Thursday, April 29, 2021

History Matters: Claiming Home


These days it seems like everyone wants to call the Adirondacks home. During the pandemic, closed-in city spaces have lost their allure. It’s a repeat of Saranac Lake’s tuberculosis years, when tens of thousands of people came here from around the world in search of the fresh air cure. When you want to avoid germs, a place with more trees than people is a good bet.
Mohawks picking berries in the Adirondacks. Illustration by John Fadden.

Adirondackers have a long love-hate relationship with outsiders. As the 20th century began and the TB industry picked up speed, strangers poured into the village. As much as TB represented a way to put food on the table, not all locals were thrilled with the changes newcomers brought. Guide and boatbuilder Fred Rice wrote a manuscript in 1952 decrying the development of the village as a health resort. During his father’s lifetime, as logging dried up, the business of wilderness tourism was flourishing. Mr. Rice argued this would have been the preferred pattern of development, “…persons not connected with the health interests have never felt particularly grateful to the doctors for changing the young pleasure resort into a health resort,” he wrote.

Fred Rice’s Saranac Lake of 1952 was coming to look a lot like it does today — a village paved for cars, strung with wires, teeming at times with city people. It’s easy to look back at the quieter times of the 1800s as the beginning of our history. We tend to think of young Fred Rice, his dad, and the tough old Adirondack guides like them, as the original Adirondackers. Such a view ignores the history of people who lived here for thousands of years.

Native American Guide Mitchell Sabattis at Indian Lake, 1886. Courtesy of the Saranac Lake Free Library.

Native American Guide Mitchell Sabattis at Indian Lake, 1886. Courtesy of the Saranac Lake Free Library.

Written accounts by early white settlers document the Adirondacks as a homeland and an important place of resource for many indigenous people. But as white people sank roots and claimed their future here, they re-wrote history to claim the past too. By 1921, historian Alfred Donaldson was writing that Indians just passed through the area. To the present day, a dearth of archeological studies has perpetuated the myth that Native Americans did not consider the Adirondacks home. At Historic Saranac Lake, we have often repeated this mistaken version of history.

Drive 15 minutes outside of the village, and you will find an amazing little museum that presents a much longer, more complete view of the past. Founded in 1954, Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center has been run by three generations of the Mohawk of Akwesasne Fadden family. There, you will discover that the Adirondacks were home to Algonquian-speaking and Iroquoian-speaking people since before 9000 BCE. The distinct culture of the Haudenosaunee formed within a vast territory that included much of New York State and the Adirondacks. Stories handed down across countless generations document the Adirondacks as a treasured homeland, a place of refuge, and a source of resources from fishing, hunting, trapping, mining, tapping trees, ice fishing, and the harvesting of medicinal plants.

Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center in Onchiota, NY.

Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center in Onchiota, NY.

At Historic Saranac Lake, we talk a lot about the last 150 years, but the human history of the Saranac Lake region goes back some 80 times farther! A fluted arrowhead found recently on St. Regis Lake is estimated to be some 13 thousand years old. At the top of the high peaks, Potsdam University Archaeologist Tim Messner found a piece of worked flint to make stone tools. People were here, calling this place home, hunting caribou across glaciers, before there were trees. It turns out, Fred Rice and his father were also interlopers, just a skip away in time from today’s city people looking for parking by Mount Baker.

Not only have we dismissed thousands of years of Native American history, we have ignored or diminished the presence of Native Americans in recent history to the present day. As the Adirondacks developed, Native Americans were forced to adapt as old livelihoods were no longer sustainable. Lumber operations, land takeovers by private owners and the state, and hunting for sport, all made for less game. Some Indians turned to guiding. They imparted their deep knowledge of the woods and waters to white settlers, making their survival possible. Native peoples survived as entrepreneurs, and in the towns and hamlets of the Adirondack Park, they have continued to maintain their cultural traditions.

As the weather warms, and local trails and lakes fill up with out-of-towners, we should keep in mind that few of us are rightful owners of these mountains. Native American people would wisely say that no one owns the land; at best we are merely stewards of this place we call home.

Dave John and Don Fadden at Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center

Dave, John, and Don Fadden at the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center.

SPECIAL THANKS:
John Fadden, Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center
Iakonikonriiosta, the Akwesasne Cultural Center
Tim Messner, SUNY Potsdam
Jen Krester, the Wild Center
Humanities New York.

RESOURCES:
“Mohawk Presence in the Adirondacks” by John Fadden
“Hidden Heritage” by Curt Stager (Adirondack Life, June 2017)
Rural Indigenousness by Melisa Otis (Syracuse University Press, 2018)
“A History In Fragments” by Lynn Woods (Adirondack Life November/December 1994)

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Amy Catania is the Executive Director of Historic Saranac Lake.




14 Responses

  1. Tom Kligerman says:

    Thanks for great article. Just asking if captions can be added to the images. Pretty sure the last image is the Fadden family. I met Ray Fadden at Onchiota museum in the 1980s. I assume the photo is his son and grandsons?

  2. nathan says:

    we dont need more people to crowd the roads, pollute the land and waters of the adirondacks, forever wild has become a joke to be used and abused by wealthy people who dont need jobs and sacrafic the livelihoods of those who have been here for generations forcing locals to have less, travel more and farther for work. then new people who move in and whine about roosters, been roosters here long before you were, so get country or leave please!!

  3. Philip Terrie Phil Terrie says:

    Seems odd that an article about the first people of the Adirondacks would not cite or at least mention Melissa Otis’s path-breaking “Rural Indigenousness: A History of Iroquoian and Algonquian Peoples of the Adirondacks.”

  4. John Ernst says:

    Great piece, Amy! Native history in the Adirondacks has been systematically erased. You are among the few to recognize and broadcast the facts. Bravo.

  5. Thanks for your comments, everyone. The original article did include the following citations and resources. They were inadvertently omitted from this posting.

    PHOTOS
    – Mohawks pick berries in the Adirondacks. (Illustration by John Fadden)
    – Native American Guide Mitchell Sabattis at Indian Lake, 1886. Courtesy of the Saranac Lake Free Library.
    – Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center in Onchiota, NY.
    – Dave, John, and Don Fadden pose at the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center.

    SPECIAL THANKS:
    John Fadden, Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center
    Iakonikonriiosta, the Akwesasne Cultural Center
    Tim Messner, SUNY Potsdam
    Jen Krester, the Wild Center
    Humanities New York.

    RESOURCES:
    “Mohawk Presence in the Adirondacks” by John Fadden
    “Hidden Heritage” by Curt Stager (Adirondack Life, June 2017)
    Rural Indigenousness by Melisa Otis (Syracuse University Press, 2018)
    “A History In Fragments” by Lynn Woods (Adirondack Life November/December 1994)

  6. JB says:

    This was a refreshing article. There are not a lot like it these days. I second Mr. Terrie’s comment pertaining to the book “Rural Indigenousness”, but, in fairness, that volume mainly dealt with the historical period. The prehistory of the Adirondack mountains proper has never been comprehensively covered by any scholarship that I am aware of, not unlike other areas of the Canadian shield where the archaeological record is spotty at best. Maybe it is better that way, as it is a sign of a region’s lack of post-colonial habitation and development, just as the original inhabitants surely would have wanted it.

    • John Sasso John Sasso says:

      See “Adirondack: Of the Indians and Mountains, 1535-1838” by Stephen B. Sulavik. I am sure there is other literature out there but this one comes to mind

      • JB says:

        John, thank you for the recommendation. I think that I had passed by that one on somebody’s bookshelf somewhere in years past, but I will try and check it out.

  7. Vanessa Banti Vanessa says:

    This a very refreshing take on the topic of indigenous peoples of the Adirondacks, many thanks for posting! The museum recommendation is great – will check it out for sure when I’m next in town. I wish more local museums did land acknowledgments when creating historical exhibits, though perhaps folks are now doing so and I haven’t caught up. They’re a great way to get people thinking about the status of the land they visit and “own.”

  8. Distance Reader says:

    A clear understanding of the ancestral land uses is an excellent beginning. But the next step has to be meaningful reconciliation with the indigenous peoples. Sensitively-curated museum exhibits & accurate depictions in our histories are obviously good things. Isn’t there more that might be done? Creative thought is needed .

  9. All fixed to include photo captions and resources. That was our fault and my apologies to Amy.

  10. Marjorie Roberts says:

    My family of 5 children spent many happy hours listening to John tell us traditional stories. He and my husband would chew tobacco together and spend an afternoon talking. We appreciate all the museum does to keep his culture and traditions alive

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