A Catskill Catalog: January 18, 2012
If you know any little girls in the three- to seven-year-old set, you know that princesses are in. Disney has a stable of them; slender and brave girls who appear in 3-D movies and coloring books, on backpacks and as collectible figurines. They’re gold. Gold clad in pink, that is.
Gather round girls. Our Catskills may have their very own princess, replete with noble birth, forbidden love, and luxuriant black hair. She is Utsayantha.
When Washington Irving ripped imagined-folklore out of the Catskills in 1819, he opened the gate for other tellers-of-tales to follow. The Catskills became the locale for beautiful stories from our misty past, an imagined past, peopled with natives who were beautiful and wise, models of youthful passion, paternal caution, and eternal connection to place.
Arnold H. Bellows was a schoolteacher and a poet, elder of the Olive and Hurley Old School Baptist Church from 1930 to 1952, and the author of The Legend of Utsayantha and Other Folk-Lore of the Catskills, published, as a small book, in 1945, by the Catskill Mountain News.
Arnold Bellows was widely known in this part of the Catskills. Born and raised locally, he taught for a time in Roxbury School, and preached often from local pulpits. His little book of folk-lore carried an enthusiastic endorsement by William Krum, Roxbury Central School Principal. “In this age of stark realism, it is refreshing to read the legends of a period dominated by mystery and superstition.”
“The author of this poem,” author Bellows wrote, “has made every possible effort to investigate all obtainable facts that have a bearing upon the legend of Utsayantha and he has attempted by a judicious compilation of myth and history to present that which should appeal alike to the sympathy and fancy of the reader.”
Okay, I’m in. Sympathy and fancy? Sounds intriguing. Mystery and superstition? The very stuff of folklore, no?
No, actually. Folklore needs to come from the folk to be authentic and instructive. It must rise from the people, from the events of everyday life. In this case, the everyday life of the native people whose stories are being told.
Sometime in the late ’60s, we learned that everybody gets to tell his or her own story, that every community, every people, get to collect and tell their own history. The Legend of Utsayantha is a beautiful story, but it is a story about “the other,” about somebody else, different folks, not a story that rises from the collective us.
Arnold H. Bellows cites as his source material R. Lionel DeLisser’s Picturesque Ulster, and William M. Skinner’s Myths and Legends of Our Own Land.” As Tonto might say: paleface books. Hardly the material of the folklorist.
But. But. Must we throw out the stories with our modern sense of their inherent in-authenticity? After all, there probably was no Cinderella, no Belle. Just because our native-born Catskill Mountain princess was probably never born, that needn’t stop us from accepting her in all her princess-like splendor. Utsayantha. Princess of the Catskills.
She was the daughter of the great Ubiwachah, Cheiftain of the Mahicans, and “the wondrous beauty,” Genhenwana, daughter of Tongora, chief of the Esopus. The Mahican had traveled from the Coquago, what we call today the West Branch of the Delaware, to council with the chief of the Esopus people, down by today’s Olive Bridge. Enthralled with his host’s daughter’s grace and beauty, he wooed and won Genhenwana, symbolically uniting the peoples from two ends of the Catskills.
Utsayantha, born on the Coquago, is the fruit of that union.
“Like a flower in the forest,/Blooming fairer than the others,/Like a fragrant lily growing/By a river’s sandy margin,/Utsayantha was considered/Fairest maid of the Mahicans,/Lovely as the mellow moonlight,/Matchless in her charm and beauty.”
Okay, so “modest in her manner” and “graceful in her step and gesture,” are no-longer at the top of our list of desired traits for our daughters, but, after all, Utsayantha is a princess – her father and grandfather, remember, were both chiefs – and those pink-clad princesses my pals, Francesca and Rosella, play-with aren’t exactly Wonderwoman. Maybe we can hold-on to Utsayantha a bit longer.
There’s a lake up in Stamford named for her, our Catskill Mountain princess. And a mountain, Utsayantha Mountain, western-most high peak of the Catskills. Up there, her tale gets murky. Princess Utsayantha dies. She dies several different ways, in several different versions of her tale, some magical, others sacrificial, all tragic, none happily-ever-after.
In the end, Utsayantha dies for love, something no self-respecting pink-clad princess with a fan-base of fanatical five-year-olds would ever be caught dead doing.
That alone seems enough to disqualify our Catskill Mountain candidate for full-scale pink princess-hood. Oh, well. It’s still a neat story.