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Susquehanna Life

Williamsport, We Need to Talk, Part I: Tell Us Your Story

Sep 04, 2020 11:10AM ● By Elizabeth Wislar
Williamsport, We Need to Talk, Part I: Tell Us Your Story [9 Images] Click Any Image To Expand
We are here to educate, not forgive.
We are here to enlighten, not accuse.
 - Willie Johns, Brighton Seminole Reservation, Florida

Native American Elizabeth Wislar’s goal in writing this essay is to “create conversations around the Susquehannock.” She says, “We are not extinct, but we have been erased, caricatured, mimicked, mocked, appropriated and driven into hiding or forced to be peaceful and silent about all of this for far too long.”

I moved here five years ago and felt immediately connected to the land, air and water of the region. 

Williamsport residents are proud and eager to speak about the history of the area. Millionaire’s Row, a stretch of large and lavish houses, is a testament to the nationally recognized (extreme) wealth that was accumulated here by logging barons between 1838 and 1894. I learned and recognized their names on buildings and streets. I even helped costume people who wanted to dress as these Victorian businessmen and their wives during open house celebrations and heritage days. 

My daughters attended schools named for these men and these same schools show their spirit and pride with the nickname “The Millionaires.” The logo is a black top hat, a gentleman's walking cane and two white gloves. 

I joined the Lycoming Arts Board and helped with downtown First Friday festivities that highlighted local artists and artisans. I shopped in locally owned stores, and ate in locally owned restaurants. 

Historic anomaly

I walked the Riverwalk along the great and mighty Susquehanna River. I read your plaques and admired your bronze statue of a Wood Hick, the nickname for a Pennsylvania Lumberman. One of the first plaques in a series along the Riverwalk says there were just 60 Williamsport citizens in 1806. This implies that the millions of lush forested acres were all but uninhabited prior to these industrious men and their giant lumber mills.

Called by the Wilds. 

Deep forests, navigable rivers, abundant wildlife. For thousands of years, these natural assets have drawn people to north-central Pennsylvania. In the 1800s, settlers discovered the region’s wealth of timber, oil and coal. Vibrant communities took root here - from Williamsport to Clarion, from Bradford to Boalsburg. Today, visitors from around the world recreate in this mosaic of culture and wilderness.  

-From a plaque on the Williamsport Riverwalk. Lumber Heritage and DCNR.

For thousands of years the majestic White Pines and Eastern Hemlock, towering 150 feet above the ground, served as a lush habitat for flora, fauna and people—thousands of people, in fact. The Susquehanna River gets its name from the Native people who lived here, and the word susquehanna means “muddy river.” In turn, the peoples who lived here for thousands of years prior to the White settlers were called the Susquehannock by these early settlers, having heard the word from neighboring tribes on the (now) Virginia coast.

Another plaque on the Riverwalk speaks of this, in two sentences.

The Timber Trail. Traveling Through a Rugged Region.

For thousands of years, Native Americans traversed this region in dugout canoes and over a far-reaching network of footpaths. White settlers followed and expanded these woodland paths. 

-From a plaque on the Williamsport Riverwalk. Lumber Heritage and DCNR.

This is their only mention: they have no name, and are spoken of in a way that would imply that they were only passing through. That is incredibly untrue. 

The fate of the first people

To the east lived the Lenni Lenape; their name means “first people.” When explorers, settlers, then colonizers arrived on the continent by boat, these were the first people they encountered. This is how they introduced themselves, and that is how they came to be known by the invaders settlers. 

The Lenape referred to the people west of them (now known as the Susquehannock) as mengwe. The word means “without penis.” The settlers assumed this was an insult being thrown at the neighboring tribe. To the white male patriarchy, being referred to as female/effeminate/sans penis is a form of derision. To the Lenape, it was an attempt to communicate to these early explorers that when they met with the peoples along the muddy river, they would need to speak with the women; it was the women who did the negotiations, and held the positions of leadership within their communities. 

The Susquehannock (atraekwaeronon) were a matriarchal society built over thousands of years of peaceful longhouse communal living, sustained through seasonal agriculture, fishing and a great many customs we would know significantly more about had they not been forcefully removed, slaughtered and decimated by diseases for which they had no immunity. Like most of the original people on this continent, the Lenape and the Susquehannock women are credited with showing the early settlers how to grow food on their new (and shared) lands.

Garbled communication

The Treaty of Fort Stanwix, signed on November 5, 1768 in upstate New York, was the document that sealed the fate of the Susquehannock, surrounding tribes and the land. It was the final death blow following a public, racially fueled and violent slaughter in 1763 of the few publicly visible Susquehannock in Lancaster County. This was believed to be their extinction. All signatures on the treaty belonged to men. 

Numerous peace and land treaties were created and weaponized against the Native people, all over this continent, for many years; evidence of their lasting and devastating effects still plague Native peoples and communities today. Patriarchal practices were introduced by the colonizers as a form of assimilation for these “savage” inhabitants, and included the subjugation of women, the establishment of male-only positions of power, the conviction that land was owned by men and that war was a necessity in protecting these newly created borders. 

Earlier trade and peace deals were seen by the Indigenous peoples as an agreement to share wild resources and live peacefully as neighbors. They did not believe in or understand ownership of land and the designation of borders. With the introduction of treaties and patriarchy these lands—tended, nurtured, respected and harvested by women—were then taken by men, signed away/traded/sold by men, destroyed by men.

Visit Williamsport, We Need To Talk - Part II to read the conclusion of this essay, and for more information about the Susquehannocks.

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.

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