Indigenous People’s Day

Autumn in the Valley, pastel, 31″ x 27″, 2010 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski
Autumn in the Valley, pastel, 31″ x 27″, 2010 © Bernadette E. Kazmarski

Growing up in this hilly tree-covered landscape festooned with waterways I loved the land I walked on. That love formed my forever connection with it through my art and photography and just to be, wading the streams, standing in falling snow, walking barefoot on the soil and feeling the strength of the earth through the soles of my feet, growing my vegetables and flowers.

I had no idea that the “Indians” people spoke of when I was little weren’t the western savages they’d been made out to be, but had actually been people who lived where I stand now. In time I found the truth of what happened to them. They had been forcibly removed from the land they had loved for centuries, living in harmony and leaving very little but footprints, and then their culture was removed from them wherever they lived. This had once been a fertile hunting ground, a summer home, or a permanent residence. I lived where others once lived, they were removed so that I could be here. I wondered why no one seemed to know this, and no one seemed to care when I tried to tell them. I wore my long hair in two braids in support and memory of those who had once stood on the hilltop where our ranch houses were built and watched the sun set. It was about as much as a preteen girl could do in those days.

Once I learned the truth, as I explored the farm fields overgrown with grasses and native plants, and wandered the woods still bearing tall sturdy oaks and understory trees with fruits and nuts, and the occasional deer and fox, I thought of other children my age, who loved as much as I did the whispering among the trees just before sunset, feeling the grasses brush against bare legs on a sweet summer morning, following the song of each bird, and the wonder of watching seeds sprout and grow into food that you will eat. I still feel a sadness, even in my joy.

Finally, we are reckoning with what we’ve done, not only to millions of individuals over hundreds of years right up to today, but to entire cultures, and to the land itself. And still, it’s a fight to start setting things right. It’s about time we finally let go of the “discovery” myth and replaced that day with recognizing and celebrating the people who were here first, and loved this place with all their hearts.

About the artwork

Sloping hills blaze with autumn color at a rocky, rippled bend in Chartiers Creek, yet on the horizon deep gray-purple clouds hover; although the day was sunny I remember it being distinctly chilly with a sharpness to the breeze, especially on the water in a canoe, and winter is literally on the horizon.

My painting “Autumn in the Valley” depicts the Catfish Path, as the original inhabitants of this area called it because of its bounding population of catfish. It is the only navigable waterway of all the small tributaries into the Ohio River in this area. It carried local populations up and down the valley, and hunting parties from what is now the state of Ohio into the hills and valleys where I live now, where they would hunt and fish all summer in the primordial woods and streams, then return for the winter.

We call this waterway Chartiers Creek, Pierre Chartiers being a French trader who set up shop along the way and traded with indigenous populations and Europeans. The creek runs right through the town I live in. It’s been settled along, heavily polluted by industries, cleaned up and its course amended to stop the annual flooding that covered the flood plain where most of this town is built.

I have wandered Chartiers Creek all my life, a meandering waterway that runs 52 miles along its full course, 26 miles in the part I know best, the Lower Chartiers. I have watched the waters renew, and populations of catfish and great blue herons and kingfishers return. In some areas where humanity has had very little obvious impact I can always feel the presence of the generations before me who wandered to its banks on a lovely autumn afternoon, or a summer morning, or a winter dusk after a heavy snowfall, or to see the thundering freshet of the spring thaw.

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