Native Insight: Despite ancient stories, some things left up to imagination

  • A great view of Pioneer Valley from Mount Sugarloaf in South Deerfield. RECORDER STAFF

For The Recorder
Friday, June 16, 2017

Distant memories can be clouded by an entrenched colonial-historical lens. That’s part of the reason my childhood memories are enveloped in dense institutional fog. The other reason is that childhood was long, long ago.

So, I guess it shouldn’t be shocking that I can’t recall what went through my mind as a foot-free, summer-vacation, South Deerfield boy exploring the ancient Indian trails to the Sugarloaf shelf-caves. In fact, I can’t even say why I placed an Indian origin onto these magical trails and caves, said to have been used as lookouts. I could have heard it from my father or grandfather, maybe my great aunt, possibly my friends’ fathers or older brothers, perhaps a neighbor or someone passing through the downtown drug-store soda fountain or markets. All I know is that the deeply trodden, rust-colored footpaths and the caves they led to were associated with Indians; that and temporary, adult-free childhood freedom. We treasured places like that and hidden forest forts to experiment with jackknives, saws, hatchets, BB guns and you name it, fashioning ourselves buckskinned pioneers or warpainted Indians we knew from familiar “Boy Captive” and “Leatherstocking” books and films.

The North Sugarloaf shelf-cave was a more popular refuge than better-known King Philip’s Seat on Mount Sugarloaf because we had it to ourselves. Not so with the state reservation, then managed by the county and protected by caretaker Charles Sadoski. Back then, sitting in solitude looking down upon our small town, we could identify our homes, the streets, the schools, the common, the churches, occasionally even a passing car on Main, Sugarloaf, Pleasant, Graves, Thayer or West streets, Eastern Avenue or Hillside Road. We grew to know our western upland profile that included Horse Mountain, High Ridge, Mount Esther and the Old World, fantasizing what curiosities could be found buried under the forest canopy in places not far away but out of childhood range. We knew that some day we’d expand our horizons out to there, hunting new woods, fishing new streams, discovering hints of days past.

The view from Mount Sugarloaf gave us a different, better-known perspective, looking south over the bulbous, fertile valley between Sunderland Bridge and the Holyoke Range. We had no conception at all that 16,000 years ago this expansive bowl had been pro-glacial Lake Hitchcock, which extended more than 300 miles from Burke, Vt., to Rocky Hill, Conn. We also had no clue about the Pocumtuck Range’s ancient Great Beaver origin myth or that the first people to sit in our sacred shelf caves on the southern tips of the two Sugarloafs may have arrived by canoe. Although that possibility may or may not be valid, it sure does get the imaginative juices flowing. And when you ponder it, how could the Great Beaver Myth have been born had this place not been peopled before the lake drained? Just a little salubrious food for creative, deep-history contemplation.

According to a Native American legend, the Pocumtuck range of which Mt. Sugarloaf is a part, is actually the petrified remains of a giant beaver that lived in a giant lake here in prehistory. South Sugarloaf is the head, North Sugarloaf is the body, and the rest of the ridge is the tail.

Which brings us to a perfect segue to what is blatantly missing for Connecticut Valley people, even those with colonial roots digging deep as they get here. What we lack are the ancient stories about our landscape, the Native literature of oral tradition, which had a story for every distinctive feature on the horizon, and creation tales for important rivers, streams, springs and swamps. Such tales were passed down from designated storyteller to another, recited in song and verse and long narratives told, sang, danced or all of the above for days on end around cozy, ritualistic fires. These indigenous legends of the land familiarized people with their place, which is now our place with a forgotten past. All we have today is 400 or maybe 500 years of “history” recorded through a Christian lens by foreign invaders trying to figure it out. Their history is shallow indeed, leaving out at least 14 millennia, say 14,500 years, of the big picture.

Likely gone forever are the how-and-why tales of the Sugarloaf self-caves, Mount Toby, Mount Warner and the Holyoke Range. Erased are the creation tales about of the great spring gathering place around the Great Falls at Riverside in Gill, the Rock Dam of Montague City, both natural monuments where indigenous people gathered annually to celebrate the return of shad, salmon, herring and sturgeon in the spring. These were places of song and dance and feasts, places where children learned their cultural lessons, their place and the sacred sites within.

Today, replacing these indigenous, deep-history tales about place and interrelated sites within, are centuries-old “American” history lessons taught about Bloody Brook and the retaliatory Falls Fight that helped open our valley to colonial settlement and Native diaspora. American history students have been taught that the primitive First Nation people didn’t know how to use the fertile land or powerful rivers to modern advantage. Thus, we drove out these “ignorant savages” who didn’t know how to use their resources, to clear the way for settlement, future development and Industrial Revolution water power and riches.

So, the question is: Which approach to history is the myth?

Recorder Sports Editor Gary Sanderson is a senior-active member of the outdoor-writers associations of America and New England. Send your questions, stories about our area to him at: gsanderson@recorder.com.