission field, a treaty ground, the launching site for several scorched-earth campaigns, the last bastion of a failed breakaway state, and more.

That’s why I wrote about it—because Teaoga was truly a microcosm of our nation’s turbulent beginnings. I wrote about it because I never learned about it as a schoolboy even though I grew up not far from there. And I wrote about it as an example of rich local history.

Unfortunately, our schools tend to teach local history skimpily if at all. They miss opportunities to tune their students in to the importance of nearby rivers and byways, to the origin of their area’s place names, to local heroes and scoundrels and legends and lore, to ways large national trends might have played out right under their feet. There are scattered efforts around the country to address this shortcoming, though they face the challenge of schoolteachers’ own scant knowledge of a region’s past, textbooks limited to macro-history, and the imperative of “teaching to the test.” I have Athens serve as a stand-in for countless ordinary small towns across America, to awaken students to the truth that fascinating history can be found just about everywhere, even in their own hometown, if they just start looking.

Let me tell you what I mean. In interviewing experts and reading more than 75 books, articles and papers, I compiled this amazing but true picture of Teaoga/Athens:

-It was the Southern Door of the Iroquois Longhouse. Guards stationed at the Cayuga “watch town” there would stop unwelcome travelers from heading up into Iroquois country.

-Teaoga stood at the strategic transportation break that linked river systems into Chesapeake Bay, the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley. Major Indian trails from those far-flung areas, including the Great Warriors Path and the legendary Forbidden Path, crossed there.

-For generations, Teaoga was a safe haven for Indian refugee groups dispossessed by relentless white encroachment into their homelands. Exemplifying this was Queen Esther’s Town, which was led by the real-life protagonist of Visions of Teaoga.

-For more than a century, Teaoga was a favorite rendezvous for Indian war parties and war or peace councils, and a place where scores of white prisoners were held captive for long periods. Among their overseers was Queen Esther.

-Teaoga was directly on the controversial Fort Stanwix treaty line, and was also the divide between the Six Nations and the Pennsylvania-based Delawares, and between Iroquian cultures and Algonkians. Both situations created decades of intergroup friction.

-Nearby, two pacifist Moravian mission settlements coexisted uneasily with the natives and other whites. Some Indians (including several of Queen Esther’s children) were drawn to convert, but many chiefs agitated to banish the missions.

-During the French and Indian War, Teaoga became the stronghold of Teedyuscung, “the King of the Delawares,” and his 400 warriors. From there they launched many ferocious raids on settlers across the backwoods region.

-Teaoga was a way station for peace emissaries and the site of several treaty talks.

-Teaoga was in the vortex of the American Revolution. In the early years of the war, it was a fortress for British and Tories, as well as a haven for deserters from the Colonial army. It was the southern headquarters of the Mohawk chief Joseph Brant; his warriors trained there, went out on their notorious Cherry Valley raid, and returned with white captives and bounty. The British major Butler used Teaoga as staging ground for his bloody 1778 attack on Wyoming Valley, sending 1,000 British rangers and Indian warriors downriver in an armada of canoes. Their victory (near present-day Wilkes-Barre, Pa.) became known as the Wyoming Valley Massacre – the occasion of the Bloody Rock atrocity in which Queen Esther was implicated.

-After the Wyoming massacre, Colonial forces struck back and captured the Teaoga area. An expeditionary force burned down the Cayuga watch town and Queen Esther’s Town. In 1779, Washington sent fully one-third of his Continental army on a retaliatory campaign against the Indians. The commander. Gen. Sullivan, established Teaoga as his base and built a large fort there. From there, his troops launched what became known as “The War of the Vegetables,” sweeping across Iroquoia and torching forty towns, 160,000 bushels of corn, and vegetables without number.

-After the Revolution, once Indians were officially dispossessed from the area, Athens found itself on the “Great Trail” of cattle drivers moving herds from New Jersey to Niagara. A flood of white settlers and their supplies followed, along with highway robbers who infested the area for a time.

-Pennsylvania’s boundary commissioners made Athens their headquarters in the mid-1780s as the remaining Indian land was quickly divided up and granted to settlers. Some of it went to war veterans in lieu of military pensions.

-In one of the more bizarre episodes in American history, settlers from Connecticut known as “the Wild Yankees” made their last stand at Athens. They had claimed much of northeastern Pennsylvania as their own decades earlier, sparking rounds of deadly fighting known as the Yankee-Pennamite Wars. After the Revolution, they retrenched around Athens, issued a declaration of independence in 1787, and brought in Ethan Allen to advise them on how to form a breakaway state. They envisioned Athens as the capitol of a state straddling Pennsylvania and New York. Ben Franklin denounced them as “armed banditti” and had the leaders arrested for high treason. The movement eventually petered out, though the remaining Connecticut settlers had a siege mentality that affected the Athens area for years to come.

What a cavalcade of Wild West events, and all occurring in our one apparently ordinary Eastern locality. It’s like a triple-feature action film and has tests of character to match any Harry Potter novel. I hope Visions of Teaoga can prompt readers – particularly student readers - to seek a deeper understanding of not only the land beneath their feet but of the people around them today. Read More 
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"Airey purchases" of Indian land

Lust for land can turn a people ugly, as the American Indians learned the hard way in their dealings with settlers. During the 1790 peace council at Teaoga in Pennsylvania – the fateful U.S.-Seneca summit depicted in my new historical novel Visions of Teaoga – President Washington’s negotiator, Timothy Pickering, acknowledges as much.

“Brothers, in times past, some white men have deceived the Indians, falsely pretending they had authority to lease or purchase their lands,” Pickering declares. “And sometimes they have seized on more land than the Indians meant to sell them; again falsely pretending that those lands were comprehended within the purchase. Such fraudulent practices have made our brothers angry, Read More 
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"The Little Brother of War"


Is lacrosse big in your area? It certainly is in mine. And summertime is the season for LAX camps, where kids suit up and work up a sweat developing their stick-handling skills.

The game they’re playing, as you probably know, is American Indian in origin – the original America’s Game (sorry, NFL). But aboriginal lacrosse was so much more than a sport. I didn’t really understand that until I read a book called A Friend Among the Senecas. Its author, David Swatzler, tells how American Indian lacrosse “had a profound spiritual and religious dimension difficult for European Americans to appreciate.”

A Friend Among the Senecas was one of the first scholarly works I consulted in my research for Visions of Teaoga, my historical novel about Eastern Indians and settlers that Sunbury Press is releasing next month. Swatzler’s book is a fascinating chronicle of a Quaker effort to domesticate a band of Seneca Indians – but what really stuck with me was his account of Iroquois lacrosse traditions.

At its highest level, the game was cosmic. The Iroquois believed lacrosse to be nothing less than a gift from the Creator, and so by playing it, Swatzler explains, they “pleased the Creator and disposed him toward curing or preventing illness, and sending clement weather.” To that end, when a famine or epidemic threatened, the Seneca shaman might order a game of ritual lacrosse to be played. The Hurons played to bring good weather to germinate their corn seeds. Similarly, the Cayuga warded off summer drought with a ritual game to honor the Seven Thunders that controlled the wind and rain. Seven elders played against seven young men. The goals were seven paces wide. Seven points brought victory.

“The Iroquois believed that the sound of thunder was produced by the sticks of the seven Thunder Spirits striking their lacrosse ball as they played the game inside the thunderheads,” Swatzler writes. “Streaks of lightning traced the path of their lacrosse ball through the sky as they batted it across the heavens.”

Each team’s shaman had a big role to play. Just as he’d do in war, the shaman might give his players certain amulets to wear, apply magic potions to the team’s ball, and beseech the surrounding animist spirits to help his team and village. To prepare themselves, the players performed ritual purification such as fasting and purging, and applied body paint and charms.

Most games pitted groups within villages, or were village-to-village affairs that were informal and spontaneous, with lots of sidelines wagering. But it was the big matches between nations that were the mind-blowing productions.

“Forty, sixty, sometimes a hundred or more ‘warriors’ took to the playing field, which was often four or five times longer that a modern football field, with the goals as far apart as a quarter of a mile,” Swatzler writes. “One game in 1797 at the Grand River Reservation in southeastern Ontario, between the Mohawk and Seneca nations, was played on a 100-acre field. Each side had a reserve of 600 players and fielded 60 of them at a time.”

Just about anything was allowed short of deliberately whacking someone with a stick. Each player went one-on-one against an assigned opponent--and they often dropped their sticks and went at it. When this happened, they “were ignored by the rest of the players, as the general melee rolled along the field, leaving in its wake scattered pairs of brawling players.”

On this competitive level, the Iroquois nations regarded lacrosse as “the little brother of war.” By allowing the rough-and-tumble, the game became a proving ground for strength and tenacity, an outlet for aggressiveness, and a way to work out grudges. In the end, it thus served “to preserve domestic tranquility within the village and the nation” and to keep group alliances durable.

In March, the general manager of the Iroquois Nationals lacrosse team, Gewas Schindler, came to Philadelphia to help open the “Native American Voices” exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. Schinder spoke about lacrosse legends, including the Haudenosaunee belief that lacrosse exists to draw the talents hidden within all people.

I attended that day, and viewed the museum’s display of handcrafted Iroquois lacrosse sticks. If you’re nearby, you might plan a visit as well – the exhibition is open until 2019. The sticks on display perhaps are survivors of some rugged “little wars.” They may have been prayed over, imbued with potions, even bled upon.

To me, they were mute reminders that the modern game is a tame version of the original. And while today’s play may be spirited, it’s also spiritually earthbound. Read More 

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Remembering The Fourth with a Forked Tongue


Ah, the Fourth of July – the grand occasion to display the American flag outside my front door, and to join the crowds at our neighborhood fireworks party. The grand day to celebrate what’s been called our nation’s birth certificate: The hallowed Declaration of Independence.

But wait. What’s that ugly sentence embedded midway through it? Tucked into Thomas Jefferson’s angry brief against King George, in a long litany of grievances, appears this charge:

"He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions."

Yes, our very founding document encodes the American Indians as “Savages” – capital S as if it were their proper name. Did you ever learn that in history class? You, like me, may have been clueless, but be assured that many Indians still know and resent the enshrined libel all too well. Just as, in their parallel history, they know George Washington not as the father of the country but as “Town Destroyer” because of his scorched-earth campaign against the Iroquois. Just as they loathe Andrew Jackson for his brutal removal policies – and refuse to traffic in twenty-dollar bills because they bear his portrait. Just as they remember Jefferson for instigating those removal policies, and for sending Lewis and Clark west to chart the course of expansionism.

I am launching my blog to point out these troubled truths for two reasons: The nation’s birthday is upon us, and – a big personal and -- I have a new book coming out very soon that delves into Colonial-Indian history. Visions of Teaoga (being published by Sunbury Press) is a historical novel that recounts Washington’s 1779 destruction of the Seneca heartland, but also the earlier land grabs and encroachments across the Eastern woodlands. Told by a real-life Shawnee matriarch – a tragic figure known to history as Queen Esther – it tells how smaller “remnant bands” such as the Shawnees, Munsee Delawares, Conoys and Tutelos were hemmed in and deceived not only by the Europeans but by the mighty Iroquois Confederacy as well. The resulting Indian raids on settler homesteads – often land squatters – clearly could be vicious. Accounts of scalpings and other atrocities circulated widely, leading to brutal counterattacks. Settlers never forgot the natives’ violence but overlooked similar crimes committed by whites (one of Queen Esther’s many complaints). By July 1776, this cycle of attacks and reprisals had produced a race hatred on both sides that curdled into mutual desires for what we, today, would term ethnic cleansing.

That is the context in which Jefferson penned his propagandistic invective. He was correct in a sense. Most “Indian Savages” were tilting toward the British as the lesser of two evils. Where the Colonials had proven land-hungry and duplicitous, the Brits had at least tried to set up a demarcation line that set aside a huge territory as Indian land. When war came, many tribes across the East made alliances of convenience and fought alongside the Redcoats. Queen Esther and her people were swept up in the warfare, culminating for her in the tragic Bloody Rock incident.

Years earlier, in the 1750s, Esther's war-chief husband had tried to make nice with the settlers. In reluctantly ceding a slice of territory to New Jersey, he expressed the earlier outlook that land and its bounty could be shared. His eloquent plea, as recorded in Colonial records and repeated in Visions of Teaoga, was this: “We desire that if we should come into your province to see our old friends, and should have occasion for the bark of a tree to cover a cabin, or a little refreshment, that we should not be denied, but be treated as brethren! And that your people may not look on the wild beasts of the forests or the fish of the waters as their sole property, but that we may be admitted to an equal use of them.”

As history also records, this outlook failed. The British abandoned their Indian allies, the demarcation line was extinguished, and a wave of westward expansion began.

Jefferson had prevailed.  Read More 

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