Fishkill Ridge
Community Heritage

Seventh Generation


Wetland Marsh Grass American Indians spread passion for their culture
(Original publication: November 28, 2004)

There is a prophecy among the native population that tells of a generation who would return to the Earth after a long period of loss and oppression, to restore the traditional ways of the American Indian.

It is called the "seventh generation" prophecy because it is said that seven generations after contact with Europeans, American Indians would no longer hide or be ashamed of their heritage, and would once again embrace their culture and share it with the world.

Natives believe the seventh generation now walks the Earth.

"We have been told about a time when the teachings would come back, when we would learn how to walk in harmony with creation again," said Eddy Stevenson, 63, an Ojibwe Indian, who lives in Carmel. "The Earth is in great crises, but there is hope. We have a choice right now to either walk the spiritual path or walk the industrial path."

All across the land, there is a American Indian renaissance occurring, most recently evidenced by the opening in September of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian in Washington.

In Westchester, Putnam and Rockland counties, there are fewer than 10,000 people of American-Indian descent. But statistics do not measure the passion many of them feel about their birthright.

Groups such as the Native American Warrior Society in Mount Vernon, the Nimham Mountain Singers in Kent and the Ramapough Lenape do their part to uphold their traditions and impart their spiritual knowledge to others. They are educators, activists and conservationists. They spend a great deal of time in schools teaching children about the native way, organizing annual powwows, fighting development, and always searching for ways to spread the words that have been handed down from the elders.

They say they walk two roads — the red and the white — and yet somehow strike that balance between the modern and the ancient. In short, they are a small nation within a nation.

Stevenson, who was partly raised by his uncles — a common practice among American Indians — in native communities in Canada, has spent the past three years visiting female American Indian inmates at the Federal Correctional Institution in Danbury, Conn. He shares with the incarcerated women traditional teachings and stories. He reminds them that when they leave the prison walls, they are warriors who must instruct the youth about the native way.

Earlier this month, the Nimham Mountain Singers performed its third annual powwow for about 20 women at the federal prison. The group drummed, they sang and they danced. They ate a ceremonial meal of baked squash, wild rice, ground beef, corn soup and fry bread together.

"This helps us not lose reality," said inmate Lottie Tibbits, 53, who is part Cherokee Indian. "We look forward to this all year. It's the only time we can feel a part of our culture, our people."

To the drummers, it is a way of expressing and imparting their beliefs, they said. When the small Nimham group, dressed in their brilliant turquoise garb, buckskins and feather headdresses, left the prison, they handed one another gifts of tobacco. They made plans for a future sweat-lodge ceremony and later went home to shed their regalia and once again return to contemporary society.

The suburban Indian

Chief Blackhawk SanCarlos has grown accustomed to living in two worlds. Outside his Mount Vernon home, an American flag prominently waves. Inside, a spread of American Indian flutes, pipes and art decorate the walls, mixed with photos and swords of his achievements as a grand martial artist. When Blackhawk returns from working at a local post office, a black kettle holding sprigs of sage is used for "smudging," or cleansing, the evil spirits away.

Blackhawk, a 70-something Mohawk and Apache Indian who heads the Native American Warrior Society, was raised by his grandmother on reservations and later found his way to Mount Vernon, where his mother now lives. She is of the generation that did not talk about her native blood, he said. But Blackhawk is nothing but vocal about his origins.

He stands more than 6 feet tall, with chocolate-colored skin and lightly peppered hair pulled back in a braid. He speaks in a manner that is both old and urban, imparting native lore into everyday speech.

"I tell the kids, 'When they see one of you, they judge all of us,' " he said.

Among his prouder moments is teaching his 14-year-old son, Chato "Little Wolf," the traditional hoop dance.

"The most important thing to me is to teach the children," Blackhawk emphasized. "So that our culture never dies."

Feeling the same motivation to teach, Gil "Cryinghawk" Tarbox moved from Massachusetts to Putnam County in 1999.

"I just felt that people were hungry in New York," he said. "Hungry to learn and embrace the native ways."

Tarbox, a Passamaquoddy and Micmac Indian, has dedicated the past several years to educating locals about the Wappinger people who once roamed the region. Each morning, Tarbox, a maintenance mechanic for Engelhard Corp., said he greets the day by honoring the six directions, thanking the Creator for allowing him to see another sunrise.

"We believe in the Creator, but we believe in creation, too," said Tarbox, 57. "This Earth is in trouble. ... That's why I'm a firm believer in teaching the children. You never know who you are going to touch, that one person who may grow up to be the president or secretary of state, and who cares about the environment."

Keepers of the Pass

Centuries ago, Lenni Lenape Indians settled in the mountainous terrain of Rockland County and northern New Jersey. They were eventually pushed out, migrating to Ohio, Indiana and Oklahoma, but a group of no more than 30 — the so-called Keepers of the Pass — were left behind to protect the land.

Today, out of those few, there are some 2,500 Ramapough Lenape who live in Hillburn and nearby Mahwah and Ringwood, N.J. Chief Walter "Silent Wolf" Van Dunk is the group's governing leader and holds monthly meetings with a council of 13. His function is to ensure the safety and well-being of his people, he said, dealing with everything from the environmental to the personal.

"In a lot of ways, this feels like a reservation. We have the same problems, maybe not to the same degree," said Van Dunk, 57, a Vietnam veteran, adding that there is a level of substance abuse. "A lot of health problems. A high rate of diabetes and high blood pressure."

In 1978, the Ramapough Indians began their quest for federal recognition as a tribe. The request was denied in 1998 by the Bureau of Indian Affairs for failing to meet such criteria as tribal ancestry and living as a continuing community. Some speculate that the denial was political, motivated by a desire to protect the Atlantic City casinos. Although the passing of the federal Indian Gaming Act in 1988 affords tribes the right to operate casinos, gambling is not the reason the Ramapoughs were seeking tribal status, Van Dunk said.

"Federal recognition would solve a lot of our problems, giving us the opportunity for better housing, medical insurance, education, so that our kids can go to college rather than flip hamburgers," he said.

Casino Indians

There are six federally recognized tribes in the state, situated in the northern and western part of New York. There are seven groups seeking federal recognition, including the Cherokee in Brooklyn and the Montauk Indian Nation on Long Island, said Gary Garrison, public affairs specialist with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The process can take up to 15 years, he said.

Three of those tribes, including the Mohawk, Seneca and Oneida, operate three casinos in the state. In the past two weeks, Gov. George Pataki, the Seneca-Cayuga tribe of Oklahoma and the Cayuga Nation of New York announced a settlement agreement, putting an end to decades of litigation over land claims and paving the way for two casinos in Thompson and Monticello. The gaming facilities still need federal and state approvals, Garrison said. The possibility remains that the proposed legislation could be addressed by Congress this year. Otherwise, it will have to wait until next year, when Congress reconvenes in January, officials said.

Connecticut is home to two of the largest casinos in the country, Mohegan Sun, owned by the Mohegans, and Foxwoods of the Mashantucket Pequots. They are billion-dollar industries and have afforded the tribes economic sovereignty. But gambling dens in general have also brought myriad problems and criminal activity, including prostitution, suicide and murder.

To the modern American Indian, casinos are a way out of poverty and a means to social and political empowerment. But to the traditionalist, trying to reclaim a lost culture is made that much harder by such financial gains.

"A casino can be a good thing for those nations that don't have a good source of income, but the biggest danger I see is a loss of spirituality with the new riches that come," Stevenson said. "It takes away from the traditional life and the move today to seek out the original teachings. There's good and bad, and the thing is to find that balance. That holds true in everyone's life."

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