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Our Undying Past

Preserving Carlisle School's story


A Carlisle Indian Industrial School student, before and after his assimilation. A coalition of descendants and allies is working to create a heritage center about the controversial school.
You’ve probably heard of Jim Thorpe, the immortal American Indian athlete. Maybe you knew he gained fame a century ago while a student at the Indian Industrial School at Carlisle, Pa. But did you know that in the eyes of many Indians and cultural historians, Thorpe’s fame is easily matched by the Carlisle school’s infamy?

For four decades beginning in 1879, the Carlisle school existed to “civilize” over 10,000 native students--to make them think and act white. Carlisle was one in a network of federally run boarding schools that systematically pulled Indian youngsters from their home reservations, sheared them of their traditional hair, names, language and traditions, and subjected them to a regimen of “total immersion” in European ways. At the time, this was considered a humane alternative to the rabid voices for extermination that were being raised, especially in the West. Read More 
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Chewing on Thanksgiving


The American Indian counter-narrative is writ large on this Thanksgiving protest plaque.
Here comes another Thanksgiving. May your celebration be bright and family-friendly. At the same time, bear in mind that many American Indians scorn the common belief that the original feast in was a kumbaya moment between Europeans and Natives.

“For the most part, Thanksgiving itself is a day of mourning for Native people” today, says Tim Turner, a Cherokee man who runs the Wampanoag Homesite at the Plimouth Plantation in Massachusetts, where that first feast took place in 1621.

Turner recounted the Thanksgiving story in an interview with Indian Country Today. After the Pilgrims suffered through their first winter in Massachusetts, Turner said, the Indian known as Squanto mercifully showed them how to plant corn and fish and gather berries and nuts. That led to a treaty of mutual protection  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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Dancing through dark times

If you haven’t experienced an Indian powwow yet, I recommend you seek one out. They’re colorful extravaganzas that occur East and West for much of the year. Every powwow I’ve attended has been welcoming and family-friendly. They tend to be multicultural and intertribal, meaning different styles of drumming and dancing are on display. Don’t be surprised by the rainbow coalition of complexions, too--evidence of the Indians’ complicated history of mixing and mingling with whites and blacks.

I experienced the Indians’ warm ways most recently when I attended a Nanticoke-Lenape powwow in southern New Jersey to sign and sell my new book, Visions of Teaoga, which delves into Eastern Woodlands history of the 1700s. The tribal organizers welcomed me, a white man (a yengwe in the parlance of Visions of Teaoga) to the event, promoted my book to the crowd, and even bought copies for themselves and their bookstore. To top that off, they invited me back to introduce the book to teachers at an educator showcase they held a few weeks later.

This particular group calls itself the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation. Headquartered in Bridgeton, N.J., the group traces its lineage 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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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
 Read More 
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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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