On a typical summer evening the Cranberry Lake Biological Station has a quiet hum of activity: ecology students at work, a loon call and perhaps the thwack of volleyball. But tonight it echoes with the sounds of the water drum, the hiss of shakers, the clacking of rattles and an ancient song in the Mohawk language. Young people in jeans and T-shirts, in sneakers or moccasins, dance around the circle as darkness falls. Bright yellow bandanas emblazoned with the logo of Native Earth stick out of pockets or tie up long hair. The mountains and waters of the logo are cradled by the joined hands of the people, just as their hands are joined tonight.

In the dance circle are youth from many nations: Onondaga, Tuscarora, Seneca, Oneida, Mohawk, Cayuga, Penobscot, Passamaquoddy. In past summers they have come from as far as the Navajo Nation, in the Southwest, and the Menominee Nation, in Wisconsin. They have gathered here at Cranberry Lake for the Native Earth Environmental Youth Camp, now in its fifth year. The 10-day program is the fruit of a collaboration between the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY–ESF), in Syracuse, and the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force (HETF). The camp brings together the power of traditional teachings and the tools of environmental science, building a bridge between cultures—in a setting where the land itself can be the teacher. Lessons abound during hiking, fishing, swimming and paddling. After all, the canoe is born of native science, an engineering marvel that enables us to ply Adirondack waters with grace and efficiency. There is also native science in learning the medicinal properties of plants, the physics of making fire with bow and drill and the skills to survive on the land.

The program is built around the framework of the Thanksgiving Address of the Haudenosaunee, whose ancestral homelands these are. This great oration offers greetings, gratitude and respect to all beings of the natural world, each in their turn: the sun, the moon, the trees, the berries, the animals. Each day of the camp is devoted to learning from these elements.

On the day devoted to water and fish the instructor is Neil Patterson Jr., who embodies the integration of indigenous culture and environmental science. He is an aquatic ecologist—an alumnus and graduate student at SUNY–ESF and also the director of the environment program at Tuscarora Nation, in Sanborn, New York. He has been in the same place as these high-schoolers, imagining how culture and ecology might fit together and finding a balance as an indigenous environmental leader. Patterson takes the students out on the bay to set nets and, up the stream, to turn over rocks to find the invertebrates that are the base of the fish food chain. By day’s end the students—wet, sunburned and happy—have caught and identified a whole range of Adirondack fish and insect species. They’re suddenly talking about dissolved oxygen and water temperature. Students who might never have chosen a biology class watch in fascination as Patterson explains the inner workings of gills and how toxins accumulate in the liver. Deftly, he filets the catch and the science lesson is on its way to becoming dinner. While the aroma of frying fish hovers in the air he explains about upholding treaty rights for fishing and about cultural practices that care for lakes and streams. That night, when the dancing begins, traditional teacher Dean George offers up the special song that honors the fish.

The next day, devoted to the plants, groups of students and mentors taste wintergreen leaves along the trail, visit a traditional shelter, learn the gifts offered by every tree. The paper birches give a lesson in canoes, baskets and fire-making as well as the ways native people used their sophisticated ecological knowledge to manage the landscape. Retired engineer Bob Wall, a Potawatomi, puts students’ new skills to the test in a fire-building contest, which draws upon physics and traditional teachings of fire’s many meanings.

Time in the wilderness, the chance to experience the world in its wholeness, the presence of storied beings binds together land and culture. A day for learning from the trees and the soil, another day for wildlife tracking and discovery, a night for star knowledge and an early morning for birdsong. When we hear a wood thrush hang its silvery song in the air, a student says, wide-eyed, “You mean it’s real? All my life I’ve heard my grandma’s story about how the wood thrush got its song, but I never dreamed I would actually hear one.”

These lakes and mountains are the ancestral territory of indigenous peoples, who came here on seasonal rounds of hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. It was a time of intact food chains, abundant biodiversity and high ecosystem integrity enhanced by indigenous stewardship. As native people were pushed off their homelands a different mindset took hold and the Adirondacks became a hub of resource extraction. The site of today’s camp was once a barren landscape of clear-cut and burned-over forest.
Wise advocates and the Forever Wild amendment gave the Adirondacks a second chance—to heal itself from the ravages of a world view that looked at a forest and saw only dollar signs. Often it is not the land that is broken but our relationship to it. Indigenous knowledge is rich with understanding and practices of respect, reciprocity and responsibility for the natural world. The goal of the SUNY–ESF Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, one of the camp’s sponsors, is to draw upon both the wisdom of scientific and indigenous knowledge for our shared concerns for sustainability.

Just as the forest is resilient and resurgent, so too are traditional cultures. Languages and life ways are being restored in indigenous communities all over the country and Native Earth is a part of that renewal. One young man who grew up far from his traditional community puts it best. “I thought I’d come here and learn ecology,” he says, “but I also learned who I am.”

Like young people all over the United States, native youth are lured by the distractions of an increasingly digital world, which erode their participation in traditional culture and prevent spending time on the land. Getting them to unplug, to listen, to be in the wilderness is not an easy task, but it’s an important one. Historically, indigenous students have a significantly lower rate of college attendance, especially in the scientific disciplines. Science is often perceived to be at odds with indigenous values and the supposed gap between scientific and traditional knowledge systems is deep and wide. The result is that Native Americans are barely present in the scientific community, where their unique cultural perspectives on environmental stewardship are greatly needed. Native Earth seeks to bridge that gap and create opportunities for students to link traditional and scientific knowledge in service to Mother Earth.

Just as the camp brings together the realms of indigenous and Western knowledge, it also takes place in two landscapes. The camp begins not at Cranberry Lake, but in Akwesasne at the Thompson Island Youth and Elders Camp, directed by environmental educator Bob Stevenson. Surrounded by the St. Lawrence River, a steady stream of generous teachers and elders come and go, sharing knowledge of topics from wampum to climate change. Noted basket makers Richard David and Les Benedict arrive with a log for splint-making. As the students try weaving, they listen to Benedict’s experience with the science of propagating black ash trees and the threat of the invasive emerald ash borer. They walk trails with elder Eddie Gray, learning the names and uses of the medicine plants, listening, watching and doing. Lionel LaCroix, a Métis trapper, enthralls the youngsters with his teachings about wildlife ecology and cultural conservation practices that ensure sustainable harvest. The simplicity of the camp itself, the garden foods, the caring elders all embody indigenous notions of sustainability.

It’s not just the young students who are learning: we all learn from each other, things you’d never hear in school. Everyone has a piece of the story and shares it freely. The elders exchange new uses of plants, the Penobscot share a song with the Haudenosaunee, the Menominee tell of their great forest and its protection, the scientists offer tools for stewardship, and the boat pilot comes to dance. The student mentors include ESF undergraduates who learn as much as they teach. They too have grown from this immersion in cultural ecology, which leads them to internships advocating for treaty rights or graduate research on threatened species important to native culture.

Officially, the last day of camp takes place on the SUNY–ESF Syracuse campus, with career exploration and exposure to college. But the last night at Cranberry Lake ends with a big campfire on the beach, the sparks rising up to a starry sky. There’s laughter and games and that familiar mixture of reluctance to say goodbye and eagerness to go home to a soft bed. As the fire dies to embers, teacher Dean George quiets everybody down for a talking circle to name what they most appreciate about Native Earth: new friends, swimming in clear water, good food, wise teachings, canoeing farther than you thought you could, picking up a snake, making cordage, traditional social dancing, learning the names of trees, making s’mores, watching an eagle look down on our camp.

One girl says, “I’ve come to Native Earth for three years now. It makes me proud to be Native. And this beautiful place reminds us of how the world should be.”

Related Stories

On Newsstands Now

December 2023

Sleigh rides, sipping whiskey in a speakeasy and more cold-weather fun at Lake Clear Lodge, plus park-inspired gifts, the North Country’s nuclear past and a sneak peek at a park-based novel from a bestselling author.
  • Adirondack Life Digital Edition

Adirondack Life Magazine

Subscribe Today!

Latest Articles


Follow Us

Adirondack Life Store

for calendars, apparel, maps and more!