Examining the ancestral home and range of Indigenous people
By Janet Reynolds
For many, the story of the settling of the Adirondacks goes something like this: The area was a vast, uninhabited wilderness until white settlers came to start mining, lumbering and, later, vacationing. Yes, a few Native Americans traveled through the Adirondacks in pre-colonial times, but they never actually lived there.
It’s a tale that has been perpetuated by everyone from Ralph Waldo Emerson in his poem “The Adirondacs” to Alfred Donaldson, a banker whose 1921 two-volume book, “A History of the Adirondacks,” noted that “Indians never made any part of what is now the Adirondack Park their permanent home.”
The problem, several historians and archeologists say, is that it’s not true. And continuing this myth, they say, is an injustice to the Indigenous people who were — and still are — there.
“The idea that this was unclaimed space is factually wrong,” Camille Townsend, a Rutgers University history professor specializing in Native American history, said. Home, especially for Native Americans of this time, was a series of places you return to. “It might vary a bit,” she said, depending on weather issues such as drought, “but it was a regular pattern of places you come to each year and whether you’re a child or adult, you’re delighted to return to them.”
Karl Jacoby, American History professor at Columbia University, concurred. “All parks have this ideology of empty wilderness,” he said. “It’s almost always about erasing the Indigenous people on the land, that North America was an empty space waiting to be inhabited when the Europeans showed up.” These Manifest Destiny and John Lockean views of property also, not coincidentally, make taking over the land easier. If no one officially lives there, then any new arrivals can simply take it as their own — which they did throughout much of America.
Frequently, the taking of land was made easier because of deaths. European diseases devastated Indigenous people, said writer and traditional storyteller Joseph Bruchac, a member of the Nulhegan Abenaki Nation, who said some historians may have passed on a fallacy by suggesting no one ever owned land taken by the Europeans. “It’s a very harmful way of looking at things, interpreting the people who lived there as nomads at most,” he said. “It makes an assumption that these were people with no culture. It feeds into the myth of the vanishing or nonexistent Native — without culture, without history, without fixed abode.”
The myth also belies the increasing number of artifacts found within the Adirondack Park, some of which have been shown, thanks to carbon dating, to be more than 11,000 years old.
Tim Messner, associate professor of anthropology at SUNY Potsdam, has been periodically excavating in the Adirondacks for a few years. He has uncovered remnants of a fire pit in the Long Lake area from 1,000 years ago. Other finds include drills, spear points and knives 5,000 to 7,000 years old in the Tupper Lake area.
One site in Tupper Lake dates back 11,500 years. Both the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center in Onchiota and the Adirondack Experience museum in Blue Mountain Lake have artifacts as well. And these are just the found pieces that have been turned over to museums and institutions. The likelihood that additional evidence is sitting in attics and garages is high, Messner and others said.
“The archeological evidence speaks to a deeper history and more complicated history than has been conventionally put forth,” Messner said. “People didn’t live in one spot. For the bulk of humanity, people were hunting and gathering.”
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“They didn’t have a fixed address. They had a physical entity that was considered home,” Messner said. “That’s how I conceive of the Adirondacks — people moving through and spending time everywhere because that’s what life necessitated for thousands and thousands of years.”
“It forces us to challenge our Eurocentric understanding of place and property and all these ideas of how one lives,” Messner said.
“People think evidence of habitation has to be villages or cities that were there a long time,” Bruchac said. “Our pattern of living was seasonal.” The Algonquins, for instance, were not primarily agriculturalists, he said —they hunted, gathered and fished. “So, they were not seeing a village as a village but seeing a territory as their village or home.”
David Fadden, who runs the Six Nations Iroquois Center, begun by his grandfather, said his people had a broader perspective when it comes to ancestral territory. “The way we perceive ownership and usage of land is different from colonial and European concepts,” he said. “Fences and walls are unheard of with Native peoples.”
Marla Jacobs, cultural manager at the Akwesasne Museum and Cultural Center on the St. Regis Mohawk territory in northern Franklin County, sees the perceived story of ownership as a bigoted one. “I really believe it’s a form of racism to make Indigenous people look dumber,” she said. “The reason why we were living the way we were was because of the respect we have for nature itself.”
She referenced a tribal thanksgiving address to illustrate. The address, she said, pays respect to Mother Earth, water, plants and animals. “We do this because all these things came before us and will be here after us,” she said. “We acknowledge our presence and thank them for sustaining us.”
That belief system is incorporated into Native lifestyle. “A long time ago the word ‘nomadic’ would be used because we traveled,” Jacobs said. “We never stayed in one spot for very long. When we removed ourselves from that space, it gave the land time to heal.”
Curt Stager, a natural sciences professor at Paul Smith’s College, has been studying this issue for years and is writing a book on this topic. He concludes that Indigenous people regarded the Adirondack Park as their homeland.
“Are you saying your pantry isn’t part of your home because you only go in it a few seconds a day?” he said. “You needed to go where the food was and that would change through the seasons. The whole region was home.”
“They may or may not have had villages, because that may not be how they lived,” Stager said. “The main question is did they live here. It’s an unequivocal yes. All you need is one artifact, and we have them, and it spans from the post Ice Age.”
“Their story never ended,” Stager adds. “They have been here almost since land emerged from under the ice sheet.”
Melissa Otis, an Elizabethtown historian who wrote the book “Rural Indigenousness,” is direct about why the history of Native people in the park is so misunderstood. Earlier historians didn’t bother to examine or write about Native American ownership. Her book is an attempt to right that wrong by examining the history of the Algonquian and Iroquoian people in the Adirondacks.
“It’s very colonialist. It’s a westernized perspective of what a home is supposed to be,” she said. “It doesn’t take into account the various ways people around the world live and occupy space.”
It’s a misnomer to say the Algonquin people were nomads, Otis said. “They had a specific territory for what was going on. It was very routinized work that they did,” she said. These people fished and gathered plants in different areas. The colonial perspective involved property purchases.
Aurora Pfaff, a Saranac Lake writer who is part Mohawk and has written about her ancestors on TupperLake.com, agrees with Otis. “People put an emphasis on home and Native people don’t think of land as a possession,” she said. “Home is where you feel it, not just a building on a plot of land and here’s the dividing line between your house and my house. We’re part of something bigger. Your neighbors aren’t just who lives next door. It’s the animals. There’s a respect for the environment that’s really crucial in looking at the place as your home and not just the place where you lay your head.”
Pfaff believes perpetuating misinformation about Native itinerancy harms Native Americans today. “There is this sensation or misconception that what happens in the past is over and done with,” she said. “The concept that they weren’t here, that no one was here, that this land was just open and empty is not accurate. It erases the people who were here. It erases whole communities and erases the people who stood on the shore of a lake in the Adirondacks and found it beautiful.
“To erase people’s existence in a place is detrimental to the communities, socially, emotionally,” she said, “and I think it’s something a lot of people who are still here struggle with. We’re here and you’re not seeing us. We need to be seen. We need to be seen as the original Adirondackers.”