Humans have always built settlements along or near a water source and before the European settlers arrived, the region where I grew up, was a multicultural network of original people communities. The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga and Mohawk peoples. Wikipedia tells me the communities along the Susquehanna river were the Susquehannock (also called Conestoga) people. The Susquehanna River passes my hometown, and growing up I don’t think I ever thought once about its non-English sounding name. It is just the river’s name.
The Susquehannock spoke a language belonging to the Haudenosaunee linguistic family and the Haudenosaunee people and their nation would be called the Iroquois by the French settlers they came into contact with.
When the Europeans arrived in what would be become known as the “Americas” they frequently misnamed local groups. The erroneous names arose because of some misunderstanding or because they were named for how they were called by their traditional enemies. For instance the Susquehannock people were called Conestoga by the coastal-dwelling Algonquian-speaking Lënape people that the English first came into contact with.
I was not surprised to learn that the Susquehannock belonged to what I knew as the Iroquois Confederacy, that made geographical sense, what I didn’t know was they called themselves Haudenosaunee.
the past in the present
Cultural erasure. Misnamed. Territory stolen. None of this information surprised me, I felt sad reading it. But I had felt bad about the US’s colonial legacy before starting the research, so I was familiar with that discomfort.
This sadness was different. Like a twist in life’s learning spiral showing me (again) how much there is to learn and unlearn about our shared history because history only tells the side of the conqueror. The business of conquering involves demonization, fear-mongering, hate, violence, genocide. It is little wonder that the society we inherit and create is rife with us versus them notions. It’s because we haven’t dealt with the past.
This summer in the wake of the George Floyd protests, I wondered what could I do from a distance to contribute to a local and global conversation about racism? What could I do to be a good ancestor? I started by asking myself what am I already doing? Could I build on or leap from that?
Since 2000 I have accompanied, first in-person and now from a distance, the indigenous movement the Zapatistas based in Chiapas, Mexico as they assert their right to autonomy over their territory. At some point during these past years, it occurred to me that I knew more about the traditions, customs and beliefs of the original communities in the Zapatista movement than I do the original communities in the area where I grew up.
wings, no roots
I don’t know if it’s ironic or fitting that I, the descendant of settlers/invaders, know more about the original peoples in a place far from home than the communities around my place of birth.
One of the things I admire about the Zapatistas is their connection to place and commitment to Mother Earth and the generations past and future. I also clearly remember what they said on January 1st 1994 when they emerged to the public: “Today we say enough is enough! We are the product of 500 years of resistance.”
I, like many US Americans I imagine, don’t have much knowledge of my cultural heritage. Based on the surnames of my distant past ancestors, they were probably English, Scottish, Irish and German, but I don’t really know.
As the story goes, we’ve just always been there and the land ours. End of story. Except it is not, it is just a tiny part. The events that happened way back when mark us, both the pain, suffering and bloodshed inflicted upon the original communities and the toxic notions about white supremacy and human domination over nature that flow from the proud (and fearful) bravado of the settler/invader ancestors.
So that’s what I have started doing, learning about the Haudenosaunee culture and traditions. I have easily found lots of great resources and information, it’s more a question of making the time to sit and educate myself about all of history. Right now I am working my way through a series of recorded seminars, Conversations in Cultural Fluency, from the Six Nations Polytechnic, a Haudenosaunee post-secondary institution in Six Nations (Canada).
“The antidote to feel-good history is not feel-bad history, but honest and inclusive history.” — James W. Loewen in Plagues & Pilgrims: The Truth about the First Thanksgiving
point of view
On arrival, the settlers’ found some “empty” villages that the setters took as signs from God that this land was for intended for them. Actually the depopulated villages were the consequence of mass death of communities owing to exposure to European diseases brought by sailors and marauders years before the settlers arrived.
Other communities were what the Europeans would call “nomadic” folks who moved following the hunt, the planting, the harvest. Nomadic, no home. They are not people like you and me. The settlers spread and believed that idea because it served their interests to occupy the land and demonize the “Indian”. Whereas, indigenous communities who move following the seasons will tell you from their point of view, they are not nomadic, they simply have different homes according to the season and the community’s primary activity.
There’s a lot more to say about what I am learning my self-directed studies of Haudenosaunee history and culture, but another day. “Home ground” is becoming a series of posts seeking to understanding how the past and memories carried or secreted away by the landscape influence how I am in the world.
want to know more?
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann re-examines the popular beliefs that the so called new world was a sparsely populated, pristine wilderness. Excellent book, written for the layperson. Alternatively a video where he speaks about his research.
Good Ancestor podcast – join Layla Saad interviewing change-makers and cultural-shapers
Six Nations Polytechnic youtube channel with the Haudenosaunee series about cultural fluency that I mentioned earlier.