Kaatscast: the Catskills Podcast
Oct. 11, 2022

Overlook's Spirit Stones: Investigating the Indigenous

Overlook's Spirit Stones: Investigating the Indigenous

Overlook Mountain is a popular Catskills hiking destination, complete with a scenic fire tower and the ruins of an historic hotel. According to researchers, and bolstered by groundbreaking scientific evidence, the mountain's popularity precedes modern hiking; 19th-century tourism; even colonial settlement. A parcel under the protective watch of the Overlook Mountain Center hosts an array of stone cairns and structures believed to have been constructed by Indigenous Americans centuries ago.

In this episode, join us for a hike with researcher Glenn Kreisberg and an exploration of Overlook Mountain's tangible pre-colonial past. 

Thanks to our sponsors:
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Central Catskills Chamber of Commerce
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Glenn Kreisberg  0:03  
So the area here has been used. You know, if you talk to archaeologists and historians, they'll tell you at least 10,000 years

Brett Barry  0:15  
on today's Kaatscast. We hiked the south side of overlook mountain in Woodstock, New York, to visit a series of rock sculptures attributed not to hikers or farmers, or even colonial settlers. But to the Native Americans who inhabited this land. Glenn Kreisberg is with the Overlook Mountain Center, an educational nonprofit that's stewarding this ancient spirit stone Preserve.

Glenn Kreisberg  0:44  
My name is Glenn Kreisberg. I'm the chairperson of the Overlook Mountain Center here in Woodstock, New York. And we are taking a tour today of the Lewis hollow site, which is an archaeological site on overlook mountain in Lewis hollow, overlook Mountain Center has been stewarding this 38 acre parcel for about 10 years now, after it was purchased, to save the property because it was listed to be developed. About 80 acres were listed to be developed in 2012. So that's kind of how overlooking Mountain Center came about. group of people joined together to oppose the development and sale of the property and to purchase it so it could be protected permanently. And that was accomplished. So now we're conducting research and programming, about the features that are present up here, which have been identified as ceremonial to Native Americans. These features include stone constructions that the natives call Manitou, Hassanash, which is spirit stones, we're going to make a right here and head up this path. So here we have one of these well formed, dry stacked Manitou Hassanash we would also call it a Cairn organized pile of stone, mostly local blue stone. But if you look closely, you'll see there are a couple of stones like this one here, and this one here that look different. So this is a piece of white quartz, probably came from the stream, not too far away. This is a piece of hematite or iron oxide. And that's another common stone that Native Americans used to make pigments out of. It's the source of red ochre, which was a lot of times used in burials, there is still a very mysterious component to what these are in academic circles, it's not a settled issue. But if you were to talk to Native Americans or you talk to independent researchers like myself, there's a lot of evidence that supports that Native Americans built in stone, and in fact, in some cases, align their constructions to events in the sky like Solstice sunrises and Equinox sunrises,

Brett Barry  2:53  
stone piles in the Catskills are not uncommon. They can indicate a number of things, property boundaries, mountain summits, or where livestock was contained. But Glenn explained that these overlook stones don't exhibit any of those telltale features.

Glenn Kreisberg  3:09  
Building a pile like this really serves no purpose. And again, when we look at the walls, we kind of analyze how they're building their construction. And you know, are they enclosing something are they lining up with a property boundary that's been established part of a survey, almost through process of elimination, if you do enough property deed research, you can understand some of the origins of these things. Now, when we did the deed research here, what we've discovered was that there were two great lots of the Hardenberg patent and one of the lot line subdivisions came right up into Lewis hollow, a piece of that land was bought by Robert Livingston, who basically owned all of Woodstock in its early days. So you can look at these deeds, you can read them. Eventually, they get back from, you know, modern ones into typewriter ones into handwritten ones, and the handwritten ones are sometimes a little bit more difficult to discern. But if you go through them carefully on this parcel, you see mentions of ancient stone monuments. And they were in some cases used by the early surveyors, because they were already here, and they were just conveniently located. And they said, Well, here's a pile of stones. It's close to where we're going to call the corner of this property, we're going to mark it as such,

Brett Barry  4:20  
in addition to those early property surveys, there's now high tech scientific evidence that these stone cairns walls and mounds predate colonial settlers, farmers, hikers, and yes, even those infamous Woodstock hippies, who might have constructed mystical mounds in these hills.

Glenn Kreisberg  4:41  
So yeah, I mean, it's again, very difficult to say you can't date a wall. There's no way unless you can find artifacts that are associated with it. But there are actually new methods that are coming about and we're going to talk about it because there's a mound down here that was dated using what's called OSL or optical stimulated luminescence dating. So we did have a group I'm here from the University of Washington and Stony Brook University to try to date these structures. And they started with one of the large mounds down there. So let's head over there and take a look at it.

Brett Barry  5:11  
Glenn guided us through the woods dotted with Volkswagen Beetle sized stone Cairns and serpentine walls to a giant mound of stones that would have taken someone or a group of someone's a very long time to build.

Glenn Kreisberg  5:27  
It was probably 10 or 15 years ago, we brought a woman named Sherry White, Sherry's the Tribal Historic Preservation Officer at the time for the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican when she looked at this, she commented that it resembled the burial mound of their ancestors. So two samples were taken from this about two years ago by Dr. James feathers from University of Washington and two geo scientists from Stony Brook University, a Marine Frouin geoscientist down there who runs the OSL lab and Vesna Kundic who was her assistant or associate professor. And they gathered samples from this feature, and also from another feature further up. And what they did was they dug down into the middle of this and removed the two stones. And they also dug down until they could find the bottom course of stones and it went goes down quite a bit further than what you see here. The samples that they're taking have to be gathered in complete darkness, because what they're doing is they're looking to in the lab figure out when the last time sunlight shone on the minerals, the feldspar and the quartz that are in those samples. So they erect these cocoons collection cocoons, they go in them with their red headlamps, and then they penetrate down and gather stones from inside one above and then take one from below that and they wrap them in opaque packaging right in the shelter, label them up, ship them to the lab. So they took a rock sample from the interior and they took sediment samples from beneath. It took about two years to get the results. They came back the rock 1300 AD plus or minus 70 years, the soil samples were a little bit more recent 1500 plus or minus 90 years,

Brett Barry  7:10  
the rock itself is obviously much older, millions or billions of years old. But OSL or optically stimulated luminescence dating tells us when those stones were last exposed to sunlight, someone carried them through the forest to build these mounds. And once they were placed and covered with more stones, they were insulated from more recent light exposure. So OSL dating can reveal when those stones were last moved.

Glenn Kreisberg  7:40  
And even the very latest date that they came back for this with the margin of error would be about 1590. So that's a couple of decades before Hudson even sailed up the river tells you it's almost assuredly Native American in origin. So what you're looking at here actually could very well be the oldest identified human made structure in Ulster County. It costs money to do these, roughly it's about $1,000 per analysis. But we're hoping to get a comprehensive survey and dating of all the features up here. And it's about 40 of them. The Native Americans throughout the Western Hemisphere throughout the United States, the southeast, the Midwest, the southwest, certainly central South America. They all built in stone going back 1000s of years. It's not even argued they aligned their constructions astronomically. This is just a given. nobody questions it. But in the northeast, not a thing. So slowly the case is being made. And that paradigm is shifting and people are beginning to realize that okay, Native Americans did do this. There may not be as strong evidence, and it may be a little more, you know, hidden under more recent cultural footprints. But if you look carefully, you can find things that indicate that the Native Americans did this activity. If you go back in the colonial records, people like Thomas Jefferson, people like Ezra Stiles, they knew about it, they wrote about it. They said that Native Americans build stone forts, stone features, stone walls, stone monuments that were important to their understanding and their belief system. And they were, again, documented and respected. But then, over a period of time, it kind of fell by the wayside as I said, kind of it was convenient for them to say there was nothing here. And it's all just open for us to take and use as we wish. So you know, not exactly a fair deal for indigenous folks.

Brett Barry  9:32  
When we come back, more stone features on overlook mountain. How and why this land was used by Catskill's natives and the convergence of history and cell towers site planning that led Glenn to this spot in the first place. Kaatscast is supported by the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce, providing services to businesses, community organizations and local governments in the central Catskills Region. Follow the central Catskills Chamber of Commerce on Facebook and sign up for a weekly email of local events at Centralcatskills.org. And by Briars and brambles books, the go to independent book and gift store in the Catskills located in Windham, New York right next to the pharmacy just steps away from the Windham path open daily. For more information, visit Briarsandbramblesbooks.com or call 518-750-8599. It was another independent bookshop that first sparked Glenn Kreisberg's interest in Native American studies. Back on overlook mountain, he explains.

Glenn Kreisberg  10:47  
Luckily, as a young person, I worked in a bookstore here in Woodstock, called Three geese in flight, which was a kind of Arthurian legend, Celtic mythology, but it also had a lot of Native American folklore that they sold. So Three Geese in flight, my friend Sam Wenger own that for many years, he still owns it, it's online. So reading a lot of books on ancient culture and ancient mythology is what kind of brought me into this. But then I guess about 2006, I was asked to sit on a cell tower siting committee for the town of Woodstock. Because as my day job, I'm a radio frequency engineer. So I designed the network that we all use to share information. So at the public hearings for the cell tower, there were people showing up talking about these unusual stone mounds that were in the woods near the proposed cell tower. Site. During the public hearing, you had experts from the state who were dismissing them again, saying everything we're seeing here is colonial or early American. And you can see we're seeing more mounds here. And there's 13 of them along here. And of course, the native's went by the lunar calendar, which is 13 months. So yeah, sitting on this cell phone tower sighting committee, they had the experts who were saying there's nothing to see here kind of dime a dozen all colonial early American. But then you had another group of people, in fact, a group called NEARA, the New England antiquities Research Association, who some of the local residents brought in to give a different perspective. And they said, well, in fact, some of these things may be much older and Native American. So that kind of opened my eyes. I was like, Oh, that's interesting. I hadn't heard that before. And I thought, okay, if there's something to that, then there's really kind of a mystery in our woods, right and everybody's backyard. I mean, anybody who goes hiking in the Catskills very quickly realizes you're gonna see things made a stone you're gonna see old stone walls, old stone foundations, unusual piles of stone like what we see here. Unusual boulders set up in particularly ways that look unnatural, just because the group from nearer came and explained that they believe this was Native American, that didn't necessarily convince the experts, and they built the cell tower. In the quarry, five mounds were documented and then destroyed as part of the construction process. So that's unfortunate,

Brett Barry  13:10  
unfortunate, and all the more reason for overlooked mountain center's continued Study and Protection of the mounds still standing. Glenn brought us to one of those mounds visited recently by members of the Ramapo Munsee Lenape nation.

Glenn Kreisberg  13:28  
This one was used by the Ramapo Lenape Turtle Clan for a solstice sunrise ceremony a few years ago, you can see the remnants of their ceremonial fire, they set up an altar here, laid out a blanket a bunch of their spiritual accoutrements. And they held ceremony here 10 degrees on December 21, I think it was 2019. We asked them why this spot. And they pointed to this and they said, Well, this is what we consider an altar. And anytime you see two large stones that are filled in between with with smaller stones, they consider that a portal. And they consider that an entrance or an exit to the underworld. And it also could be potentially the entrance or the exit to the sky world. So it has to do with the alignments. And this was very much aligned with the winter solstice sunrise. So if you're up here on the shortest day of the year, and you can see, you've got this altar, you've got a rock over here with a bunch of stones on it even got a bunch of stones on the ground in between, but that's where we saw the sunrise on December 21. In that direction, they built these things, and they marked them in a way that would allow them to document where those positions were on the horizon on the longest and shortest days and also on the equinox the equal days. You know, it's a pattern we see it in many different sites and many different locations. The fact that the natives came here and chose this and carried out the ceremony again confirms these ideas and these beliefs that this was a sacred spot is still a sacred spot to the natives. where they carry out their their ceremonies connecting this world to to other worlds. This was a border region. So you had tribes to the south, who were Lenape, you had tribes to the west who were Haudenosaunee or Iroquois, Mohican to the east, Mohawk to the North, who were part of the Iroquois Confederacy. So you had a conglomeration of tribes that kind of considered this to be a border region, excavations that were done here in the early part of the 20th century, identified rock shelters, pottery, projectile points that were used by groups of Native Americans who were in this area about 5000 years ago. So some of those artifacts were dated to about 2700 BC. And they were considered to be part of an autumnal hunting camp. So the natives who lived down in the valley would come up here in the fall, hunt, prepare game for the winter, and do their ceremony because everything the natives did, and the ancient indigenous people did, had ceremony. related to it, there was always a ceremonial component, whether it was agriculture, whether it was hunting, they always would consider their relationship and their place in the universe. And it was always very three dimensional. They were thinking about the underworld, they were thinking about the celestial world up above, and the spirit stones can take many different forms. Sometimes they have certain features that are observable, that might indicate that they are ceremonial. Some things such as walls, can take the form of serpents, some of the piles can take the form of turtle effigies. And these are symbols that had meaning to Native American in their belief system. And snakes and lizards and turtles were very much symbols of the underworld. So it's not surprising to see things like turtle effigies, or serpent mounds and serpent walls associated with Native American sacred sites because they were part of that belief system. The turtle was a very prominent figure in native creation myth. Almost every Native American tribe in North America has a turtle as part of its creation story, because they consider North America to be Turtle Island. You know, just like many cultures around the world, the Native Americans believed there was a worldwide flood that destroyed everything. And after that, it had to be rebuilt. And in their stories, many times an animal is sent down to the bottom of the body of water. Sometimes it's a beaver, sometimes a muskrat, and it comes back up with a clump of dirt, plops it on the back of the turtle, and repeats that process until they've got what's called North America, or Turtle Island. So to see turtles as part of their ceremonial sites really is not that surprising, out of place.

Brett Barry  18:05  
Glenn showed us deliberately shaped mounds and serpentine walls with obvious head and tail features. And lest you think these monuments are unique to overlook, it turns out they pop up throughout the region.

Glenn Kreisberg  18:21  
We find these sites and all the hollows in Mink Hollow and Lewis Hollow and, Silver Hollow, Bearsville Hollow, there are these Cairn and wall sites. And they seem to be marking a headwaters of orders of springs and streams that flow down to the creeks that flow to the rivers that flow to the ocean, they were marking something that was important to them the source of their sustenance, the pure waters, they came from the ground

whether it's private or public, whether it's a state forest, or National Forest, all the land that we inhabit, was once ancestral Native American land. And that's kind of like a baseline, we have to understand that. The way is taught in history books, when we learn about Native Americans, it's always in the past, it's not the present, it's not the future. It's like they were, but they still are here, they're still very vibrant. They played a really important role in the founding of our country. And they continue to play a very important role. And in fact, I think, a more important role all the time, because a lot of the lessons that they have to teach us are the ones that we have to listen to and learn from because we've been ignoring them. And it has to do with the connection to the land and intimacy, you know, with nature and the environment that we've kind of disconnected from in our modern society. So learning from them, how to reconnect with it, and what the true meaning of these sites are, and the connection to the underworld, the connection to the sky world. I think those are important lessons.

Brett Barry  19:45  
To arrange a tour of the Spirit stone preserve, or to support overlook mountain Center's mission, go to overlookmountain.org Thanks to Glenn Kreisberg and to our sponsors, including the mountain Eagle covering Delaware green and schoharie counties, including brands for local regions like the Windham weekly schoharie news and Catskills chronicle audio recording by Alison Aaron Kaatscast is a bi-weekly production of Silver Hollow Audio more at Kaatscast.com where you can subscribe to our newsletter or make a donation toward our production costs. I'm Brett Berry, thanks for listening, and we'll see you again in two weeks.

Transcribed by https://otter.ai / AA