Standing in the morning sunshine on the knife edge of Mt. Race was the highlight of my Autumn ramble across the Taconic Plateau. The open cliffs, sheering away along a broad front, afford unparalleled views of the Berkshire Hills and the seepage wetlands below. I know this landscape as well, or better, than any other section of the Berkshires, but this was my first opportunity to look back at the valley from Mt. Race itself, instead of looking up at its looming palisade from my customary vantage on Undermountain Rd.
It was an exhilarating feeling. My eye wandered over the landscape before me, pausing to focus on each recognized landmark and recite its name. This is an act as old as human speech itself that binds the viewer and the object in a web of connection and relationship. Adam's first task in Eden, we are told, was to name the multitudes of God's creation. Scientific nomenclature is, at its heart, an effort to follow Adam by classifying the diversity of life on Earth through a grand unifying theory of highly specific and descriptive names. And just as liturgical language maintains a potent connection between clergy and congregation, the formal Latin species names are both inclusive -there is one official name for each thing that can be used by everyone- and exclusive, as only those who understand Latin will appreciate its full descriptive potential.
Names contain great power, both for the objects they identify and those who affix them with labels. A rose by another name may indeed smell as sweet, but Shakespeare's star-crossed lovers transcend the limitations of their incompatible family identities only through death. Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, his own imagined "postage stamp of soil", contains place names with layers of meaning. The practitioner of Zen Buddhism must break through the wall between subject and object - "first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is" - to perceive without objectification. And lest we forget, it was once said of witches and sorcerers that those who dared might bind to service the very denizens of Hell through knowledge of their True Names.
We are given our names and we accept names for ourselves. There is more than mere "political correctness" in the evolution from "Negro" to "Black" to "African American" to "Person of Color". Objectifying labels of division have become identifiers of group belonging. Sometimes, personal identity takes on and subverts language and symbols formerly used to dismiss and trivialize it. The pink triangle symbol used today as an emblem of gay empowerment was expropriated from a Nazi badge of shame forced on homosexuals under the Reich.
The old names have latent power, even though few today recall their origins and meaning. Taconic, for example, may derive from the Mahican language and means "wild forest", an increasingly fitting appellation as the trees grow older and the woodlands recover from near total deforestation just centuries ago.
C. Lawrence Bond's Native Names of New England Towns and Villages provides likely definitions for many of the places visible from Mt. Race. According to Bond, the name of the broad Housatonic River, curving in oxbows through the Sheffield Flats, means "Beyond the Mountain", for it was part of the Mahican territory that ran from the Hudson and across the Taconic Range to this eastern river valley. Indian Line Farm in Egremont, Massachusetts, preserves in its name the remnant of an old Mahican land grant, left to these native people -for a time- by European settlers to preserve a strip of connecting land between the two rivers.
Schenob Brook's vast seepage wetlands are thought to take their name from a corruption of a Dutch word or family name. But Konkapot, the brook looping from New Marlborough, Massachusetts into Canaan Connecticut and back again to join the Housatonic at Ashley Falls, was also the name of a Mahican sachem who ceded land to Colonel John Ashley across a large part of the southern Berkshires. There is another, unconnected Konkapot Brook in northern Great Barrington and Stockbridge that also is a tributary of the Housatonic and named for the old chief.
I once read a travel diary from 1919 offering the Native American meanings "laughing water" and "smiling water" for Salisbury's Twin Lakes, Washining and Washinee, and these bodies of water did indeed glisten evocatively in the morning light as I stood on Mt. Race. 19th-century Americans, at least those residing in the tamed and cultivated East, tended to romanticize as 'noble, vanished savages' the same native peoples who their grandparents demonized, so it is probably good to be a bit skeptical of whimsical definitions like those given for Twin Lakes. If every Indian maiden who purportedly threw herself off a cliff for love actually did so - Bash Bish and Mahaiwe are just two local examples - there would have been little need for smallpox and gunpowder to clear the land for European expansion.
The Housatonic had few permanent Mahican villages even before the Europeans arrived. At Kampoosa Bog, the "Dangerous Place" in Stockbridge where a floating mat of sedges might give way beneath a hunter's feet and plunge him down into the peaty black water beneath, there is archaeological evidence of seasonal encampments going back several thousand years. Great Barrington had a Mahican village, and Stockbridge was one of the "praying towns" of Christian Indians until after the Revolution, but these were exceptions. There were good reasons for native settlements to be transitory in the Berkshires.
Food availability was one factor, and the Hudson estuary and coastal Connecticut afforded many more resources to hunter/foragers than the dense forests and cliffs of the interior. But another real threat came from the vast Iroquois confederacy, whose influence spread from the Great Lakes to the Smokey Mountains and whose easternmost nation, the Mohawk, used the passes over the Taconics to facilitate raids on the New England tribes. The Mohawk Trail in northern Berkshire County, modern Rte. 2, was once a warriors' path, and much of western New England was left a depopulated buffer as a result.
When I was a boy growing up in nearby Dutchess County, New York, I was fascinated by evidence of Native Americans lingering in the rolling hillsides of the Hudson Valley, and to the East in northwest Connecticut. My father told stories from his childhood of Old Chief Tamarack, supposedly the last of his tribe and living during the 19th century in a cabin on land owned today by Millbrook School, and where local tradition held there was once an Indian burial ground. I never found so much as a spearpoint for all my boyhood searching, but back in my father's youth old Farmer Marcy donated to the school a vast collection of stone hand axes, arrowheads and pot sherds unearthed over decades walking behind his plow over adjacent fields.
When I was in 4th grade, I attended a two-week Indian Camp at the Sharon Audubon center across the way in Litchfield County, Connecticut. We made a sweat lodge and were each assigned membership in a clan - mine was Turtle - but the highlight for me was the day when an actual Native American, the first I had ever knowingly met, came and talked with us from his home on the 400-acre Schaghticoke reservation in Kent, Connecticut.
The Schaghticoke (or possibly Pishgaticook) have yet to receive federal tribal recognition, and there is great controversy today in Northwest Connecticut about their efforts to do so. Connecticut has, in Foxwoods and the Mohegan Sun, two of the largest Native American casinos in existence, and many interests in the state are opposed to further casino expansion. Plenty of folks in Kent are leery of Indian land claims or possible casino development in this area and the impacts they would have on the region. I also recognize these potential impacts, but cannot forget the impression made on my ten-year-old mind by the visitor from Schaghticoke.
It's a wonder that this band has persisted at all on this landscape and retained as much of its cultural identity as it has. The Schaghticokes have been present in this area since at least the late 17th-century and their original Mahican members also absorbed refugees of other scattered bands fleeing the aftermath of King Phillip's War and European expansion. Moravian missionaries evangelized among the Schaghticokes in the 1740s, and like the Stockbridge settlement to the north, members of the tribe served in the Continental forces during the Revolution.
The tribe records about 300 members today, but back in the late 1970s, and before the extensive genealogical backtracking that petitioning for federal recognition involves, there were just a few dozen people living on the old reservation up on the mountain behind Kent School.
I was entranced by the stories we heard during the Schaghticoke member's visit. When I got home that night, I took my father's cassette player and used up hours of tape recording the experience. I think these tapes are still in my parents' files but have not listened to them for over twenty-five years. Still, I remember the deep connection this Native American felt with the landscape of his home, and that the tribal name was also the place name for the area around Kent where he and his fellow Schaghicokes still lived. He knew without question that he belonged there.
When I look out over Sheffield and Salisbury from Mt. Race, I see ecosystems and property lines, protected land and land vulnerable to development. I see clues to past land use and hints of what is to come. I see lands I have helped conserve and lands that have been in the same family for centuries. I know their names, and in naming them I claim relationship to them, and to this place, and accept the responsibility of preserving it and its stories, so more of us will understand what has gone before and what is yet possible for this land we share.