Shenandoah: Daughter of the Stars

For me, this journey is about coming to terms with the realization that sometimes history isn’t what we’ve been told. It’s also about what’s intentionally, and conveniently, not told. Indeed, I’ve come to realize, late in life (and embarrassingly so), that most of what I’ve learned about American history, its native peoples and the land has been white-washed, quite literally. The truth about the United States’ Native Americans and our genocidal treatment and/or the removal of them, for example, has been glossed over, covered up, silenced, denied, forgotten, erased, and dismissed in every way possible. Native Americans have been and continue to be made invisible. For me, this growing, real truth lies in our Park and Indian reservation systems.  Our honest history tells us that our forefathers moved the native peoples from their sacred land for purposes of recreation, tourism and economic wealth, among other reasons, and forcibly put them onto reservations, leaving them there, forgotten (if they hadn’t already killed them). We wrote and re-wrote treaties to benefit our land interests and then never honored them.

Just today, in my study materials on religion and its impact on American environmentalism, simplified, dismissive statements are carelessly proffered to explain their presence away: “The standard narrative of [American] environmental history begins with the retreat of Indians before European colonists and their diseases. Indians had tended and shaped the landscape, and when they died or left, pioneers often marveled at the Edenic abundance they found.”[1]

Preparing to visit Shenandoah National Park via the Blue Ridge Skyline Drive, I’ve been aware of my privilege. Not just the gifts of time and presence to be here on this exploration, but also the resources that I am privileged to have to make this journey possible. And although I’m among the likely 1.2 million visitors anticipated at this park this year, I know I’m not invisible. My privilege as a white, heterosexual, Christian female of middle-class means guarantees that. And my privilege to drive here, to and through these beautiful scenic points, adds to the environmental crisis of our time. Auto emissions have long been an environmental hazard of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains. I recognize the privilege in that, too, and acknowledge that I have clearly succumbed to it in order to see these public places and lands for myself. I wish the park had a bus or carpooling system as some of the other national parks do out West, so I would feel just a little less guilty. And yet, I travel on.

As my sister and I traveled Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah National Park, peering out from various summits onto the Shenandoah Valley below, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I was looking down or even perhaps walking upon the Seneca Trail, otherwise known as the Great Indian War and Trading Path. Skyline Drive runs parallel to Routes 81 and 11, which are known to be part of the Great Path. Many parts of it are more popularly known as the Appalachian National Scenic Trail (the AT). In fact, our campsite at Loft Mountain was right alongside the AT.

As I understand it, this network of footpaths and trails was originally developed and used by the Piedmont Siouans, Catawbas, Shawnee, Delaware, Cherokees, Susquehannocks and the Iroquois, the Six Nations tribe which included Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas and later Tuscaroras. It’s also known that many of the Algonquian tribes of New England and the Atlantic coast used these trails. These trails extended from upstate New York and parts of New England (where it connected to another system of trails in Canada) and far south into Alabama, running through the Great Appalachian Valley. The age of the Great Indian War and Trading Path is unknown. Many of the trails in the Shenandoah Valley were broken by animals traveling to the salt licks in the region, especially by the herds of buffalo in the Valley of Virginia. These animal trails were later used by Native Americans, and even later by European pioneers.[2] The name of this route, given by British traders, was derived from combining its name among the northeastern Algonquian tribes, Mishi-maya-gat or “Great Trail System”, with that of the  Shawnee and Delaware, Athawominee or “Path where they go armed.” I was sad to note that we didn’t see any sign posts or markers that this was the Great Path along the Skyline Drive.

Along Skyline Drive, we stopped at the Shenandoah Valley Overlook (mile 2.8) where we looked upon the fabled valley that Native Americans purportedly called “Daughter of the Stars”—Shenandoah. Through it the Shenandoah River now wanders past farm fields with barns and farmhouses scattered here and there. We could see the long rampart of Massanutten Mountain from here too. The Dickey Ridge Visitor Center (mile 4.6) offered park information that was helpful, but the only information about the natives who once lived here long ago acknowledged that little is indeed known, suggesting that by the time colonists set foot in the Valley, most of its native inhabitants had long since departed. What these native villagers called themselves and what language(s) they spoke, are now lost.

I’m skeptical about the limited history of this area. It’s reported in many historical sources I’ve come upon that the multiple Iroquois Wars and European diseases brought by the earliest of the traders and settlers killed many of the native peoples off. But also knowing that over 2,000 poor mountain people were driven off this Appalachian land between 1926-1939 in order to establish and develop the Shenandoah National Park in 1935 for purposes of tourism and economic stimulation, I have to wonder if they were the first ones run off of this fertile and beautiful land. I doubt it very much.

DSC00645
Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park. The Shawnee Nation, among other tribes, was active in the Shenandoah area.

I share this native legend about the Shenandoah Valley that I’ve come across:

The Ancient Legend–Daughter of the Stars

After the Great Spirit had made the world, the morning stars came together on the shores of a quiet silver lake bordered with blue mountains, the most beautiful place they could see.

Hovering above the quiet waters and lighting the mountain tops with their robes of fire, the stars sang their songs of joy and pledged to gather here every thousand years.

One time when the stars were singing, there came a mighty crashing!! A great rock in the mountain wall tore asunder, and through the deep opening the lake waters began to pour out and rush to the sea.

As time passed, the stars looked over the earth for another place to meet. They finally agreed upon a lovely valley through which a winding river ran.

Suddenly the stars realized that this valley had been the bed of their beautiful lake, and the blue mountains around it were the same ones upon which they had cast their robes of light in ages past.

The stars were so joyous they placed the brightest jewels from their crowns in the river where they still lie and sparkle. And ever since that day, the river and its valley have been called….Shenandoah, Daughter of the Stars.  Found at: https://www.visitshenandoah.org/about-us/.

[1] Stoll, Mark R. Inherit the Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 2015), Page 7.

[2] Brown, Katharine L. and Nancy T. Sorrells. 2013. Into the Wilderness. Staunton, Virginia: Lot’s Wife Publishing. Pages 1-2.

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