Acknowledging the Land

With this post, I’m taking a break from our regular posts with grammar, writing, and language tips. Today, I’m reflecting on the wonderful locations where Schaefer Wordsmithing has a physical presence—Troy, New York, and Washington, DC—and on the peoples who made this land a home long ago.

Both Troy and Washington are located on historic tidal estuary rivers—the Hudson and Potomac, respectively—and are parts of regions with a long and storied history. There is much to celebrate today in each region, and Schaefer Wordsmithing is lucky to call those regions “home.”

But as November is Native American Heritage Month, I thought it appropriate to take a break from the usual writing tips to reflect on the native peoples who used to call these homes their homes.

Troy, New York

Troy, New York, founded in 1791, was once a major center in the textile industry, sits along the eastern shore of the Hudson River, about ten miles north of Albany.

Map showing the locations of American Indian tribes in the Upper Hudson River Valley
Click on the image to expand

Prior to European settlement, the region where Troy is located was home to some of the most well-known Native American tribes in US history, including the Schaghticoke, the Mohawk of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederation, and, perhaps most famously, the Mohicans.

Due to the increasing demands of White settlers for Indian land, the Mohicans were removed from the region in the 18th century and eventually sent westward. Although James Fenimore Cooper’s famous novel The Last of the Mohicans presents the tribe as having disappeared, the reality is that the Mohican nation endures to this day in Wisconsin as the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians.

Despite removal, the Mohican connection to the region persists and has recently been strengthened. In 2011, the Tribe purchased 63 acres of land along the Hudson river to protect a culturally­ sensitive Site. ln 2015, the Tribe formally established a satellite Historic Preservation office on the campus of Russell Sage College in downtown Troy on historic Mohican homelands.

Washington, DC

The sixty-six square miles that make up the territory of the District of Columbia sit at the confluence of the Potomac and Anacostia rivers.

Long before the establishment of the Federal City (Washington) in 1791, the region was home to the cities of Georgetown in Maryland and Alexandria in Virginia. But prior to European settlement, the region was home to two tribal groups, the Piscataway and the Nakotchtank (Anacostan) tribes.

Map of territories of the Piscataway and Nakotchtank tribes superimposed over the territory of the District of Columbia
Click on the image to expand

The Nakotchtank take their name from an Algonquian word anaquashtank, meaning “a town of traders.” With the expansion of the Maryland tobacco business, they were driven from their land and took refuge on what is today called Theodore Roosevelt Island in the Potomac. Eventually, they were absorbed into the larger Piscataway tribe, whose dialect of Algonquin they spoke and with whom they had previously been allied. Their legacy in DC lives on in the name of the Anacostia River and the Anacostia region of Washington.

The Piscataway were the dominant tribal group in the region and may take their name from a word that means “the people where the rivers blend.” One of the more powerful groups in the region, their territory extended from the Chesapeake Bay to the Potomac watershed. With increasing pressure from White settlement, they moved north to the Susquehanna Valley in Pennsylvania, where neighboring Iroquois called them the Conoy. The Piscataway-Conoy Tribe has endured to the present day, and in 2012 succeeded in obtaining recognition from the Maryland government and re-establishing formal ties with that body.

Why Acknowledge the History of the Land

Some of you may be wondering why I have taken this time on a blog about writing, editing, and language use to reflect on a land acknowledgment for the Native peoples who once lived in these areas.

The answer is simple: knowing who lived here, what they were like, and what happened to them is part of the context of our story.

In writing, the context for your characters or your narrative is a vital element to a compelling and rich story. The context is what helps us to understand Frodo’s quest, Huck’s journey, Ahab’s obsession, and Celie’s plight. It is impossible to understand what the characters are going through without understanding the people, places, and times that made their world what it is. We understand the protagonist better because we understand their context—what it means for them to make the decisions they do and take the actions they choose.

And so it is with us. We cannot truly understand our stories without understanding the full context of the places we live—without knowing the land and its peoples.

And so, during this Native American Heritage Month, we take the opportunity here and now to acknowledge the tribes and nations who once inhabited the lands we call home. We acknowledge the rich heritage those peoples offered and the deep tragedies that were inflicted upon so many. We face our history honestly and openly and acknowledge that there were once voices in these lands that we do not hear anymore. There were once stories that are no longer told.

And in so doing, we find for ourselves a richer, more complex, more honest context for our own stories.

For Further Exploration

Explore the Native Land digital map
Visit the site of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians
Visit the site of the Piscataway-Conoy Tribe
Read our own Land Acknowledgment