Panel explores indigenous past, present in the Northeast

  • Lisa Brooks, a professor at Amherst College, speaks at a panel on indigenous history at the Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield on Sunday. STAFF PHOTO/MAX MARCUS

  • A map of the Connecticut River Valley, using historic place names and land agreements between indigenous groups and colonial governments. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • Rhonda Anderson speaks at a panel on indigenous history at the Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield on Sunday. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

  • Larry Spotted Crow Mann speaks at a panel on indigenous history at the Double Edge Theatre in Ashfield on Sunday. CONTRIBUTED IMAGE

Staff Writer
Published: 8/3/2020 5:31:33 PM

ASHFIELD — The past and continued presence of indigenous peoples in the Northeast was the subject of a panel at Double Edge Theatre this weekend.

The discussion was filmed with a limited audience at Double Edge Theatre on Sunday, and broadcast live online. It was sponsored by the Ohketeau Cultural Center, a local organization that supports traditional pre-colonial art and cultural activities.

The talk started with a story, told by Larry Spotted Crow Mann, one of the three panelists, who is a writer, poet and cultural educator:

A long time ago, a giant beaver came down the Connecticut River from the North. At some point in the river, he decided to settle down and build a home, and so he started thwacking his tail and ripping up trees to build his lodge.

His splashing caused such a commotion the river flooded out into the plain, destroying the land and all the crops that had been planted by the people living there.

The people shouted to the beaver and asked him to stop. But he wasn't paying any attention to them.

Exasperated, the people went to Hobomok, a trickster character known to them, and asked him to do something about the beaver.

Hobomok agreed, and went to the beaver to talk. But again, the beaver didn't pay any attention. The talk somehow turned into a fight, and the beaver ended up dead.

At its most basic, the story appears to be about the origin of Beaver Tail Hill, now sometimes called Mt. Sugarloaf.

But Mann pointed to a moral in the story: we all need to find a way to live together.

In context of the real post-colonial history of the local indigenous groups, as discussed by Mann and the other two panelists, the meaning of Mann's story and moral is murkier.

Lisa Brooks, an Abenaki historian and an Amherst College professor of English and American Studies, noted that, in King Philip's War, in the 1670s, many local native people fled north. After the war, rather than return to the Connecticut River valley, many resettled in an area called Schaghticoke, north of Albany, N.Y. To their advantage, the government of the New York colony refused to turn them over to Massachusetts.

To tell from popular culture and popular ideas of history, one would think that indigenous groups all but vanished from the area after King Philip's War, Brooks said.

In reality, she said, many groups maintained a relationship with their historical homeland, visiting occasionally as early as the 1700s, and into the 1900s and 2000s.

"We've got a mythology of the idea that the Indians disappeared," Brooks said. "But people just have kept coming back. People know where they come from. They know where their ancestral homelands are."

That "mythology," the panelists noted, fits a certain image of American history in which the land was discovered and conquered, destined to become a nation of unique world-historical importance.

Indigenous peoples, in that story, are always relegated to the past. At best, they may have cooperated with the colonists, as in modern retellings of the Thanksgiving story. At worst, they are the savage Indians to the heroic cowboys. Either way, they are understood to have disappeared long ago.

Mann recalled attending grammar school as a child in the 1980s. School history curricula insisted that indigenous groups no longer existed, that the land had been "settled" by the European colonists. Outside school, in popular culture, Native Americans only existed as cartoon caricatures, never as human beings.

"It was really an abusive environment, as a Native person," Mann said. "When you feel like you don't belong, it tends to lead you to feel that you don't care about yourself."

In recent years, American culture has seemed more willing to come to terms with that tradition of social exclusion, Mann said. But only very recently.

Today, the use of the Native American as a mascot has become a point of controversy. In July, Washington D.C.'s NFL team changed its name from the Washington Redskins to the Washington Football Team (a temporary name) after years of criticism that the team's name and branding were racist.

The third panelist, Rhonda Anderson, has advocated for local high schools using the Native American as a mascot to rebrand themselves.

A few years ago, Turners Falls High School dropped its longtime mascot, the Indians, and eventually became the Turners Falls Thunder. Mohawk Trail Regional School has removed its Indian mascot, but kept its name, the Warriors.

"What makes people think it's OK to use someone else's image?" Mann said. "For some reason, with Native culture, it's still allowed."

Reach Max Marcus at or 413-930-4231.

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