Native Heritage

The wave of settlers who traveled sight unseen to tiny Potsdam, N.Y., more than 200 years ago were not the first people to inhabit this place—not by a long shot.

The nearby Mohawks, part of the Iroquois Confederacy, were known to spend their summers on a small island nestled between two small waterfalls in the heart of a coursing waterway dotted with rapids, which they called Swift Water (Tanawadeh) or Noisy River (Nihawanate). As for the settlement itself, it was called Tewatenetarenies, meaning "the place where the gravel settles under the feet in dragging the canoe."

Even earlier than that, evidence discovered by a SUNY Potsdam archaeology professor and his students has shown that indigenous people have been living in the place we now call Potsdam for as far back as 5,000 years.

The spot served as a convenient waypoint on the journey from hunting grounds in the Adirondacks, where the river (later named the Racket/Racquette) originated, all the way up to settlements on the shores of the St. Lawrence River.

When white settlers began to arrive, the area was part of the Mohawk Nation, which was part of the Iroquois Confederacy. The Mohawks are known as Kanienkehaka, or "the people of the flint," and they were considered the keepers of the Eastern door for this edge of Haudenosaunee territory.

Potsdam's story is like that of much of the American frontier. Native American communities were segmented, shrunk and pushed aside, as settlers from the newly created United States began to migrate out from the original colonies.

"The Mohawks of Akwesasne are the descendants of the original inhabitants who were called the 'St. Lawrence Valley Iroquoisans,'" Grand Chief Mike Kanentakeron Mitchell wrote in Akwesasne: A Cultural Portrait. "Following European contact and subsequent wars among the European nations, Akwesasne became a geographically divided territory."

During the Revolutionary War, the Iroquois initially hoped to stay neutral, though most of the Six Nations ended up supporting the British. After the British were defeated, tribes were forced to sign away most of their New York ancestral lands. Many Mohawks moved to Canada, setting up communities there, while others settled at tribal communities, including Akwesasne.

Today, SUNY Potsdam has one of the largest Native American student populations of any State University of New York campus. The College is the recipient of a grant from the U.S. Department of Education to prepare qualified Native American students to become teachers and school administrators.