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Cultures converge at Schoharie Crossing

Cultures converge at Schoharie Crossing

Powwow and Canal Days team-up
Cultures converge at Schoharie Crossing
Cheyenne Littlemoon Langhort, 12 of Ringwood N.J., participates in the shawl dance during the Metis Nation Pow Wow Saturday.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

FORT HUNTER - It was a convergence of culture and history Saturday at the Schoharie Crossing State Historic Site, as the annual Canal Days event merged with the annual Metis Nation Veterans Powwow.

Janace Fontanella, the historic site manager for Schoharie Crossing, said connecting the two events is an experiment designed to enhance both.

"[The Metis Nation] were here last year, but they were on a different weekend, so we decided to join forces and have them on the same weekend to see if we could intrigue each other's audiences,"  Fontanella said.

Toby Whyland-Rich, who operated the sound-system for the Metis Nation Veterans Powwow, said he's a member of the Metis tribe, a tribe of "mixed blood" Native Americans. The event celebrated diversity, and included iconographic mashups of U.S. military symbols, including the American flag and the black and white POW-MIA flag, alongside Native American tribal symbols and the rainbow colors of the gay pride flag, merged with the stars and stripes.

Sometimes the symbols directly overlapped, like during the Native American dancing when an eagle feather, both a sacred symbol for the United States and many Native American tribes, accidentally fell to the ground. 

"We had to have an actual ceremony to retrieve it, during the grand entree," Whyland-Rich said. "The eagle feather is honored for us, it's very sacred. Normally [dancers] won't come out with actual eagle feathers on their regalia."

Jacob Lee Buck, 16, from Salamanca, Cattaraugus County, was one of the Native American dancers wearing a single Cayuga tribe slanted eagle feather atop his hawk and osprey feather headdress Saturday. His garb exemplified the blending of cultures at the event, with his snapping turtle head dancing staff and turtle shell war shield displayed above his red, white and blue breechcloth and leggings. 

"It's in honor of my grandfather who served in the Navy," Buck said. 

The sounds of the Native American songs and drums at the event filled the air around the Schoharie Crossing Historic site, where the Canal Days event features, live music, food, a bounce house, a water squirt gun game and historical attractions.      

Larry Folmsbee, from the hamlet of Sprakers in the town of Root, said he had no intention of going to either the Metis Nation Veterans Powwow or Canal Days on Saturday, but he saw all of the cars at both events and heard the music and decided to stop.

"It was a spur of the moment thing. I've lived here my whole life, and there's actually a lot of history here that you don't realize is right under your nose," he said. 

One piece of history he was impressed with is the Fort Hunter excavation site. The site had been buried under the parking lot for the Schoharie Crossing visitors center, until flooding in 2011 wiped out the parking lot and revealed the remnants of an out-building that had been part of Fort Hunter in the 18th century. The visitors center now includes artifacts discovered at the site, including jewelry, musket balls, smoking pipes, a gun cock and flints and other everyday items used at the fort.  

"It's interesting that it laid underground here all this time and it took a flood for it to be discovered," he said. 

Fontanella said Canal Days is an event that highlights the history of the Erie Canal, in all its formations and technical innovations, starting with the original Erie Canal system built adjacent to the Mohawk River from 1817 to 1825, derisively nicknamed "Clinton's Ditch" after New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton. It was Clinton who convinced the New York State Legislature to spend $7 million on its construction, the equivalent of $134.8 million today. 

"It was so successful they enlarged it almost immediately," Fontanella said.  

The enlarged Erie Canal system (which included the creation of the Schoharie Crossing aqueduct) was built from 1835 to 1862. 

A scale model of the Schoharie Crossing aqueduct has been on display inside the state historic site's visitors center since 2017, part of a bicentennial celebration for the Erie Canal, which lasts until 2025. Fontanella said the aqueduct, the ruins of which can be seen from the visitors center, carried the Enlarged Erie Canal to the Schoharie Creek.  

"The Schoharie Creek is a very dangerous creek, so before they built the aqueduct they had to close the canal a lot so the creek wouldn't flood the canal," she said. "There's only six arches left. It stopped working when they built the Barge Canal, which moved into the Mohawk River, in 1917." 

Using maps and illustrations, the visitors center explains the history of the canal system, up to the modern era starting in 1917, when the canal moved into the Mohawk River through the use of large-scale locks, technology not available in 1817.

Montgomery County Sheriff's Deputy Joseph Parisi attended both events Saturday, first at Canal Days where he operated a display area for the sheriff's air-boat, and then as part of the event's dance honoring service members in the military and first responders.

"It was a surprise. One of the council elders asked me to join in to honor all of the police officers and veterans. I did feel honored," he said.

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