The Berkshires Blog

Warming the “Grandfathers”

By Todd Fiorentino

When I first heard of the assignment, I have to admit feeling a bit of trepidation.  What did I know about Native American history in the Berkshires or anywhere else?  In truth, I didn’t know a lick about it.  But I remembered what my fourth grade writing teacher told me when I complained, “I don’t know what to write.”  She said, “Write about not knowing what to write.”

Funny how an entire year can be a blur, but then you recall random lines people said eons ago.  Anyway, I figured what better way to learn about Native American history in the Berkshires than to attend a pow-wow!  So I wandered down to the Healing Winds 9th Annual Rock, Rattle & Drum Pow Wow in Adams this past August 10th.  The first thing I figured out is that a pow-wow is a tribal gathering to honor one’s ancestors.  Okay, so far I’m on board… it typically involves ritualistic dancing in a circle and praying to the ancestors while smoke rises to heaven.  The prayers may be for a good harvest (corn, beans and squash are considered “the three sisters”), bountiful hunting or fishing (also used to fertilize the field), prosperity in the tribe or the land and so on.

Although I don’t want to paint Native Americans with a broad brush, as there are many tribes, it does seem that they honored nature and the animal world.  The callous way in which we treat animals, from road-kill to animal labs, is devoid in Native American culture.  Yes, they killed animals for fur and meat, but there was respect, an animal spirit that was thanked and honored.  Commercialism, capitalism, population explosion, technology overload… their lives were so much different from ours.

Perhaps it’s hard for me to connect with Native American culture because my ancestors were native Europeans.  And, I’ve been indoctrinated into a world that has shed many of the Native American traditions.  I go to Price Chopper for food; I don’t grab my bow.  And if people smoke tobacco in our society now, it’s loaded with additives and manufactured in a plant.  It’s rare to find true pure tobacco on its own.  Our flavors are made in labs.  It takes hundreds of chemicals to create that “strawberry” flavor in a shake from a fast food restaurant.  What happened to just pure berries or single ingredient foods in general?

Of course, there was more to their way of life than food and survival.  There was music.  And the Pow Wow really had wonderful Native American flutes and drumming by Rez Dogs and Red Blanket.  Arvel Bird did a wonderful piece on Irish whistle, native flute and violin called “Brave Heart Meets Last of the Mohicans at Woodstock.”  The native garb was impressive and colorful lending itself to the dance and creating rhythmic jumping colors.  Meanwhile, vendors sold shells, which were Mohawk money, hand-woven baskets and jewelry of all kinds.

But it’s impossible to talk about Native American history in the Berkshires without discussing the places, trails and wilderness where they lived.  For many of us now, these are hiking and camping destinations, but to the Native Americans, this was home.  They traveled the Mahican-Mohawk Trail with major landmarks that include Todd Mountain, the Hoosac and Deerfield Rivers.  (Notably, the Hoosac Tunnel runs beneath the Hoosac Range connecting Troy and Boston by train.)  This trail also connected the Mohawks with the Pocumtucks.

When I drove towards Mohawk Trail State Forest taking Route 2 from North Adams, it was a cool breezy day.  An early cold snap meant you could see the first signs of leaves changing.  I caught a glimpse and a whiff of fresh lavender.  I recalled taking a trip this way with my neighbor—we grabbed our chainsaws and set out to hack up fallen trees in preparation for winter.  I hiked the park as well and remember taking mental note that you could stay in a cabin as opposed to tent camping.  Somehow, tent camping after 40 has less appeal unless an air mattress is involved.  It remains an item on my leisure to-do list.

Route 2 is really an old favorite of mine.  You can sneak into the Northampton/Connecticut River Valley area while still enjoying a scenic route, or go to Boston and avoid the highway droning of Route 90.  Drop right into Cambridge.  Driving it brought back my motorcycle days, taking those sinuous roads, past the Golden Eagle and Wig Wam, past the goat retreat, past the great elk statue and amid vast spectacular views.  You can even catch a waterfall or two if you keep an eye out; and trailheads abound.  To us, these days, we call them natural resources.  But to the Native Americans, I think, though I can’t be sure, they were spirit.

Now that I think about it, when I lived in the East Village, I used to canoe the Passaic River in NJ and go upstate for sweat lodges with a friend.  He was a member of the Lenape tribe in Canada and knew how to prepare the lodge and do the rituals.  In retrospect, part of the lesson, I believe, was the way in which we worked together to create the lodge experience.  Young green tree seedlings were bent into a kind of igloo shape and fastened with vines.  Being modern folk, we used blankets instead of animal skins to insulate using many layers.

We built a huge bonfire and heated up the “grandfathers” (again, it’s all about the ancestors), which were large stones.  Once scalding hot, we brought the stones into the small lodge, poured water on them to create loads of steam and began singing, chanting, praying and essentially expressing our hopes.  One couple wished they could work things out and stop fighting; who says you need a sofa for therapy?  Others expressed gratitude for the many gifts of life around us.  We drew coolness from the earth, concluded our chants and went into an otherworldly experience brought on by the extreme heat (imagine a sauna times ten).  Hey, maybe I do know a few things about Native Americans after all.

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Todd Fiorentino holds a degree in Professional Writing from UMASS, Boston.  He runs Energy Rising Massage Therapy in Pittsfield and Stockbridge Massage.  Todd writes extensively on tourism-related issues with a focus on wellness; read his blogs at www.berkshires.org under “The Wellness Guy.”