Did Native Americans Transform the World?

Sustainability, Liberty and the Noble Savage

By Brian Karlsson-Barnes

First Nations in New England were intimately connected to the Earth that had sustained them for centuries. They revered the Land. It defined their spirituality. Generous in spirit, Nipmuc Indians took maize from the Quiet Corner along Old Connecticut Path to starving colonists in Boston, a long trek in the 1630s. But native Americans gave us much more than generosity and corn.

SUSTAINABILITY is a mantra of American Indian cultures, such as the principles of a Potawatomi‘Honorable Harvest’ (reported in ‘Our Relationship to the Land’ by Loretta Wrobel, Jan/Feb 2024 Neighbors):     

Ask permission, listen, be grateful and reciprocate. 

Never take the first one, and take only what you need … 

Share and minimize harm …

Also drawing on ancient wisdom, the 7th Principle of Unitarian-Universalism teaches: 

Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part.   Not apart.

LIBERTY   Indian Givers (a 1988 book by Jack Weatherford, Anthropology professor at Macalester College, St. Paul, Minnesota) asks, “Did Native Americans Transform the World?” 

Yes! Native culture has given us much more than the wisdom of sustainability: modern medicine, agriculture and ecology… potatoes, chillies and chocolate!… and our democratic system of government with our uniquely American concept of freedom… all are Indian gifts. 

Personal Liberty is our American Indian notion of freedom. “Freedom does not have a long pedigree in the Old World,” Weatherford observes. Ancient Mediterranean literature refers to group freedom from domination, such as freeing Jews from Egyptian bondage. American personal freedom, however, is an individual’s liberty from rulers and wealthy elites.

After 1493 when Columbus founded settlement for Queen Isabella on Hispaniola (Haiti and the Dominican Republic), exploration decimated Indian leadership and grafted the Spanish language and religion on native roots throughout the region. Less invasive French and British adventurers observed North American Indians living in harmony and prosperity without royal rule, without “magistrates, forced services, riches, poverty and inheritance.” 

Indians were instead egalitarian and ethical without the European mania for money. 

By the 17th and 18th centuries of the “Enlightenment”, American Indians were belittled as “Noble Savages” by European elites. Per US historian Henry Steele Commager, “Europe was ruled by the well born, the rich, the privileged, by those who held their places by divine favor, inheritance, prescription or purchase.” German philosopher Immanuel Kant claimed that American Indians are “incapable of civilization… without affection and passion… not drawn to one another by love… hardly speak at all, never caress one another, care about nothing, and are lazy.”

Ugly racist bigotry. Elite, not enlightened.

The Indian spark of personal liberty lit the fire of the 1776 American and 1789 French Revolutions. It illuminated the way to a global age of democracy, more than two centuries to a world now threatened in Ukraine, Gaza, even America. Do we need a global powwow?

Powwow  Weatherford’s book resonated with my Minnesota memories of the Headwaters Green Party in the late 1990s. Greens as I were invited to an annual gathering north of The Cities. 

Powwows seem chaotic to nonnatives. No one is in control, no one tells dancers to start. Slowly activated by drum and song, dancers moved in a spiral of respect, a continual shuffling to the rhythmic beating of a drum. Veterans were invited early, regardless of ethnicity or service (my 7 years USAF). The circle spun larger and larger, growing organically as more dancers joined the spiral. Mesmerizing. My spirit still dances in harmony with the Land.

Ralph Nader’s 2000 running mate was Winona LaDuke, environmental activist, Harvard economics graduate, member of the White Earth Indian tribe, an Ojibwe “Warrior Woman” and a force of nature. The Green Party shared her issues of environmental sustainability. 

Although she studied in Boston, LaDuke wasn’t well known on the East Coast. Some Democrats disliked Greens, we Stewards of the Earth, as competition for their bipartisan power. Some Greens disliked consumer-advocate Nader who wasn’t a party member but craved attention and lent celebrity. Some Dems still disdain the Green Party. I’m now an Independent. 

UGLY AMERICANS  The United States now indulges environmental abuse, recalling the epithet depicting Americans who were arrogant, loud and ostentatious overseas (from a 1958 political novel about Southeast Asia diplomacy). Overconsumption is a new Ugly.

American Consumerism is now too much about marketing and deceit, profit and greed, and overconsumption and waste. As Wrobel wrote, “When we take only what we need, we stop producing mountains of waste.” We need to buy; we just don’t need so much. Yet Americans are only 4% of the world’s people and in the triage of global crises, the effects of climate change – increasing drought and fire, flooding and rising sea levels — are devastating world-wide. Loss of species is more alarming, perhaps 200 species disappearing daily. Perhaps triage is pointless. Everything is interconnected.

Problems grew exponentially in the 20th century as Americans became less connected to the Land, less in touch with nature and nobility, and consumed by consumption. Since we began buying and driving more, and more, and frivolously flying afar. Fortunately, we are blessed in the with nature in our quiet corner of Connecticut. 

Any little journey can include a woodsy walk.

Old Connecticut Path

By Brian Karlsson-Barnes

Everything Is Connected. Native trails first led westward from the Massachusetts Bay Colony to the Connecticut River Valley. Old Connecticut Path was first of North American routes west from the seacoast settlement that is Boston, founded 1630. From the Hub, everything was connected, land and sea. 

The word Connecticut has little to do with our verb of connection, however; it is derived from anglicized spellings of Quinnetuket, a Mohegan-Pequot word for the state’s “long tidal river”.

Indians already knew the efficient trails, skirting wet meadows of river bottoms, crossing streams at the easiest fords, and walking the ridges. When Bay colonists were short of grain in the early 1630s, Nipmuc farmers in Connecticut took surplus maize along this familiar route to the mouth of the Charles River, trading food for metal goods and woolen cloth (and unintentional disease for which no immunity). 

1635 Watertown settlers took this route moving to Wethersfield, Connecticut. In 1636, Hartford was founded when Congregational minister Thomas Hooker (advocate of universal Christian suffrage who disagreed with the Puritans) took a hundred of his dissenting congregation on a two-week trek with 160 cattle along the Path to the Connecticut River, a place called Saukiog, meaning “blackness of earth”. Early colonists driving cattle made the Path wider.

By 1643, Sudbury Village in Massachusetts, documents called this trail “Old Connecticut Path”. With a postal system in 1672, “The Great Trail of New England” became the first colonial Post Road. The Path crossed the Blackstone River, crossing known as North Bridge, and the Quinebaug River crossing was South Bridge, thus naming Northbridge and Southbridge. The Path still partly follows Routes 9 and 126.

The ease of growing corn led to small grist mills on waterways throughout the region, as in Gurleyville near Storrs, dating to about 1749 on the Fenton River near Mansfield Hollow and the Nipmuc Trail.

GARDEN PATH  Everything Is connected. Moving to Boston in 2004, I often drove Route 9 from Jamaica Plain to Hopkinton’s Weston Nurseries, my first connection to the Path. JP is also home to Arnold Arboretum, nature’s solace for many, where I was a volunteer docent. In the1970s, architectural studies at the University of Minnesota connected with spatial work at Bachman’s Garden Center in Minneapolis, and Dundee Nursery in Plymouth MN.Unitarian-Universalism taught its 7th Principle: 

Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part

Not apart.


Centuries before European settlement, Old Connecticut Path led west from Massachusetts Bay along the north bank of the Charles River … to Cambridge (New Town) and newly settled Watertown, through now-Waltham and Weston… curving south to Wayland where Route 126 still bears the Old Path name. (Wayland, where “Bay Path” diverged from Connecticut Path to head straight west through Worcester to the Connecticut River from Mass Bay.) 

Southwestward, Connecticut Path passed along the north side of Cochituate Pond to cross the Sudbury River in now-Framingham (Route 126 also retains name), then threaded between the Charles and Sudbury Rivers. From Framingham, Old Connecticut Path ran south through Ashland (Megunko, where I later lived on Sudbury headquarters) through Hopkinton (Quansigamog) into now-Westborough. 

Native Indians were coerced to settle in “praying towns”, instructed in European customs and converted to Christianity. Trekking over Fay Mountain to Grafton, known as the praying town of Hassanamesit / Hassanamisco, the Old Path led through Sutton woods to Connecticut. It entered at the praying town of Mannexit, now Thompson, continued into Woodstock and crossed the Quiet Corner through Eastford, Ashford and Willington. 

Today, travelers in the Quiet Corner can walk Old Connecticut Path in Fenton-Ruby Park (Willington) and along the Nipmuc (aka Nipmuck)  Trail north from Mansfield Hollow (Windham) to Bigelow Hollow (Union) at the Massachusetts border. 

NIPMUC TRAIL A west branch starts on Puddin’ Lane in suburban Mansfield, and the east branch extends north from Mansfield Hollow State Park (Windham), through the Natchaug / Nipmuck State Forests and Yale Forest, into Bigelow Hollow State Park (Union). The 45-mile trail hikes woods, open fields and ridges, to which many other trails connect town and conservation lands, notably Joshua’s Trust. 

Westward, the Old Path crosses Tolland, Vernon and Manchester to arrive at the Connecticut River. 

GARDEN PATH  Working in Hopkinton, Weston Nurseries’ vast inventory of plants instructed me. Better than a graduate degree. Working at Bachman’s and Dundee Nursery in Minnesota, had converted me to Horticulturalism, but WN enhanced my sense of landscape design and my earlier experience with plants suitable to Minnesota’s bitter winters.

My mantra:                                                      Suit the Site, Fit the Space, Then Seek Beauty

Master gardening was most instructive. This interconnection of all things horticultural was studied at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society at Elm Bank, Wellesley, as I began KB garden design in Jamaica Plain. 

2018  My path arrived in the Quiet Corner at a 1750 farmhouse in Chaplin near the Natchaug River with a scary basement and two wooded acres. Over sixty more trees, many flowering, and many more shrubs and herbaceous perennials have been planted, coexisting with glorious weeds. Love the wild landscape.


What I most want to take root, however, is the notion of horticultural interconnection.  Spiritual respect for the environment assists book and field learning. Key for me was master gardening training with MassHort.

Locally, the UCONN Master Gardening Program is in Storrs. Volunteer to learn more. Arnold Arboretum taught me more about mature growth and landscape design; in New London, learn from ornamental and natural habitats at Connecticut College. 

Master Gardener is an amateur designation; Horticulturist is a professional one. Skill and passion overlap, and becoming a Master Gardener doesn’t replace a professional degree or working as a project manager at a “design-build” nursery, but master gardening connects many variables. Gardening benefits all landscape designers. Nothing beats experience, except imagination.

Dedicated to the memory of Ryan Lefsky who died unexpectedly in October, a hard worker with overwhelming family responsibilities who loved walking the woods of Sutton, Mass.

Brian Karlsson-Barnes, Master gardener/designer, Chaplin CT  


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