Guest columnist John Sinton: ‘The Invisible Man is the Native we don’t see’

  • A view looking west at Mount Sugarloaf. Margaret M. Bruchac

  • A view looking east at Mount Sugarloaf. Margaret M. Bruchac

  • The Sojourner Truth Memorial statue in Florence. WENDY SINTON

For the Gazette
Published: 7/10/2020 11:30:28 PM

Indigenous people named this part of the world between Nonotuck (Northampton) and Pocumtuck (Deerfield) “The Great Beaver.”

They tell a story of its origin: Time out of mind, many people and animals lived here, along the Connecticut River when an enormous beaver decided to dam it. Here is what happened, as told by Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau in her poem “At Sugarloaf, 1996” (“Mother/Land,” 2006: Folio publishers):

In the big pond, Ktsi Amiskw, the Beaver, is swimming. He has built a dam. The water in his pond grows deeper. He patrols the edges, chasing everyone away. This is all mine now, he says. The people and animals grow thirsty.

Cut it out, Creator says. And turns Ktsi Amiskw to stone. The pond is drained. There is water and food for everyone. See those hills Ktsi Amiskw’s head, body, and tail? He’s lying there still, this valley his empty pond.”

The Great Beaver set the world off kilter by hogging the landscape and depriving all but his family of their livelihoods. In so doing, KtsiAmiskw had committed the gravest injustice, that of depriving community members of their basic rights and needs. Everything for me, not much for you.

Stories need telling

Our valley stories need telling. People have lived here for some 10,000 years, different Indigenous people over long periods of war and peace, of hate and grace. Sometimes our world has been in balance, other times, not.

What happened in this place holds lessons for us in matters of justice and equity. Our children grow up here. Their sense of place is part of their own identity, and children will eagerly listen to tales about the place they will inherit. After all, we cannot care for something that we don’t care about.

Following our origin story comes the heartbreaking century and a half of relations between Natives and Europeans, tales now found in re-discovered histories of Colonial America. I urge you to search these out, especially books about King Philip’s War in the 17th century, perhaps the bloodiest in American history.

You will find scarcely a decade in that century and a half without a war. Acting in the spirit of Ktsi Amiskw, Europeans obliterated Native lifeways, and dispersed Indigenous peoples in a dramatic diaspora. Europeans then developed all manner of tactics to exile or eradicate other Native people as the United States expanded westward.

Of all the horrors visited upon the Indians of New England, perhaps none was worse than to make them disappear from history, from memory, literally from our eyesight. Even now, the descendants of Europeans pretend that Indians no longer live among us in the Valley of the Great Beaver. The Invisible Man is the Native we don’t see.

‘Very much alive’

And yet, of course, the Algonkian people are very much alive, reviving their languages and communities. Think Nolumbeka Project at Turners Falls or our two great local Abenaki historians Marge Bruchac and Lisa Brooks. We are all responsible for helping to fight for the recognition and land rights of Indigenous people when they request aid. For example, neither Massachusetts nor the federal government have recognized the legal existence of the Abenaki people.

Natives have continued to live among us to the present day, marginalized though they have been, and they were not the only ones so treated. The Valley of the Great Beaver has been home to slave-holding ministers and their Black property, along with owners and sellers of enslaved people, those Southern Aristocrats, who came to summer in these beautiful New England hills. By the 19th century, the Great Beaver had taken the form of white Americans, and visitors from the Carolinas must have certainly understood that this valley was a paradise for the Great Beaver’s family.

But white injustice could not occupy every nook in our valley. At the same moment in time, protests arose from abolitionists, who fought against slavery and helped shelter runaway slaves on their way to Canada. The village of Florence welcomed the Northampton Association for Education and Industry (NAEI), a utopian commune devoted to equality, feminism and anti-racism. Every school child in this valley should have the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of Sojourner Truth, who lived in Florence, worked at the Nonotuck Mills, and helped farm near the Underground Railroad stop that still stands at the edge of the Grow Food Northampton fields.

As all this was happening, Sally Maminash, a local Indian, was living in Northampton, quietly contributing her work and gifts to the town. We should take a walk in her shoes on a visit to her family’s homeplace on Pancake Plain, now part of Village or Hospital Hill. Ancient spirits will accompany us, and their very presence will warn us against complacency. You will not find Native graves, but it is sufficient to be in the presence of the Maminash family. Sally’s grave is in the Bridge Street cemetery.

For every citizen who took a stand against slavery in this valley, many more supported it, even if passively. The abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, who came to Northampton in 1838, was distraught when she had to live cheek by jowl to a former auctioneer of enslaved African Americans.

“Nature has been lavish of beauty [to Northampton],” she wrote, “but the human soul is stagnant there.” In 1841, she left.

Stories of justice,injustice

This valley has endless stories of justice and injustice, of racism and generosity, action and passivity. Recently, a sudden wave of protestors has challenged the Great Beaver’s world. With each affront and death, resistors remove another stick from the beaver’s dam that has held back the pond that drowned the hopes of many millions.

Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Institute, has for years been repeating his mantra that “the power of proximity” is the pathway through which we intimately understand ourselves and others. “If you are willing to get closer to people who are suffering, you will find the power to change the world.” We already stand proximate to the place we live in, and we need to learn the uncomfortable truths of this place.

What is the next chapter in the story of the Great Beaver? How will our struggle for justice in the Valley play out? Cheryl Savageau suggests one possibility:

“Ktsi Amiskw Dreams”

For living out of balance, Ktsi Amiskw lies still, while for centuries, his descendants are trapped in every stream, caught in ever river, killed by the millions for fur-lust from across the sea. Their pelts buy blankets, cloth, weapons, knives.

Amiskw dreams a hard dream: a world without beavers. Then, far away, like the promise of a winter dawn, he dreams the rivers back, young mothers building, secure in their skins, and a pond full of the slapping tails of children.

The current world will change and it will become more colorful. The season of peace is not yet at hand, but in time, the whiteness of this country will become a marble monument, ready for someone to topple it.

*Note on Native place names from Professors Margaret Bruchac and Lisa Brooks: The name for the section of the Connecticut River Valley between Deerfield and Easthampton/Hadley is “Ktsi Amiskw,” or Great Beaver. The name for the hill we now call Sugarloaf in South Deerfield is Pemawatchuwatunck, meaning “long winding hill,” by its English name “Pocumtuck Range” or sometimes colloquially “Beaver Hill.”

John Sinton lives in Florence. He is co-moderator  of the Mill River Greenway  Initiative and Adjunct Professor of Landscape Architecture and Regi onal Planning at UMass. 

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