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  • Writer's pictureDavid A. Van Wie

Indigenous Peoples Day- Honoring the Mohican and Mohawk people and their homelands

On Indigenous Peoples Day, I wish to honor the Mahìkanak (Mohican) and Kanien'kehá:ka (Mohawk) people whose homelands encompass what today we call the Hudson River (Mahicannituck) and Mohawk River (Teionontatátie) valleys respectively.

I grew up in the Troy and Albany area, fishing in the streams and hunting in the woods where the Mahìkanak people lived for generations, from Skatekook (Schaghticoke) to the Taghkanik (Taconic) Mountains. I hiked and swam and fished in the Adirondacks, also the homelands of the Kanien'kehá:ka people.

My Dutch ancestor, Hendrick Gerritse Van Wie, settled in the colonie of Rensselaerswyck in the mid-1600s on land acquired from the Mahìkanak by Kiliaen van Rensselaer in 1630, 1631 and numerous purchases over subsequent years. The Dutch States General and the West India Company granted van Rensselaer a charter to establish a “patroonship” in the area that is now Albany and Rensselaer counties, provided he “satisfy the Indians of that place for the land.” Of course, we now know how much the concepts and traditions of land ownership, purchase and use differed between the Dutch and the Indigenous people.

For the past several years, I have been studying the history and culture of the Indigenous nations and clans who were present when Henry Hudson, an English captain sailing for the Dutch East India Company, anchored near the Mahìkanak village at Schodack Island in 1609. And I have been up to my eyebrows in the rich historical records left by the Dutch of the larger colony of New Netherland, which was renamed New York when the English took the colony in 1664 without firing a shot.

My research and educational journey have been part of my latest book project, a historical novel about the people of Rensselaerswyck and their interactions and relationships with their Mahìkanak and Kanien'kehá:ka neighbors. I decided several years ago that the fascinating history of this time period deserves to be more accessible to a broader audience, not just hardcore historians, academics and genealogists. My goal is to bring the people, both Dutch and Indigenous, to life in an entertaining story imagined around the real people and actual events of 17th century.

I’ve completed a draft manuscript with the working title of Papscanee, the name of an island in the Hudson River that van Rensselaer “purchased” from the heirs of Papsickene, a Mohican sachem, in 1637. (Papsickene himself refused to sell it.) The novel spans the 1630s and 1640s when the colonie of Rensslearswyck was still young and the Dutch inhabitants, led by Arendt van Curler, van Rensselaer’s grand-nephew, were committed to maintaining peace and friendly trade with the Mohicans and Mohawks, even while Willem Kieft, the Director General of the larger New Netherland colony based in Manahata, was waging a bloody war (Kieft’s War) against the Munsee and other tribes and clans near Long Island, Staten Island and Pavonia (now New Jersey).

Papscanee Island today with Albany NY in the distance

There is nothing more humbling, okay intimidating, than trying to write accurately and respectfully about the early interactions between the European interlopers and the Indigenous people of this region. As a descendant of the Dutch colonists, I find it very challenging to break through the cultural biases, limitations and even misinformation of the historical record. Trying to portray Indigenous characters, both real and imagined, without falling into caricatures and stereotypes, to illustrate what life might have been like during that era, is a tall order. It is necessarily presumptuous.

That said, I believe strongly that this is a story worth telling and I am giving it my all. I have created what I think are compelling fictional characters and have imagined details and dialogue among the real historical people, both European and Indigenous.

My fictional protagonist is Annatje, a young Dutch woman who arrives in Rensselaerswyck at age 14 with her father. She befriends a young Mohican man named Capachick, who later becomes her trading partner, allowing her to earn money by selling beaver pelts to provide financial security for herself and her family. Annatje and Capachick and their respective communities face numerous challenges amidst the dramatic twists and turns during ten years of tumultuous history.

And yes, I manage to work in a fly fishing scene. Izaak Walton published The Compleat Angler in 1653, so fly fishing was definitely a thing in the 17th century.

My plan is to have members of the Mohican and Mohawk communities read the manuscript when it is ready. I look forward to candid feedback on my portrayals of people, events and place names. It may be another year or more before I have a polished manuscripts to shop to agents and publishers, but this literary and historical endeavor is both enlightening and mind-boggling in its complexity.

Entrance to Papscanee Island Nature Preserve, now owned by the Mohican people

At every step, I appreciate the legacy of the Mahìkanak and Kanien'kehá:ka people. This summer, I was thrilled to hear that the Stockbridge-Munsee Community of the Mohican Nation was deeded over 150 acres on Papscanee Island owned by the Open Space Institute as the Papscanee Island Nature Preserve. After almost 400 years, the Mahìkanak people again own shoreland on the Mahicannituck where Chief Papsickene and his ancestors lived for generations.

I want to bring the story of Papscanee Island and Rensselaerswyck to life in my novel.

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