Members of the Oneida Indian Nation Youth Work/Learn program tour went on a tour of ancestral sites at Fort Drum on Aug. 5, led by Dr. Laurie Rush, Cultural Resources manager. (Photo by Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs)
Oneida Indian Nation youth group
visits ancestral sites at Fort Drum
Fort Drum Garrison Public Affairs
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (Aug. 9, 2019) – The students stepped cautiously over crunchy mounds of moss and maneuvered across a patch of sandplain grassland. Dr. Laurie Rush, their tour guide for the day, heard the soft chirp-chirp-chirping of birds and advised them to be careful not to disturb any whip-poor-will or sandpiper nests that might be underfoot.
They soon reached their destination, which might have seemed like an unspectacular collection of rocks, but its significance – particularly to this group – was meant to be educational and inspiring.
Members of the Oneida Indian Nation Youth Work/Learn program followed Rush, Fort Drum’s Cultural Resources manager, on a tour of ancestral sites Aug. 5 that concluded at the Native American Calendar site on post. Rush was particularly eager to show them this because she remembers how, not too long ago, no one was even aware of its spiritual and celestial significance.
She explained to the students that this was where their Native American ancestors had celebrated important holidays where astronomy played a central role in their community gatherings.
“We know this site is really important for understanding the lunar year,” Rush told the group. “You can see how the line of stones are all paired up, and if you are here at the beginning of the lunar year, you will see the moon rise up over the trees and perfectly line up with those stones.”
The alignment of the stones with constellations and stars was used so that Native American tribes could track the seasons, as well as harvest patterns, and sunrise and sunset throughout the calendar year. Rush said that the site has more than 500 large rocks that might have been used for those purposes.
“No one had any idea what we had here until 1999,” she said. “My crew was out there and called me: ‘Dr. Rush, I think we’re standing in a stone circle.’ When I went out there, the crew had begun finding stone tool debris everywhere. There were things that archaeologists would just immediately know were artifacts.”
Rush said that it wasn’t until a distinguished astronomy and anthropology scholar from Colgate University, Dr. Tony Aveni, came to examine the sacred site that its historical connections became public knowledge.
“He’s pretty much the father of the field of archaeoastronomy,” she said. “When he saw that the stones were in pairs, he knew that this was not by accident and that this was something special. So, we began to work with him and began sorting out the astronomical alignments at this place.”
When Rush invited the Mohawk Nation elders to see the site, she said it ignited an enlightening and educational conversation that she would never forget.
“He said, ‘Let me show you how this site works,’” she said. “Just the generosity of him doing that, it was incredible. To have an elder explain the site like that, you just knew this was one of the most privileged moments of your life.”
The Calendar site and the Iroquoian Village site are two traditional cultural properties on post that are off limits to training. Rush said that the only site visits authorized are for Fort Drum community members and indigenous group members.
“Our big job was to save this site, so you can come here and worship whenever you want,” she told the group. “In the past, when the Nations would bring their children there, the goal was to teach the wisdom of their ancestors and their understanding of the natural world and the heavens.”
Rush said that the Cultural Resources staff hosted the Haudenosaunnee Thanksgiving holiday at the ancestral site in 2007 with a sunrise ceremony.
“That morning the nighthawks, which are usually a very solitary bird, they came and flew in between all of us as the elder offered Thanksgiving to the Creator,” she said. “So sometimes when you hold sacred ceremonies in special places like this, the animals come for the ceremonies too.”
Tracie McLain, Oneida Indian Nation Youth Work/Learn supervisor, said that students who had attended the program before had visited Fort Stanwix and walked the historic grounds of the historic Oriskany Battlefield where the Oneidas aided the colonists to protect the fort during the Revolutionary War. The visit to Fort Drum would give them another perspective on Oneida history.
“It’s our hope that they will see a connection to their ancestors and give them something to be proud of,” she said.
Rush said that she had taken a group of ROTC cadets to meet with the Oneida Nation historian, the Shak:owl Cultural Center staff and historic preservation specialist last month. They toured Nichols Pond, one of the ancient Oneida Nation village sites, and the cultural center.
It had been almost 13 years since the Oneida Nation summer youth group last visited the ancestral sites at Fort Drum, and so Rush thought this would be a good time to reciprocate the hospitality.
“The name Oneida means ‘people of the standing stone,’ and so stone features are really important to them,” Rush said. “The Oneida people believe that the earth reveals to them where a good place is for a village, and it is usually in the form of a large standing stone. The cadets learned so much from that tour, and so in exchange we wanted to share what we have with the Oneida youth program.”
Rush said that the youth group’s next outing is at Colgate University, where the students will be able to draw upon what they learned at Fort Drum when they visit the visualization lab there.
“For me, it’s really special and important to have this opportunity to help them get a whole other perspective on the wisdom of their ancestors,” she said. “My hope is that they are able to internalize what they saw and learned, and to recognize that there are people outside of their community who really respect them and their ancestors.”