Native Adirondackers and their distinct cultural identity

Over the years I have listened to lecturers, educators and hosts of other acknowledged experts explain how the Adirondack region got its name. Most experts agree ‘adirondac’ is a European linguistic interpretation of a term that various native peoples used to describe the lands and waters of the region.

The term that was used by one indigenous group to slur another translates roughly to “barkeater.” It was intended as an insult to indicate the offended party was not capable of fending for themselves as hunters, and were thus reduced to eating bark to subsist.

I’ve alway thought the intended barkeater insult lacks adequate punch. If I wanted to insult a foe, I would directly insult his heritage, his appearance or his lack of bravery. Disparaging my enemy’s dietary habits just doesn’t seem to have the necessary zing.

It appears to me the term adironcac/barkeater was used to describe a natural/physical quality of the landscape. Creatures such as porcupines and beaver were likely the most predominant natural features of the land, and both animals are notorious barkeaters.

Prior to the arrival of the first Europeans in the region – which began with the Dutch in the south and later with the French in the north – the Adirondack region had been utilized by a variety of First Nations’ people, including Algonquian, Iroquois, Abenaki, Mahican and Mohawk who regularly traveled through the Adirondack region to hunt, wage war for spiritual purposes and exploration.

Eventually, the region became a place of refuge for displaced Algonquian speaking people who had departed from New England and southern New York for religious, economic and political issues.

The region was also occupied by Indians who had sided with the French during the French and Indian Wars and later by those who had been aligned with the British during the Revolutionary War.

Residents of New York state, which was considered ground zero in both of those conflicts, continued to exhibit ill will toward most native people, regardless of tribal affiliations.

Resentment was especially bitter among European trappers who often

boasted of collecting a pile of good furs after firing a single shot into an Indian blanket.

Despite such a wide variety of natural resources, most experts tend to agree the Adirondack region was never considered a homeland and that native people failed to establish any permanent settlements in the area.

European-American history has been recorded on paper, while native history is mostly oral or available on wampum. History is also subject to interpretation, and it is more often recorded and enhanced by the victors rather than by the vanquished.

Experts continue to claim the Adirondacks were used by native people exclusively for purposes of hunting and travel, but there were never any permanent settlements established in the region, beyond the Awkwasasne mission on the St. Regis River.

At the time of first contact with Europeans, there was an overabundance of beaver in the Adirondack region, as well as numerous whitetail deer in the woods.

Historical reports indicate the salmon spawning in local rivers were so prolific they could hobble a horse.

The region also attracted such massive flocks of fowl that the skies darkened as they migrated along historic flyways throughout the region.

In the forests and fields, there were wild turkeys and grouse, varying hare as well as mink, beaver, fox, bobcat and more.

The ‘Dacks of the day were a veritable woodland Walmart, and it’s hard to believe native people lacked the skills necessary to enjoy the harvest.

With such obvious supplies of fish, fowl and game so readily available, it is difficult to understand how native peoples were reduced to eating bark. It just doesn’t seem to make sense.

There is little doubt the Adirondack region was utilized by native peoples for a variety of interests. The vast interconnecting waterways provided them with easy access and safe travel, while the surrounding lands were rich in fish, fur, game and such fruit of the woods as berries, maple syrup, mushrooms and tubers. Corn was later introduced, and it soon became a staple of their diet.

The Adirondack region is literally laced with waterways that are surrounded by major water corridors, including Lake Champlain to the east, the St. Lawrence to the north, the Hudson in the south and the Great Lakes to the west. These natural corridors opened the land in all directions to trade, and villages were not isolated.

For native peoples of the northeastern United States, canoes offered the utilitarian equivalent of what horses provided to the Plains Indians of the west. Canoes provided ease of travel and the capability of transporting large quantities of trade goods, furs, food and other supplies over great distances.

Similar to a horse, a canoe could be handled by a single person, and yet they could easily carry two or more.

Canoe styles were refined and developed for purposes ranging from hauling freight to going to war. Birch bark canoes required considerable skill to build, but they were also lightweight, portable and easy to handle.

Canoes constructed of elm bark – the most predominant tree in the northeast at the time – were heavy, sturdy and quite easy to construct.

Dugout canoes were also very common. They were often to be found along the shores of many Adirondack lakes and ponds where they had been sunken or buried in mud to prevent rot and decay.

Dugouts were a primitive craft, but were very easy to construct by using fire to hollow them out. They could also be converted into very stable rafts by lashing them together with saplings.

The modern day Northern Forest Canoe Trail, which spans the Great North Woods from Old Forge to Fort Kent, Maine, traces a route that was historically utilized by Native Peoples for centuries by the Abenaki, Iroquois and Algonquian nations. There is little doubt the native travelers knew the land and the wildlife very well.

After pondering various ideas set forth by different “experts” over the years, I recently stumbled across an expert I can believe in. Oddly enough, I discovered her years ago in my own backyard. In fact, Melissa Otis was our neighbor in Elizabethtown and she graduated high school with my sister.

She has since left the region, and recently completed her doctoral thesis at the University of Toronto. It is a very intriguing piece of work.

Titled “At Home in the Adirondacks: A Regional History of Indigenous and Euroamerican Interactions, 1776-1920,” the work provides valuable insight into the history of Iroquoian and Algonquian peoples prior to and following the interactions and relationships they developed with Europeans.

Ms.Otis debunks the long-held myth that Native Americans never settled in the Adirondacks by offering evidence of historic Indian villages that once existed in the Adirondacks, including a handful of native communities that were still in existence as late as the mid-19th century.

Through her extensive research of regional census records and property deeds, Ms. Otis also shines a bright light on the many native Adirondack guides who took sports through the wild Adirondacks during the 1870s through the 1890s, including members of the well known Sabbattis family of Long Lake.

It is difficult to escape the bitter irony of wealthy city sports traveling hundreds of miles into the Adirondack wilderness in order to hunt and fish with authentic members of “the vanishing race.”

At the same time the city sports were lounging in rustic lean-tos festooned with evergreens, the Indian Wars were still raging in the West as the process of Manifest Destiny marched ever forward.

The overarching argument of the recent thesis revolves around the relationship between Iroquoian people and the Adirondack region. It is a story of continuity of use, location of exchange, shatter zones, the occupancy of a homeland and negotiations of space between various groups.

The study reveals that native people have always been an important thread in a blanket of distinct cultural identity known as Adirondackers.

Part two of the saga will be continued in next week’s column.