Indians spread passion for their culture
By MARCELA ROJAS
THE JOURNAL NEWS
(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
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
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
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
"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
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
"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
"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
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.
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
"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