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New Onondaga Texts Discovered and Pre-Columbian Petroglyphs Explored

Under a 100k National Endowment for the Humanities grant, professor of German and Humanities Katie Faull from Bucknell University (PA) was translating old diaries written in Moravian (Czeck) when she came across letters written in the Onondaga (Iroquois) language, which has around 65-115 remaining speakers, but most use it ceremonially. She gave the current chief of the Iroquois a three page letter written to an 18th century Oneida chief, Shikellamy a.k.a. Swatana. The translations are revealing more about the nature of both Indian and White culture during that time, for instance, White women had friendly relations with Indian women.

Faull writes copiously on historical interactions between Natives and Whites of the Eastern US in previous time periods, and is distinguished for her work in the Cultures at the Confluence project, which for three years has been mapping out the history of cross-cultural interactions in the Susquehanna region of northern Appalachia. Part of the project analyzes around 1,000 petroglyphs over 1,000 years old, with the help of Associate Professor of English Alf Siewers, local historian and expert on petroglyphs Paul Nevin, and various student assistants. They’re located around 27-miles of the river near Lancaster and Columbia counties, around the Pennsylvania-Maryland border; sites include: Circle Rock, Little Indian Rock, and Big Indian. They’re using cutting edge GIS mapping and laser technology (to see how the carvings were made), making sure not to tarnish them with fingerprints.

The petroglyphs are not just doodles of people and animals (e.g. deer, snake, beaver), they also contain hidden information about astrology, the modern geographic makeup of the area (e.g. highways were built over old deer and Indian trails), the etymology of local place names, Susquehannock Indian lifeways and religion (e.g. carvings of the thunderbird and Manitou), their cultural influence on Euro-Americans, and more. Nevin believes carvings of footprints might lead to a path to a sacred place ideal for praying. Different carvings are accentuated under a certain intensity of sunlight i.e. at different points of the day, depending on season.

“When you sit under the sky dome formed where the petroglyphs lie, you are in the middle of a kind of environmental text that suggests ways to rethink the relationship between story and nature in which we are formed as human beings,” he said. “And the way in which these symbols appear only at certain times of day, and in orientation to certain times of the year, is magical. It reminds me of moon-written runes in The Lord of the Rings. But they’re right here in the same river that travels by Bucknell. It is a great teaching and research opportunity.”

-Siewers

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