A petition began circulating about a week ago amongst the alumni of my Alma Mater, Turners Falls High School. Our mascot is and always has been the Indian and I was not surprised that the controversy of whether this was offensive or not had finally hit home. I spent two days digging through boxes looking for a short story that I wrote in May of 2003 that gives an idea of what it was like growing up in a town that was named for a hero, who really wasn’t a hero after all. Those of us that walked the halls of TFHS in the fifties, the eighties, and now are proud to be the Indians. We have never portrayed this in any way to be offensive and bear the logo with pride. We hope that what was a tradition for our grandparents, parents, peers, and children will continue on for future generations and everyone understands the history of our quiet little town nestled along the Connecticut River.
Although my account is fictionalized it is based on an event that occurred on May 18, 1676 when about 300 Pocumtuck men, women, and children were massacred at the site of Peskeompscut (the great falls) by Captain William Turner and 160 mounted troops in retaliation of the theft of one cow from a farmer’s field during the span of Metacom’s War. Capt. Turner was killed by a neighboring tribe that reached the site too late to save the Pocumtuck and followed the retreating Turner. He was killed less than a mile from the great falls and is buried (supposedly) at the end of the bridge that spans the dam that was once the falls. The house I grew up in, along with many others, sits right in the valley where the Pocumtuck had been camped.
I’d lived all my life in the red house by the river when Miss Calvin, my fourth grade teacher, told us the story of what had happened on that spot on that exact day over two hundred years ago. It was local legend, Captain William Turner being heralded by the townspeople and the settlement across the river forever bearing his name. A stone stood at the end of our road to memorialize this man that had helped bring an end to the area’s Indian Wars and we rubbed broken crayons over white paper to capture the words inscribed beneath them. After my paper was carried home it was buried beneath the piles of toys and clothing that covered the old wood floor in my bedroom that faced the river.
That night I dozed off to sleep, the sound of the water lapping against itself and the hard cement of the dam. A light breeze was blowing through the trees and through my window to cool me that warm May evening. I woke later in the night to complete darkness, neither the moon nor the stars made light through my window. The wind had picked up causing goosebumps to crawl up my bare arms. The wind sounded different tonight, I thought as I pulled my pink blanket up around my shoulders instead of getting up to close the window. Tiny branches from the willow tree out front scratched at the sideboards of the house as the wind whirled and wailed in the darkness. The wind was so loud and I was so awake, wide eyed in my bed, that I imagined I heard a voice. The louder the wind blew, the louder the voice got. At first I couldn’t understand it, but then I heard and that was when the wind told me the truth. That was the day I heard the story of you.
Your people had come to the falls from Wequamps, the land where you had barely survived a harsh winter. In the past few days only one ox, a white man’s ox that had wandered away from its pasture, had fed you and your people. You were thin and hungry as the men pulled carp from Peskeompscut, the great falls that year after year your people had come to for the spring fish harvest. You smiled and watched from your perch in a large willow tree as piles of fish were brought from the river to the camp where your mother and the other women were cleaning and cooking and smoking them. Children played happily around the camp, the bones of their bodies showing more than they should in the parts left glowing in the warm spring sunshine. You were content to sit in your tree and pluck long thin branches to weave into beautiful headdresses for you and your mother. She looked up at you through the haze of smoke from her fire and drooping branches of your tree just budding with leaves as loud noises and shouting near the falls made you both look away from each other and towards the water. Many men, white men, on horseback were charging along the water’s edge. Smoke from their muskets billowed in a still cloud above the startled fishermen as they fell bleeding into the water and were carried by the flowing currents over the rocky falls. You saw your father as his head crashed quickly into the foaming water and disappeared. More men on horseback rode through the encampment, the sound from their muskets growing louder and louder as they got closer to your tree. You jumped down to run towards your mother with tears running down your puffing cheeks faster than your little legs could carry you. The noise was so loud you couldn’t hear the words coming from her open mouth. Her frantic eyes were locked with yours and she motioned for you to go back to the tree, to get away, to hide. You were breathing hard and your heart thumped in your chest and your bare feet pounded on the moist black dirt as your mother pitched forward, gray smoke rising behind her. The white man on the horse didn’t even bother to raise his musket to you. He rode his snorting black stallion directly over your tiny body crushing you into the reddening mud. Not one of your people would be alive to return to Peskeompscut for the carp that filled the rock pools that next spring.
The wind’s voice quieted as its story ended. I laid in my bed without sleeping until the sun rose over the still waters of the river. I got up and looked out my window to see what I had seen every morning of my life, but today it was not the same river. It was Peskeompscut. Without thinking I turned over every toy and every piece of clothing to find the paper that I had worked on so hard just the day before. I stuffed it into my knapsack as I got ready for my day.
“Miss Calvin,” I said as I laid the blue colored paper on her desk. “I’m sorry, but I don’t want this.” I turned to return to my desk.
“What?” But you worked so hard on it. Why don’t you want it?” The paper hung in her hands suspended in the air between us.
“I don’t think Captain Turner is a hero.”
Her hand retreated along with the paper. She shook her head, her lips stretched across her face not in a smile, but in a look of knowing. I went quietly back to my seat knowing she too knew the real story of what happened that day more than two hundred years before right outside the window of my bedroom and the great falls the town had dammed up many years before I was even born.
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