A Catskill Catalog: August 24, 2011

A few years back, Onteora High School was embroiled in an athletic mascot controversy. Onteora teams have been the Indians since the school opened in the early ’50s. By the late ’90s, many in the district were calling for a change, citing State Education Department recommendations that schools abandon nicknames related to native peoples. Things got pretty hot.

The spark that ignited the fire occurred in 1997. Hoping to spur the fading fortunes of the football team, athletic boosters painted a big Indian on the gym wall. That well-intentioned act ignited a multi-year controversy.

Traditionalists were aghast at the idea of a 40-year athletic identity being snatched away. Change advocates believed the nickname smacked of discrimination. Both sides dug in their heels.
The controversy raged so strong, it drew the attention of The New York Times, which ran a May 2000 article entitled “Where the Tomahawk and Epithets Fly: A Catskills Culture War.”

“If the New York race for Senate is a soap opera,” writer Matthew Purdy wrote, observing First Lady Hillary Clinton’s initial foray into elective politics, “the Onteora School Board race is the World Wrestling Federation. Body slamming has broken out in Woodstock and surrounding Ulster County towns that share the high school. One side sees the Indian mascot as a racist stereotype; the other sees a symbol of local pride under attack by the political correctness militia.”

Purdy went on to characterize the sprawling district in one of my all-time favorite sentences, one that captures well the urbane-rustic dichotomy that is our Catskills: “Woodstock is, well, Woodstock, and much of the rest of the school district consists of rural towns where it is not quite as easy to find a good tofu burrito.”

How quickly things have changed!
The whole thing got so ugly that it pervaded the school. Students chose sides. Administrators worked to keep a lid on things.

Principal Frank Gorleski was agitated when he reviewed the proposed program for the student talent show and saw one act labeled the Big Indian Girls. This controversy was not going to be dragged into the talent show. He called the three offending students into his office.

“Girls, we’re not going to have this big Indian stuff on stage. Forget about it!” the principal warned.
“But, Mr. Gorleski, we’re from Big Indian!”

For the past couple of years, Winnisook, the big Indian, has stood at the entrance to Big Indian Park on Route 28. The tall, thin, bare-chested statue holds a spear and a dream-catcher. He represents the romantic story that gave its name to that Catskill Mountain crossroads-hamlet.

Richard Heppner tells four versions of that story in his new book, Women of the Catskills, Stories of Struggle, Sacrifice and Hope (History Press, Charleston, SC, 2011). The book chronicles the lives of Catskill Mountain women: famous ones like 19th-century design entrepreneur Candace Wheeler; everyday ones like Walton wife, mother, and diary-keeper Eliza Ogden Mead; and legendary ones like Utsayantha, the mythical native maiden who died for love.

Winnisook, all stories about him agree, stood nearly seven feet tall. One version of his tale has him renouncing native ways to become a farmer, only to be attacked and devoured by wolves. Two other versions have him guilty of atrocities against his pioneer neighbors, and killed by one settler, or several, who swore revenge.

Heppner’s favorite version, and mine, has the seven-foot Winnisook falling in love with Gertrude Molyneaux, who loved him too, but was forced by her family into a loveless marriage with “someone of her own kind.” Spurred by love, Gertrude leaves her husband to run away with the big Indian.
For a while, the two live happily in the woods. Searching for food, Winnisook is spotted by a settler who alerts Gertrude’s husband. The chase begins, ending at a spot along the Esopus where the jealous husband shoots his native rival. Legend has it that Winnisook crawled into a hollow pine tree, where, later, his love finds him “bolt upright, yet dead.”

It is said that tree stood for some time with an image of Winnisook’s profile etched into its trunk. Around that tree, Big Indian, NY, grew. May not be true, but it sure is a neat story.
Richard Heppner is the Woodstock Town Historian. He wrote his book because, as he says in his introduction, “I became aware that the history I loved so much openly omitted the vital role women had in writing, not only Woodstock’s story, but that of the Catskills as well.”

Women of the Catskills is an attempt to correct that oversight. Nicely printed and illustrated, it begins that effort.
© William Birns