This story is a part of a Native American Blog Series in observance of National Native American Heritage Month.
During the peak of fall in September, visitors to the Fort River Division of the Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge time-traveled to the ancient Native American heritage site of the Norwottuck people (who belong to the Algonquin Native American culture). Travelers stepped back 8,000 years to discover that many Native tribes lived and thrived in the Connecticut River watershed for thousands of years. Guests excavated in a sand-box archaeological dig, viewed projectile point arrowheads used for subsistence hunting and fishing by Native Americans thousands of years ago, and learned about the 1630’s contact period of European settlers. Visitors finished their journey into current day, knowing that Native American Nations still embrace their culture and practice their sovereignty in Massachusetts and across the United States. Walking along the bridge, visitors realized that beneath them lay thousands of years of important history that lives on in the culture of Native American Tribes today.
As the Jr. Native American Liaison for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I was able to tell this story and share my Native culture in the process. In late May, I joined the Student Conservation Association internship with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service having never been to the Northeast before. Coming from the prairie and Black Hills of South Dakota, Massachusetts was a long way from home. However, I was passionate to serve Tribes in whatever capacity I could. I now work with Southeastern and Northeastern Native American Tribes through my position.
As an Oglala Lakota-Sioux Native American, I sought the opportunity to learn more about Tribes closer to the Atlantic. Researching technical reports of the Fort River Division creation (containing archaeological information), New England Tribes encyclopedia (Bruce, 1978), and “Historic and Archaeological Resources of the Connecticut River Valley” (Galvin, Massachusetts Historical Commission), I learned the rich past and present of Tribes along the Connecticut River. Using creativity, passion, and accredited resources, I designed a Native American Storybook of the Norwottuck, Algonquin people. The 28-page story was displayed on kiosks along the Fort River Division 1.2 mile loop trail throughout the month of September.
On Saturday, September 16th, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, invited the public to join them in activities to go along with the Storybook. Through partnership with Tim Binzen, the Service’s Native American Liaison for the Northeast and Southeast, and Eric Johnson, the University of Massachusetts-Amherst Archaeologist, projectile point artifacts were on display for visitors. Children, parents, students, and trail-walkers alike, got to hold an arrowhead dating back 8,000 years.
I hope that reading that storybook on that sunny day in September changed Fort River visitors, including my own colleagues at the agency. Student Conservation Association intern, Ben Whittlebee, remarked, “When I hold this arrowhead, I feel a little bit closer to the people who lived here before me. It’s like having a piece of them with me.”
Tim Binzen mentioned that all projectile points tell a story of the people. These points were shaped differently and specifically for different uses and those methods were passed down from generation to generation. Christine Eustis, also a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee and visitor to the Storybook, mentioned that she had learned so much. She looks at wigwams and tepees with a different perspective and she understands more of the Native Americans of this area. Several visitors can now identify jewelweed and pokeberry, plants that were and are important to New England Tribes.
The Storybook concept is designed for children, but we can all learn from it. At the end of the story, Sokanon and Keme discuss the sovereign nations recognized in the United States today. In fact, there are 567 federally recognized Tribes in the United States. including nine Tribes in Massachusetts, seven of which are state-recognized.
The story says, “Communities are led by a Sachem (similar to a Chief, President, or Chairman). In 1885, English colonists mentioned that it was common for a woman to lead a village by virtue or hereditary descent as sachem. This holds true today for the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head, as Cheryl Andrews-Maltais is the Chairwoman, leader of the tribe”. The sister, Sokanon, goes on to say, “I’d like to be Sachem when I grow up”. The brother, Keme, responds, “I think you’d make a great leader, numis (sister in Algonquian)!”
I enjoyed learning about the Native Tribes of the Connecticut River watershed. My experience sharing the story with children and adults in Hadley was so incredible. If you missed the Storybook walk, you can still read Keme and Sokanon’s story through this download: Norwottuck Storybook
The Fort River Division of Silvio O. Conte National Fish and Wildlife Refuge is open throughout the year. You may plan your to Hadley, Massachusetts anytime! https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Silvio_O_Conte/about/ma.html#fort