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Historical Society Honors Native Heritage, Thanksgiving Perspectives

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Darlene Kascak, educational coordinator and traditional Native American storyteller at the Institute for American Indian Studies participated in the Newtown Historical Society’s Open House and Native American and Colonial Thanksgiving remembrance on November 20 at the Matthew Curtiss House.

Kascak, 63, a Newtown resident and member of the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation, shared her thoughts on what this holiday traditionally meant as well as what it now means to indigenous cultures, as well as examples of original tribal artifacts, furs, and documents.

“I especially love sparking the imagination of young people as they discover how Native Americans lived and evolved over the centuries,” Kascak said. “Cultural storytelling and educational programs help people of all ages and backgrounds better understand other cultures.”

Arriving armed with a number of self-made traditional Native American tools, such as a ladle made from a gourd, a hoe made from deer bones, a drum made from skins, and a lunar calendar made from a turtle shell, Kascak explained that she is a traditional Native American storyteller. She said that storytellers are chosen for their ability to interact well with children, as storytellers are “essentially teachers.”

“The stories have valuable information and lessons,” said Kascak. “Like ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’ or the story of the Wendigo. The stories teach children how to behave or correct them when they are behaving badly.”

Centuries Of Legacy

Kascak said that the tribal nations have a 12,000 year history in Connecticut. She said that much of that history following colonization by Europe has largely been defined by the colonists, but there are two stories: “The story from the boat and the story from the shore.”

She said the “story from the shore” for tribes like the Schaghticoke has been first losing their land to purchases. Indigenous tribes in Connecticut did not understand individual ownership and did not understand if they sold land, they were no longer allowed on it. They believed they were merely welcoming the new strangers to use it with them. They also did not understand owning animals, and did not understand why it was OK to kill a deer but killing a cow could lead to a war.

“There was no ‘mine’ mentality, but ‘it’s ours,’” said Kascak.

On the subject of war, Kascak noted that Connecticut’s indigenous people had a very different method of dealing with territorial disputes and avoiding costly warring — the game which is now known as LaCrosse, which they called “Little Brother To War.” Games could last days and as one tribe moved the ball into territory and gained ground, they would literally gain ground for the tribe.

“Everyone has been exposed to the narrative written from one point of view making Native Americans out to be warring savages,” said Kascak. “But that’s not the truth. But the story is starting to be told truthfully.”

Another story Kascak noted as different that many hear it is the story of the first Thanksgiving.

"I grew up with the story of the natives welcoming the Pilgrims with a feast," said Kascak. "It wasn't until later that I found out that story wasn't exactly right."

Kascak said that the first year for the Pilgrims was marked by a rough winter - they were ill-prepared for survival and of 101 people in their community, only 51 had survived. Squanto, a Native American that had previously been brought to Europe as a slave, learned English and then escaped back to America and joined the Pokanoket tribe, helped broker a peace with the Pilgrims as an interpreter, and the tribe taught them to grow corn, beans, and squash. In 1621, the Pokanokets and the Pilgrims signed the Treaty of Friendship, a pact to watch out for each out. At the end of the harvest season, the Pilgrims decided to celebrate with a feast.

At this point, Kascak noted, the Pokanokets were not invited to the feast. Some men went out to hunt in preparation for the feast, "got rowdy," and began to fire off their guns. The Pokanokets heard all the gunfire, and worried that something was wrong, sent 90 warriors to check on the Pilgrims. It was at this point that the Pokanokets were invited to the feast. Because there was not enough food for 90 extra people, the Pokanokets went hunting for more food and brought five deer and other seasonal foods.

"The ugly part," said Kascak, was that the next Thanksgiving was not celebrating a harvest, or peaceful coexistence between the tribe and the settlers, but was in 1637 following the Pequot Massacre.

"They celebrated their victory, the massacre of 700 people, in Thanksgiving," said Kascak.

She said Native Americans have mixed feelings on the holiday, but have their own thanksgivings multiple times per year.

Rattlesnake Hunting

As the tribes began domesticating animals themselves, as well as dealing with an increasing European population, it opened them up to disease, such as cholera and whooping cough, which killed 80 to 90% of their population and forced the original 15 tribes in the area as of 1602 to unite into the five tribes still existing today. They are Golden Hill Paugussett, Mashantucket Pequot, Mohegan, Paucatuck Eastern Pequot, and Schaghticoke.

Kascak said that the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation was forced into a “small mountainous area with a few flatlands” in Washington, and then lost some of the flatlands later when a dam was built and flooded a lot of their land. To keep themselves in people’s minds, they invented the “brilliant” Schaghticoke Rattlesnake Club. The purpose of the club was to invite important people, politicians, and journalists to Schaghticoke land to go rattlesnake hunting, stuffing the snakes into bags. The invitees did not realize that the Schaghticoke Tribal Nation members were moving the snakes along the hunt’s path so that there would be plenty to hunt.

“It kept the tribe alive, and in people’s minds,” said Kascak.

Of the original Thanksgiving, Kascak said the centuries-old historical event differs from the commonly told story. This holiday can mean a variety of things to different people. For today’s Native Americans, reflecting on this holiday is not easy.

Native American spirituality, both in the past and current times, emphasizes gratitude for creation, the environment, and communion with nature and fellow believers. All people, regardless of their heritage, should come together and give thanks for the goodness in their lives. Native American Heritage Day, the Friday after the American Thanksgiving, is also a time to honor the beauty, strength, and heritage of the Native people.

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Associate Editor Jim Taylor can be reached at jim@thebee.com.

Donna Ball of the Newtown Historical Society sits with Darlene Kascak, education director of The Institute for American Indian Studies at The Matthew Curtiss House on November 20. —Bee Photo, Taylor
Darlene Kascak shows off some Native American tools and pelts to Pippa Haag-Fisk, 10, of Greenwich, and her mother, Megan Haag-Fisk, during an event at the Matthew Curtiss House on November 20. Kascak noted that while humans recognize the distinctive stripe of a skunk, animals do as well. So Native Americans would wear skunk pelts to discourage animals such as bears. —Bee Photo, Taylor
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