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Our Undying Past

A momentous land sale

Chiefs treat with New Amsterdam's Dutch.

The online journal Slate provided a small-world moment for me the other day. It posted a compelling history article that combined the New Amsterdam Dutch (my very forebears), the Munsee Indians (major players in my historical novel), and even native condolence ceremonies (a powerful aspect of the book’s plot). Let me explain.

The article takes a close and fascinating look at the sale of Staten Island to Dutch and later English settlers in several transactions in the 1600s. Author Andrew Lipman, a Barnard College history professor, notes that the indigenous people who sold the island were known broadly as Munsee because of their common dialects.  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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"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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Wampum - A Living Object

Mention wampum and a non-Native American person might think of money. It’s sometimes a synonym for cash in our everyday slang. Others may have a vague notion that wampum was used ceremonially at Indian-white treaty councils as part of exchanges of trade goods, tokens and the like.

Wampum is so much more. To the Indians, the strings of cylindrical beads carved from quahog shells are able to bear witness to events, embody collective emotions, and secure diplomatic promises – not merely signify all those purposes but truly embody and bespeak them.

Earlier this year, I attended a talk about wampum by Margaret Bruchac, an Abenaki woman and an anthropologist at the University of Pennsylvania. She underscored wampum’s supernal importance in native tradition, saying the wampum strings become animate objects when words are spoken into it.

In my new historical novel about Indian-settler affairs, Visions of Teaoga, the 18th century native matriarch Esther typifies that understanding. In an early scene, she accepts the Seneca chief Red Jacket’s offer to attend a peace council in this way: “Taking the wampum strings in hand, Esther gave her reply. She held the strands of sacred shell beads aloft in her open palm, letting them spiritually receive her pledge as was the custom. ‘Brother, I have heard your words and my heart is stirred. Perhaps the Preserver has brought me to this time for this purpose. My Tutelo friends have endured many dark days. If they need my presence, I cannot refuse. If you need my presence to help keep the treaty fire bright, I cannot refuse. My sixty winters have worn down my body and weakened my eyesight. Let us hope it has not dimmed my vision.’ ”

Later in the book, I draw directly from Red Jacket’s actual words as recorded from that 1790 peace council: “Our forefathers told us that when a treaty was finished, by preserving the belts used we would know and could tell our children what had been done.” White wampum beheld harmony, while purple embodied distress, danger, death – attributes that figure in Esther’s use on her wampum strings in the novel.

Traditionally, wampum beads “were used sparingly to create belts to commemorate great events, to preserve history, to declare peace or war, to record elections, and to heal families from the pain of losing a family member. The messages conveyed in the belts were considered law, and were honoured and respected as such.” That explanation is from a fine blog post that profiles a Cayuga Indian “Faithkeeper” and wampum maker, Ken Maracle. The post includes a video in which Mr. Maracle tells how he feels “guided by his ancestors” in his work.

The Cayuga tribe figures large in Visions of Teaoga, so I was delighted to see the video. You can watch it, and read the wampum essay, here:

http://workingeffectivelywithaboriginalpeoples.com/wampum-beads-belts-and-beyond
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‘Rising Nation River Journey’

The upper Delaware River grows thick with pleasure craft at this time of year—but the fun-lovers are about to be joined by an unusual, historic flotilla with a solemn purpose.

On Saturday, Aug. 2, American Indians representing the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania will set off downriver carrying a document they call the Treaty of Renewed Friendship. The delegation will stop along the way for a succession of public ceremonies at which various environmental groups, churches, historical societies and individuals will sign the treaty “to support the Lenape and to partner as caretakers of the traditional Lenape homeland and each other.”

It should be quite a journey—330 miles long, all the way from sylvan Hancock, N.Y., to the sandy flatlands of Cape May, N.J., where it will end on Sunday, Aug. 17.

The treaty-signing ceremonies are scheduled daily at 1 p.m. Each stop will also feature children’s activities and a powwow. We’re all invited to witness any of it, so if you’re in the region and up for a rare opportunity, check out the schedule at http://www.lenapenation.org. You could even join the flotilla or the campouts, but be sure to read about the arrangements.  Read More 
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