By PAUL OESTREICHER
Special to the News
BLUE MT. LAKE - For the first time in centuries, a traditional Native American "wikëwam" (wigwam), or bark house, is being built on the shore of Blue Mountain Lake.
It is constructed entirely of materials used by this region's indigenous people, using stone tools and techniques the Iroquois and Algonquian peoples employed for millennia.
When it is completed in early November, the wigwam will be ritually blessed in a cedar burning ceremony led by representatives of the Lenape (Delaware) Nation, whose people once inhabited the lower Hudson and Delaware river valleys and whose relatives, the Abenaki, Algonquin and Mahican, hunted in the Adirondacks and built similar structures.
The wigwam is the work of Barry Keegan, one of the most celebrated practitioners in the country of "primitive technology," the art of faithfully reproducing the way indigenous people made things as a means to better understand their culture. Keegan not only creates wigwams (this one is perhaps his 65th), but dugout canoes, mortars, pestles, stone and bone knives, awls, fishing implements and a myriad of other indigenous crafts for display at museums and nature parks throughout the Northeast.
His works have added authenticity both to documentaries and feature films such as "The New World," starring Colin Farrell as Captain John Smith of the Jamestown settlement in Virginia.
"Wigwams varied quite a bit in size, shape, and materials," Keegan explains. "Some were long and could house a number of families, while others, like this one, were perfect for a lone hunter or small family group. Those built near marshes or estuaries had sides of woven cattail mats; others were made from bark.
"South of the Adirondacks wigwams were usually dome shaped and often sided with elm bark; north of our region they tended to be conical, like squat-shaped tepees with birch bark as the siding of choice. The Adirondacks are right on the border between those two types and probably both were in use here, at the very least as seasonal hunting camps."
In keeping with its location, Keegan's wigwam fuses elements from both varieties; a tough inner layer of elm bark lends additional support to the lighter birch bark skin.
ELLIS ISLAND EXHIBIT
The story of Keegan's Blue Mountain Lake wigwam has its roots in an exhibition held four years ago at the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The exhibit was curated by David Oestreicher, a leading authority on the Lenape (Delaware) Indian language and culture, whose family owns Prospect Point Cottages.
Beginning as a teenager, Oestreicher made repeated trips to Oklahoma and Canada, working with the last remaining traditionalists of the people who once inhabited lower New York state, and who were pushed north and west in the 1700 and 1800s. When Oestreicher's team was given the daunting task of creating an exhibition spanning six galleries in less than a year, he called on Keegan for help.
"I'd known Barry for years through the Indian world," Oestreicher explained. "But it wasn't until the 2009 Ellis Island show that we really became close friends. New York state was then celebrating its quadricentennial, the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's voyage up the river.
KEEGAN TO THE RESCUE
"I was asked to curate an exhibition about the Lenape, the people who greeted Hudson when he arrived. We had many priceless artifacts to display, but some things were missing.
"There was no dugout canoe, no wigwam, no handles on any of the ancient stone tools to give people an idea of how they were used. Right away I thought of Barry Keegan."
Oestreicher related that with only nine months of notice (exhibitions usually take several years), and despite an initial lack of funding, Keegan jumped headlong into the project. "My main goal was to help fulfill the fervent wish of the native elders I'd worked with since I was a boy: to honor, celebrate and remember the people on whose lands we now live.
"Barry embraced that vision and in the end, with his help, the exhibit was wildly successful, garnering rave reviews, visits by Native American delegations from Canada, Oklahoma and elsewhere, citations from the governor, and wonderful newspaper, magazine and television coverage."
It was several years after the show, during a visit with the Oestreichers in Blue Mountain Lake, that Keegan told David Oestreicher he'd like to create a wigwam on Prospect Point. It would constitute a rare opportunity for guests to examine an authentically made native dwelling, and even, if they wanted, to camp there overnight and experience what life might have been like in that same spot hundreds of years ago.
Keegan's wigwam joins the richly decorated "jiimaan" (Abenaki birch bark canoe) commissioned in 2007 by Prospect Point from celebrated canoe maker Francois Rhothan of the Canadian north woods. Both pieces were created using time-honored tools, methods and materials, and are part of an ongoing effort at the Point to honor the region's indigenous people.
Oestreicher reflects, "Beyond educating people, or being a fun place for kids to camp out, there's something haunting about the wigwam. It's magical to paddle along the shoreline, and if you look carefully, spot the birch bark dwelling hidden among the trees.
"It just seems to belong there, untouched by time; a gift from another age with its own secret story to tell."
Those wishing to visit the bark house are invited to Prospect Point Cottages Saturday, Nov. 2, at 2 p.m. for a Native American ceremony blessing the wigwam and all those present.
The ceremony and opening remarks will be offered by Mike Pace (Xinkwi Lënu, 'Big Man'), former assistant chief of the Delaware Tribe of Eastern Oklahoma.
Barry Keegan and David Oestreicher will also be on hand to speak and answer questions. The festivities are open to all, free of charge.