Williamsport, We Need to Talk – Part II
Sep 02, 2020 04:50PM
By Elizabeth Wislar
This is part II of an essay designed to begin a conversation about the lost history of the Susquehannocks.
From 1838 to 1898 all of the mighty and majestic trees in the millions of acres along the Susquehanna River were felled, cut up, and sold—creating enormous profits and power for a few White men. The natural habitat was destroyed for all flora, fauna, and humans. Disastrous weather patterns resulted. Flooding happened more often and at greater levels. Tornados, historically uncommon, ran down Fourth Street, in Williamsport, Pa. Depleted of all sources of income and in debt to greedy investments, many of the millionaire Lumber Barons declared bankruptcy. Their Williamsport mansions were abandoned.
Not one tree in this area is older than 120 years. Photos from 1898 show the mountains completely bare to the soil, and the river swollen with the last of the mighty trees, stripped of their bark. The logging barons and their crews built up, ravished, destroyed, and then abandoned Williamsport—all in under 100 years.
Williamsport, why are we still celebrating them?
Honor Native people
The Susquehannock (atraekwaeronon) people remain a small footnote in all accounts of this area. In the basement of Williamsport’s Curtin Elementary school is a series of large inelegant paintings on the walls depicting everyday life of the Susquehannock. I was startled the first time I saw them; I was not prepared to see these crude caricatures of the first inhabitants. However, this is quite fitting: Millionaires as the mascot with symbols of White male refinement as the logo; crude depictions of Natives in the basement, painted by a White man.
I was also startled by the crudely carved, large male “Indian Head” (part of a national series called Whispering Giants) on the back alley entrance to the bus terminal downtown, also created by a White man.
Williamsport, you need to do better.
I implore you to do the work of learning and understanding the people (especially the women) and this land as it was for thousands of years prior to the White men. Add plaques on the Riverwalk that speak to and of their significance. Acknowledge the harm done to them. Own this history as much and as deeply as you own the claims of White morally and financially bankrupt millionaires.
When you feel the desire to add more art to the area, I would encourage you to honor the Native people. Descendants of the Susquehannock can be found in these mountains, and they should be included in this venture and in all conversations. All labor should be paid for, and these payments should go directly to them. Look to the women. Do not mascot their likeness for use in schools.
I write this on my last day in Williamsport. For reasons that are poignantly similar to my ancestors, in the midst of a health and racial pandemic, I am selling and moving south along the mountains and starting a new life there. I follow in the footsteps of the Lenape blood of my ancestry, and will soon be on the lands of the Cherokee, of whom I am a registered member, but know little of their customs. Perhaps I will someday find myself moving west through Tennessee and Arkansas (where many Choctaw relatives on my family tree lived and then fled due to forceful removal) and eventually land in Oklahoma, where my father was raised by his grandparents on a small plot of land in a Reservation: lands where the federal government holds the title in trust, on behalf of the tribe. This same place where he was raised to never speak of his Native blood/spirit because “they (the White men) can take everything away from you and make you move.”
This is still true.
Elizabeth Wislar is a mixblood Choctaw/Lenape member of the Cherokee Nation, Multi-Award Winning Costume Professional, Large Scale Textile Artist, Wage Equity Warrior, Instructor and an Unapologetic and Proud Mengwe.
Pennsylvania is one of 10 states that does not grant recognition of the Native tribes/communities/nations. The states, in alphabetical order, are:
- New Hampshire
- West Virginia
To learn more
Read or watch this play: Sovereignty, by Mary Kathryn Nagle
Read: An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Elizabeth Wislar calls it, “An amazing and radical reframing of US history from the perspective of those who were here prior, and remain here today.”
Listen: To this podcast. Each episode invites guests to delve into a different topic facing Native peoples today. https://www.allmyrelationspodcast.com/