Native Insight: Trusting local historians


Recorder Staff
Sunday, June 10, 2018

My intent is not to argue or accuse, just to politely ponder, to probe, to find some concrete point of reference or origin, because, frankly, what I have been hearing of late is reaching my ears for the first time and, because it’s a subject that’s dear to me, verification would be nice.

Our topic is one we’ve touched upon before, that of the indigenous, deep-history tale of the Great Beaver felled by Hobomock before ancient Lake Hitchcock drained to form our Connecticut Valley some 14,000 years ago. What’s left is the symbolic petrified carcass known as the Pocumtuck Range, the head of which stands as Mount Sugarloaf — that steep, distinctive, red sandstone peak overlooking the Whately/Deerfield line, Sunderland Bridge and the Mount Tom bowl. This landmark mountain has guided faraway travelers for as long as biped travelers have existed here.

For me, personally, and for many of my ancestors, Sugarloaf represents home, the center of my universe since I was crawling on all fours. Even then, when I looked up from the ground, out the window from home or my parents’ car, there it was — a recognizable landform forever imprinted into my consciousness. Yes, it’s true that my heritage does not allow deep-history imagery from our indigenous past, but that beaver’s head has been in my blood since the colonial settlement of our valley at Northampton, Hadley and Hatfield, later Deerfield and Northfield. From my earliest childhood to the present day, from wherever I view it on the horizon, Sugarloaf screams home.

Which brings us to the threshold of our discussion. I guess the salient question is: Who owns history and why? It’s a question that has vexed me for some time as I watch people from faraway places arrive and take over as self-appointed arbiters of local-history narrative. Self-serving, they come, they own, they ignore resident wisdom. Notice I did not say prevailing wisdom, which it typically blurred and skewed through an occidental lens.

A few weeks back, before an excellent scholarly presentation held at the Great Falls Discovery Center in commemoration of the May 19, 1676 “Falls Fight” massacre, I had the opportunity to share with one of the presenters, author Lisa Brooks, a high, lonesome prayer seat I discovered high and deep in the woods less than 10 years ago. Over the years, I have shared this same photo with many, including archaeological/anthropological scholars, all of whom agree it is worth further examination. Because I had read, enjoyed and respected both of Brooks’ books and was attending my third presentation by her, I knew the photo would interest her. So, I approached her soon after she entered the hall on the Friday evening and, though busy and distracted, she did display interest, voicing immediate concern that I protect this ridgetop treasure that has been miraculously preserved. No worries. Though I do share the photos with a specific crowd I trust, I would never pinpoint the site on a map. In these days of geocaching and orienteering, it seems nothing is out of reach.

In describing the terrain to Brooks, I speculated this site could be associated with a secluded, 19th-century Native American encampment mentioned by Whately historian James M. Crafts. Author of “History of the Town of Whately, Mass” (1899), Crafts mentions a Native American camp near a black-ash grove, where baskets and brooms were made and peddled in the community. Brooks’ dark eyes twinkled with interest.

When I took it a step further, attempting to provide a little background about 17th- and early 18th-century Native Americans clinging to a hidden Hopewell Swamp refuge, then getting pushed west to Indian Hill and points beyond, she stopped me. She was compelled to provide an elementary geography lesson.

Using every ounce of personal restraint, I let the interruption pass. I was seeking a listener, not a teacher. After all, we were discussing a place I knew well, land I had farmed, hunted, hiked, fished and studied. Yet I had to defer to a native of Lake Champlain country with ghostly ties to the Pioneer Valley, now teaching at Amherst College. Well, it wasn’t easy but I’ve mellowed with age, had an agenda and thus humility prevailed.

Recounting the tale of Hatfield hunter David Scott killing a bear and giving it to a famished Native American family secreted in Hopewell Swamp, she found an opening for a teaching moment by stating, “They were there because it was their home. Ktsi Amiskw — the Great Beaver — that’s what we call it.”

“No,” I politely responded, “I know the beaver, have looked at it my whole life and climbed it many times as a boy. The beaver is looking down from above. Hopewell Swamp was a piece of the beaver’s pond, the old Whately oxbow that extends a mile or so south from Sugarloaf’s skirt and spills into narrow marsh to Hatfield Pond.”

We soon went our separate ways, me internally tossing around our Hopewell exchange. My thoughts went immediately to a topic of interest that’s been a personal curiosity since reading Brooks’ two popular books “The Common Pot” (2008) and “Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War” (2018), which I recommend. The dilemma: what is the genesis of her assertion that mythical earthshaper Hobomock slayed the Great Beaver as symbolic punishment for hoarding and greed? She claims to have learned it in deep-time tales as a northern Vermont child. The interpretation makes sense and reads great. In fact, I would read it to my grandsons during winter fireside tales. But I suspect the interpretation to be new, one embellished and extracted from other Algonquian beaver tales of Maritimes, Great Lakes or maybe even Lake Champlain lore.

Discussing with a scholarly friend the possibility that it may be the product of artistic license, projection or embellishment, he did not dismiss it as unlikely. Then another Great Beaver tale aficionado suggested that Brooks’ greed-and-hoarding moral had been previously floated by Native American scholar Marge Bruchac, an oral-history expert. I searched through her writings for evidence and did find such a reference that may have been expanded upon by Brooks.

I’m not criticizing Brooks for bringing new meaning to an old tale, if indeed she has done so. I’m only identifying her interpretation as a new twist to an old tale, a landscape legend much older than Christopher Columbus or Leif Erikson. And while it’s a fact that we need fresh new investigation into our indigenous past, we need to do so with an open mind that invites all parties to a circular table for open and honest discussion. I’m not sure that this “new school” is always willing, which brings me to a place at which to end this conversation.

Last year, I was approached by an angry local historian who has devoted many decades of diligent research to Colrain. This person, who has for years led walks and talks through East Colrain and you name it, was not happy. Why? Well, because this person felt ignored and disrespected by William Apess scholar Drew Lopenzina and two academic companions, Bruchac and Brooks.

This triumvirate trying to familiarize themselves with a new place called Colrain could have saved much time and effort by taking a walk and talking with folks who knew the land. But they chose to go their own way, ignoring a local, thorough, credible historian who knew the land and the records, and deciding among them that Apess most likely resided on Catamount Hill. Our local historian respectfully disagrees, suggesting that it’s more likely the Apess family lived in East Colrain. Although I don’t intend to pass judgment, I, too, have spent much time researching and walking Colrain because I carry DNA from many of its Scots-Irish founding families through my late grandmother Marriam Snow. I read Lopenzina’s book with interest, attended and enjoyed a local presentation by him and, in the end, decided against a review. Why? Because, though an excellent piece of research into a man worth studying on many levels, I got stuck on his loose Catamount conclusion and objected to the way a local historian had been dismissed. I’m not sure Lopenzina’s got it right.

As I view it, rushed outsiders embarked upon Colrain briefly, spent what is, in the big picture, a millisecond poring through documentary evidence, and walked away in shaky agreement as to where in Colrain the Apess family lived. Sorry. I’m not convinced. A minor point, yes, but more research is necessary.

There is a valuable lesson in all of this. That is, researchers should never overlook input from those who know the land. In fact, they should start there for perspective, then move to the records, which can and often do twist reality. The land speaks with a purer voice than the mouth or the page, and those who understand it best should never be ignored.