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Questions get Adirondack answers

May 6, 2012
By DON WILLIAMS , For The Leader Herald

One of the attributes that prevailed in our Native American ancestors' culture that I enjoy is the practice of providing answers to some of the world's greatest questions - great questions such as, "Why do we have so many mosquitoes?", "Where did the skunk get its color and its smell?" and "How did we discover the sweet sap that turns into maple syrup?" These and other questions deserve an answer; they often have a direct connection with our lives.

Pesky mosquitoes have been a part of the Adirondack experience from day one, and we have enjoyed the smelly company of skunks as long as I can remember. And, that sweet nectar found in the sap of the giant Adirondack sugar maple trees has long satisfied our taste buds at the breakfast table. Now, what did the first Adirondackers have to say about them?

The Mohawk Tribe of Native Americans used the Adirondacks for their summer rendezvous, a place to make their weapons and crafts, and their hunting grounds. Apparently, they met up with the resident mosquito population as much as we do today. They had a story to tell. Their explanation begins with two giant mosquitoes that lived on either side of a river. When the Indian people paddled on the river, these giant mosquitoes would kill them with their giant bills. They would also move around to find where the native peoples were traveling. Something had to be done.

The Mohawks organized a war party of 20 warriors to go after these two giant mosquitoes. They were equipped with their bows and arrows, their war clubs, and their hunting knives. They met the enemy and a terrible battle ensued with the loss of ten of the warriors. The remaining warriors took to the woods where the mosquitoes had trouble getting to them. Eventually, they succeeded in killing the giant beasts. Unfortunately, many little mosquitoes sprang from the blood of the two giants. They are now getting revenge on man by continually sucking their blood. That is how the today's mosquitoes came to be, according to the native storytellers.

As early as 1748, an Adirondack writer told of how the Native Americans of upstate New York were eating skunk and using their hides. They had long experience with skunks and could explain how they got their black and white coloring and their repulsive smell. It is told that the first skunks were beautiful creatures with soft white fur. They were proud of their looks and spent much of their time bragging about how great they were. It is a long story, but the main explanation was that during a giant forest fire, the eagles dropped the skunks into the fire before rescuing them, whereupon their fur was singed and turned partially black, and the burnt smell was with them forever.

The Native American story of the discovery of maple syrup can be found in my "Saga of Nicholas Stoner" book. It tells of young Woranawe getting in trouble with his father for using up his coveted honey supply. The boy was banished with his hatchet to the wilderness and told not to come back without something sweet. He went searching for a honey tree by striking each tree with his hatchet and later noticed that something sweet was running out of the hatchet cuts. Using the sap for cooking led to the discovery of maple syrup; a good Adirondack answer for where maple syrup came from.



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