Native people have adapted to their changing environment over the course of thousands of years. Adaptation involves the transfer of knowledge from one generation to the next, for Native people, this is done through oral tradition and symbols. Among the most important symbols is the snake, which had different meanings to different communities and, different meanings throughout the centuries. The Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington Connecticut has just opened a new exhibition called Skug: Snakes in the Eastern Woodlands that highlights the perception of snakes in the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial world.
Prior to colonization, Native people used stories to inform each other about the surrounding environment, including the animals present in that environment. These stories and symbols, about animals like the snake, have very practical applications. An example of this is the game known as “snow snake.” This winter sport is still widely practiced by many Native communities and is usually played in teams that compete to see who can throw the wooden “snake” the farthest in a long track of snow.
During colonial times, American settlers were impressed and fearful of snakes, particularly, rattlesnakes. They first heard about rattlesnakes from indigenous people. Rattlesnakes were something settlers had never encountered before and they considered them ferocious. Consequentially, colonists adopted the rattlesnake as a symbolic identity that differentiated early colonists in America from people they left behind in continental Europe. The imagery of snakes, in general, continued to change and evolve over time and the colonial portion of this exhibition highlights examples of how, when, and why this occurred.
One of the highlights of the exhibit details the historic account of the Schaghticoke Rattlesnake Club in South Kent, Connecticut that dates back to the late 19th century. Every June, club members would head up Schaghticoke Mountain in knee-high boots armed with two-pronged eight-foot sticks to capture snakes. The majority of the club members were newspapermen from as far as New York City. The adventures of these rattlesnake hunts by the Schaghticoke Rattlesnake Club detailed in this exhibit offer a fascinating glimpse into the Native adaptations to colonialism and detribalization in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The Institute for American Indian Studies located on 38 Curtis Road in Washington Connecticut has opened the Indoor Museum where this new exhibit can be seen. The Outdoor grounds have trails, a replicated outdoor Algonkian Village, a three sisters garden, and an archaeological pavilion. The Museum and Grounds are open Fridays and Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from 12 noon to 4 p.m. The Museum and Staff follow strict safety protocols. For more information on the safety policy implemented please click here.