Radical Reversal

It’s truly difficult coming to grips with rare occasions when I wear conservative stripes in an argument.

Yeah, I know. Fancy that! Me conservative? Well, in this case, yes. That’s right, the very same man who’s probed the principals of anarchy and individual sovereignty for 40 years, ever since those formative, seed-planting lectures by Robert Paul Wolff, a political-philosophy professor who landed at UMass after leaving Columbia University following the historic Spring 1968 student takeover of Hamilton Hall. It seems to me he was fired for openly defending the protestors’ rights, but I may be wrong because I could find nothing to confirm that distant memory. So, maybe he just left on his own. It doesn’t matter. Out of that watershed New York City event in Wolff’s then young career (he’s still going strong) came two short books “In Defense of Anarchism” and “The Ideal of the University,” which are still in print. I read them both during courses I took with the man, one of far too few teachers I connected with.

But I’m not here to address anarchy, a fashionable subject in the Sixties and early Seventies and, for that matter, even today among the Occupy crowd. And, yes, I myself do occasionally traipse back into that radical realm, most recently with the reading of Eunice Minette Schuster’s “Native American Anarchism,” published by Smith College in 1932. Actually, what drew my interest was the title. Then, despite discovering that it had nothing to do with Indians, the reviews interested me. I hunted down an “as-new” 1970 hardcover reprint online for 15 bucks and figured, why not? It was a good decision and better read, even though I really ought to be thinking about my taxes this time of year. Anyhow, I would recommend the still-relevant book to anyone trying to grasp the pure, pre-Haymarket/Sacco & Vanzetti definition of American anarchy, a flavor not the least bit threatening to thinkers. Yes, of course Thoreau’s in there. But enough diversion! Back to the task at hand, that being my role as a conservative in a local issue that’s recently found its way to my inner sanctum: Native American sacred landscapes and contact-period history of our upper Pioneer Valley.

Judging from the lively email traffic that’s been swooping at me ever since I ventured into this discussion, it’s a hot subject indeed. These ancient altars built to worship the sun, stars, moon and earthen spirits fascinate me. I do believe they’re real, and realize the Indians’ holistic, Pantheistic world view is much more compatible with mine than anything Christianity has to offer. I’m talking about ritualistic landscapes with components such as cairns (pictured above), stacked boulders, balanced rocks, stone rows and stone piles, maybe even stone beehive chambers designed to accept the first rays of a solstice sunrise. I know that these structures exist right here in our valley’s gentle hills. I’ve seen them with my own eyes and (now you’re really going to think I’m nuts) have even felt their magnetic spiritual pull long before I had a clue why. A case in point is the photo of that little-known balanced rock which has twice accompanied this column. I vividly recall the first time I laid eyes on that odd glacial-erratic boulder many years ago while poking around on a solitary deer hunt. I could feel the spiritual energy emanating from the massive round stone standing on edge. Don’t ask me how but I somehow recognized its supernatural aura, probably similar to the first primitive human beings who found it while gathering berries through the upland tundra. They may have believed it was a marker of some sort left by a mythical creator/transformer like Gluskap of Western Abenaki myth. It finally all came into crisp, clear focus for me after stumbling onto and reading a book called “Manitou” at the Bookmill. I read it, several other books on the same subject and am now a ritualistic-landscape believer.

What I find myself questioning these days is why some folks similarly intrigued by the subject must flitter off into the ozone of giants and Vikings and Celtic Culdee Monks? Which is not to say it’s impossible these people were here long before Columbus, possibly even diffused with natives, leaving behind stone and linguistic hints of their presence. But, still, why must we go there before thoroughly exploring exactly what our native people were capable of building and believing. Why assume these people were too ignorant to come up with such advanced stuff on their own? Isn’t that just perpetuating annoying misinformation spawned by our Puritan forefathers? I refuse to go there, even if I must suffer the indignity of a “revisionist” label, which seems to cast a pejorative hue from most who use it. Not me. I’d proudly display that contrarian feather in my cap any day, even if I am a Puritan descendant from a long line of deacons and church elders.

Although it’s true that Native Americans left no written records, it’s not their fault that their history has vanished. It was intentionally erased by their conquerors. Eighteenth-century preacher/scholar Ezra Stiles was not one of them. President of Yale from 1778 to his 1795 death, the man had roots in the earliest Connecticut Valley town of Windsor, Conn., and knew plenty about Indian culture and beliefs, even the significance of some sacred landscapes, secret caves, ritualistic rocks and stone piles. It is, however, believed that his successor to the Yale throne, bitter rival Timothy Dwight, removed many of Stiles’ Indian records from the Yale archives, if indeed they were there and not at a friend’s at the time of his death. Petty jealously is never a good thing for history and posterity, and this is just another sad, glittering example. Despite never publishing a book in his lifetime, Stiles left thousands of pages of valuable journals that read like a newspaper, displaying throughout his stark-naked, rare brand of eclectic curiosity. A focus of his happened to be Indian culture and religion, and he pursued the subject at a time when language barriers were not the obstruction they had been for much of the 17th-century. Still, his valuable documentation of Indian history is likely gone forever unless it miraculously surfaces in the secret drawer of a Queen Anne highboy or some dusty attic box that could exist right here in Franklin County. Stiles’ daughter Emilia and son-in-law Jonathan Leavitt Jr., Esq., (a Yale grad) lived and died in Greenfield. Ultimately the executors of Ezra Stiles’ estate due to the death of male heirs, the Leavitt’s stately Main Street “mansion house” is today Greenfield’s public library. So, antique pickers beware, some long-lost, valuable “Stiles Papers” could still be hiding in the neighborhood.

Something interesting about Stiles fits snugly into our narrative. Though he wrote little about it, he believed in a North American race of giants, basing his belief on Indian legend he had heard in his travels and read in correspondence. It seems that pioneers were constantly writing him about the discoveries of giant man-made mounds of Ohio and West Virginia as well as fossils, large bones and teeth of mammoth prehistoric beasts, and huge human skulls and skeletons. Plus, an Iroquois chief Stiles had met was adamant that prehistoric giant human beings existed in the Hudson, Mohawk and Champlain valleys. It seems Stiles took the bait and became a true-believer. He’s wasn’t alone. A hundred years later, historians right here in the Pioneer Valley, including Deerfield’s George Sheldon, were still floating the wild tales, printing in newspapers and town histories the discovery of seven- and eight-foot skeletons unearthed from Indian grave sites. There’s even local tales about mid-20th century farmers uncovering massive skulls in fields they cultivated up and down the valley, including right here in Deerfield and Northfield. The question is not whether large, Wilt Chamberlain-like human beings could have existed here in ancient times. There seems to be proof of that. But how many? That’s the question. The most likely answer is few.

Of course, that’s just a personal opinion from my minuscule, rarely displayed conservative side. Frankly, I’m not ready to chase the far-out stuff. I’d like to pin down the prehistoric Indian history first. But wait a minute. Now this: a recent twist from Leverett, correspondence that’s interesting indeed, even other-worldly. A former UMass Registrar octogenarian who typically ignores sports and sports pages, was attracted a couple of weeks ago by a different photo of the same stone cairn planted out front on this sports section. A few days later, a large, overstuffed brown envelope greeted me on my work desk. Inside was a book, the copy of a chapter from another book, and a provocative, even insulting, cover letter. A thin-skinned newspaperman would have read the first sentence and tossed the whole package in the waste basket. Not me. I loved it. No fan of newspapers or the mainstream media, the man has in less than 10 years published 11 books, three of which I have now read and enjoyed. Two of them were about Leverett, the other a risqué memoir that only swelled my interest. The Leverett stuff delves into what he thinks are important prehistoric archaeological sites, not to mention old roads, prehistoric lakes, stone rows, cellar holes, Cranberry Pond, even bits and pieces about the late, great Walter Jones, an Amherst icon I once called friend. All of it’s right up my alley. So, yeah, I’ll try to meet this dude face to face. I hope to take a ride through the countryside and chat. How can I resist? One never knows where such a discussion will lead. The late Bill Hubbard’s advice that “our hills are honeycombed with interesting people” rings clear. Yes sir, and yet another example from that sweetest of hives has found his way to my front door.

Stay tuned.

I’m outa here.

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