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The Indian Harvest Festival at Ticonderoga

The evenings of late August are sublime in this North Country.  Then comes our Indian Festival at Ticonderoga.  In the half light between daylight and dark we make our way out over the mile long narrow road that winds through the meadows from the highway to the ancient wood where the Forest Theater has been built.  Leaving the car in the meadows beside the wood among hundreds of others, we follow the crowd toward the entrance.

This entrance is designed to aid in creating the mood which is so great a part of the charm of the Festival. it is a Path through the forest some four hundred feet to the center of the grove where the theater is erected.  This tunnel-like path is lighted at its turnings by small fires that glimmer down the leafy aisles now mysterious and dim in the gathering dusk. Tending the first fire is an Iroquoian woman.  In a baby frame and swinging from a nearby branch is her small child.  Standing silently beside a nearby tree is her husband.  Beside the other fires are other Iroquoian groups.  As we near the theater, the gleam of a fire back in the forest catches our eye.  This we discover is burning in the center of an authentic bark longhouse which is home for members of the St. Regis Mohawks while they are preparing for and taking part in the Festival.

1609 Battle between Champlain & Algonquians with the Iroquois at Ticonderoga

1609 Battle between Champlain & Algonquians with the Iroquois at Ticonderoga

Now we have reached the theater.  Entering through a wide  opening in a high stockade we are ushered to our places on one of the tiers of plank seats.  These are arranged in a wide arc and are successively elevated like bleachers in a stadium.  These seats are built around the great trees of the wood whose grey trunks rise here and there among the benches and spread their green canopy above.  Opposite this seating arrangement is what corresponds to a stage.  Here the resemblance to anything in the theater line ceases, — no curtain, no raised platform, no orchestra, no artificial scenery.  Instead we seem to be placed within a stockade Indian village.  In an arc complementing the seating section is the stockade, about fifteen feet high and complete with a screened entrance in the center flanked with fighting platform equipped with rocks and weapons.  A space of perhaps forty feet at the center separates the lowest seat from this stockade.  Here the paraphernalia and gear of an Indian village lies about.  Here are racks with drying fish, there a hide stretched upon its tanning frame.  Perhaps a half finished canoe or a snow shoe half laced is visible. The tools of the potter, the arrow point maker, the grinder of  corn lie idle now but soon an Indian woman quietly moves into the center bearing a brand with which a small waiting pile of wood is kndled and the Pageant begins.

Soon the smoke is rising under the drying fish, women are working upon the tanning hide and all the varied tasks of Indian life are in full swing as the players silently enter from all sides. Not all the crafts and pastimes of an Indian village are attempted at one Festival.  Indeed that  might well be impossible.  This portion of the pageant is varied from year to year so that in the cycle of five presentations most of such aspects of Iroquoian life are covered.  This exhibit of the life of an Iroquoian village goes quietly on during the entire presentation and no doubt is one of the principal charms of the affair.  Seated under the leafy canopy, the smell of wood smoke in your nostrils, the slow beat of a drum in your ears, and this scene before you, it is not difficult to become, for a moment, part and parcel of the past.

The main action of the drama takes place in the open space between the stockade with its fringe of village life and the seating section.  Scenes in the drama are interlude with narration by means of a public address system.  This narration explains what is going on in the village life background and serves to introduce the following scene.  Some serious dramatic effect is attempted in presenting the moving and ofttimes tragic portion of Iroquoian history.  Tears have flowed as Big Kettle gives vent to his proud wrath in his speech to those who would and did dispossess his people of their loverly and beloved home land.

Many different episodes of the history of the people of the long house have been given. It seems now to be settling down to a cycle of five different presentations.

These five have the titles, “Sir William Johnson and the Mohawks,” “The Birth of the Long House,” “Scenes from the life of Red Jacket,” “The Defense of Big Kettle” and “The Conspiracy of Pontiac.”  The Sir William pageant sets forth the dramatic part played by Sir William Johnson  as friend and advisor of the Iroquois in the struggle between England and France on this continent.  This gives opportunity to show the audience one of the solemn and extremely ceremonious councils of the Iroquois.  These Councils were of three types:  the Religious, the Mourning and the Political.  This last type is shown  in the Sir William pageant.  The religious Council is used in the  pageant  that is titled “The Birth of the Long House.”  The principal message of this presentation is the effect that this “Democracy in Operation” had upon the formation of our form of government.

“Scenes from the “Life of Red Jacket” portrays the impact of Christianity upon the Annimatism of the Iroquois.  Here use is made of some of the sublime oratory of Red Jacket.  A typical story of the injustice of our white ancestors in their land dealings with the people of the Long House is told in “The Defence of Big Kettle.”  Some of the pathos of the situation is captured as Big Kettle attempts to defend his people against the land grabbing of the whites. Knowing the hopelessness of the situation, Big Kettle gives vent to the wrath, the grief, the despair that was in the hearts of his people.

The only appearance of non-Iroquoian Indians at the Forest Theater is during the pageant know as “The Conspiracy of Pontiac.” That mid-western chieftain and his retinue appear all bedecked with the showy headdresses of his tribe wiich contrast sharply with the simple band and feather affected by the Iroquois.  Sign language and the exchange of gifts which the visit of a “foreign” chief required are among the items that set this pageant apart.

Scattered through these five pageants are many brief and authentic Iroquoian ceremonies.  Some of these are the Adoption Ceremony, the Mariage Ceremony, Medicine Making, Ceremonial Dances and Invocations to the Great Spirit.

The whole affair bears the mark of amateurs, but of amateurs in earnest and with a story to tell.

What is this story and how came this Indian Festival?

Our beloved Dr. Dixon Ryan Fox called it a folk play.  Perhaps it is.  At any rate it came to be in the manner of folk things.  It just gew.  If one goes deep enough into the genesis of this Ticonderoga Indian Festival one comes upon a very common scene:  two men in conversation.  The uncommon part is the men.  They were Tom Cook and Stephen H. P. Pell.  Tom expressed a desire to know more about the people whose artifiacts he occasionally plowed up and who traditionally had a village near his farm’s woodlot.  Steve Pell provided him with a winter’s reading on the subject from his enviable library at Fort Ti.  Here was the beginning, for as Tom read of the real red man and of some of the wrongs of which our race had been guilty toward him he burned to do something – even in a small measure – to right the wrong.

The Iroquoian ceremonies fascinated Tom and out of this came his suggestion to me, who had picnicked and camped with him many times, that we arrange a picnic at the season of the Iroquoian thanksgiving for the green corn and attempt to get a group together to re-enact the old Indian thanksgiving ceremony.

Iroquois Long House

Iroquois Long House

This was done.  About ten men were present and found the ancient formalities of thanksgiving very moving when undertgaken soberly and in a forest setting.  As the summer of 1932 approached, Tom and I engineered the affair a second time adding an endeavor to simulate an Indian fest.  Such things as might have been eaten by the ancient dwellers in this land were served and eaten without the modern implements.  Green corn, of course, was a large item on the menu.  Guests of the original picnickers swelled the attendance that year to about twenty.  Thus it grew.  Soon Tom constructed across one side of the picnic grounds a stockade-like barrier of slabs to give more Indian atmosphere to the annual affair.

Then as the attendance grew to the point of forbidding the feast Tom seized the opportunity to do something toward righting the wrongs that our ancestors had committed.  A drama was written and enacted by persons chosen from among those who had been attending the annual picnics.  In this we tried to have the costumes and properties absolutely atuthentic.  We presented scenes from the history of the Six Naitons.  All was designed to teach the listening beholder that the popular conception of the red man and especially the Iroquois was in error and further that the treatment that they had received at the hands of our white ancestors was shameful.

The form of the plays was simple as it would have to be to fit the ability of us ordinary farmers, merchants, garagemen, housewives, clerks, laborers, etc.  This form has been preserved until now.  It consists of action interspersed with narrative.  The background of crafts, games and chores has been added since those first presentations. This also has been largely the idea of Tom Cook.

Pine - Tom Cook

Tom Cook (1876-1965)

Every year greater crowds came.  We wondered why.  We still wonder.  The picnic ground became far too small to hold those who came.  Tom dreamed again and along came two friends and made his dream solid reality.  H. J. Slocum built the seats and Robert Klemm installed electricity and proper lights.  Tom build the new and grater stockade in front of the tiers of seats and the theater was ready to be named.  Someone, I think the editor of the local paper, called it the Forest Theater and so it was, and is.

Attendance of from one to two thousand now became common.  The affair attracted the attention of some of the Mohawks on the St. Regis Reservation. They came, they saw and have beome an important part of the play.  Dances, songs and other  roles are now given by those of whose history and tradition they are a part.  Mr. Ray Fadden (Aren Akweks) has been very helpful and is now a member of our Council.  He has interested other  members of the Irooquoian family and we have been honored by the attendance of head men from all of the Six Nations.

Mr. Slocum, beside his benefactions, organized the group behind the Festival into the Soicety  for the Preservation of Indian Lore.  This society, an affiliate of the New York State Historical Association, is now incorporated and decidedly a going concern.

Until last year (1946) no charge or restriction was ever placed upon attendance.  The limitations of the Theater and the need for permanent financing led us to the limiting of attendance to members of the Society and to making the price of membership one dollar.

It is difficult for one so close to the Festival to assess the reasons for its continued popularity.  I would hazard a guess that it is partly because of the mystery that night imparts to the forest setting, partly because of the firelighted scenes and the quiet, unhurried action of the drama, but largely because of our success in creating the illusion that we are back in time among those whose lovely homeland we now inhabit and whose soft tongue we still use in a myraiad place names.

From our archives we found this article written by Arthur A. Carr.  He was a Ticonderoga merchant (Adkins & Scotts and garden farmer) and a moving spirit in the “Society for the Preservation of Indian Lore.”  This paper was read at the Saturday morning, September 6th, session of the Association’s 1947 meeting at the “Headquarters House,” i.e. Hancock House here at Ticonderoga.   The “Forest Theater” was located at Tom Cook’s farm — on today’s named DeLano Road —  in a grove of pine trees, long since cut down, and near the current Ticonderoga airport. 

Interested in learning more?  Our library has a number of native American books and the archive collections have material of Arthur Carr, and his family history, Forest Theater/Indian Pageant,  and the administrative records of the “Society for the Preservation of Indian Lore.”

Did You Know?

That over the Hancock House’s Front Parlor fireplace is a painting of the “Death of Wolfe on the Plains of Abraham, Quebec – 1759”  by Benjamin West – in which Sir William Johnson is painted although he wasn’t there. (Man in the Green Uniform) 

That there is an exhibit at the Hancock House of a Long House?

The Ticonderoga Historical Society makes area history an integral part of our community life by connecting our region’s past and present in order to shape our future.

We present these articles to inform and educate one about the people, places and activities that were the makings of this region’s history.  If you “like” what we are doing we invite you to become a member of the Ticonderoga Historical Society and, if you can, be an active member of the Society.  You can also show us, if a member of the “Facebook” community, your appreciation by a “LIKE” to our page.  Thank you.

8/28/16 wgd

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