This article focuses on the Norman Johnson family, one of the last Abenaki families selling baskets to tourists at Lake George. Members of the Johnson clan and related Abenaki families, who accomplished much to contribute to the development of Lake George, are still living in the area, according to authors and anthropologists Christopher Roy and David Benedict.
LAKE GEORGE - Of the 100,000 or more visitors who visit Lake George annually, there are but few who know of the existence of a family of full-blooded Native Americans in the village. But over many decades, many knew Norman Johnson not from his background, but as the man who sold sweet-grass baskets and birch-bark canoes.
On September 8, 1912, the New York Times published a substantial article entitled "Basketmaking Indians of Lake George" focusing on the last Abenaki family making a living from the basket trade in the Lake George area - the family of Norman and Angeline Sarah (Otodoson) Johnson. The article noted how little tourists knew about the Johnsons, despite the estimate that "one out of every ten" had likely encountered Norman Johnson as a basket- and canoe-seller.
The Times article observed, "Further than that they would not know, unless, perchance, they had casually dropped into the little one-story structure that serves as a store for the sale of baskets and birch-bark souvenirs and as the Summer home for the family of Johnson, who are nine in number." Many visitors were likely unaware of the family's history - that the "old lady is a full-blooded but exiled member of a still-existing tribe of Indians."
The Times correspondent detailed the experience of purchasing a basket from the Johnson family. The sides and counters of the salesroom were "piled ceiling-high with baskets that give forth the fragrant aroma of sweet grass somewhat less pleasing now, perhaps, because of the intermingling of the odors of the last cooked meal that was prepared behind a pair of half-closed curtains, multicolored and of intricate design....A boy, or perhaps a girl, with characteristic high cheekbones and jet black hair, is behind the counter to sell the goods. After making change for the customer, a word is passed about the weather."
Norman Johnson was "tall and slender, with high cheekbones and hair that has a tendency to curl up at the ends as it falls in black and gray shocks over his shoulders," the Times said. He had little to say to the writer apart from comments on the weather or the wares which he peddled.
Angeline Sarah Johnson sat in the corner of the shop making baskets. She wore a "faded black hat" and "a pair of heavy-rimmed glasses." She carried on conversations in broken English while weaving baskets, sometimes complaining that answering questions interfered with her work, the Times said.
As the author spoke primarily with Angeline Johnson, her story dominates the account in the Times. She gave her age as approximately 60 years and noted that she had no record of the year of her birth. According to the registers of Saint-Pierre-de-Sorel, a parish in central Quebec, she was born September 25, 1847. Angeline told a story of coming to Lake George with her parents, Louis-Lazare Ot doson-Gansha Tutteson and Marguerite Shaouigonet) to make their living there and at Saratoga.
According to Times citing Angeline Johnson, "After six years of success and happiness the elder Tutteson learned that he and his family had been exiled from the tribe of Abenakis, for according to Canada's Indian Act, any tribe member who is absent from his home more than five years is disowned and his property forfeited. The banishment from the tribe was at first keenly felt by the Tutteson family, but they decided to pass the remainder of their days at Lake George," the Times said.
Nevertheless, Angeline Johnson engaged lawyers to restore her family's property and standing within the Abenaki community, and that of her husband, as well. The article indicated that he was "exiled from the tribe" subsequent to their marriage, but his particular situation likely owed more to a much longer history of off-reserve living as he was born and raised in New York, as well as to his white father. For decades, the Indian Act legislated that aboriginal women who married white men lost their legal status as Indians, and that their children would also be considered non-native in the eyes of the law.
Continuing efforts by some members of the Johnson family to secure their rights have yet to bear fruit. One family member recently applied to Indian and Northern Affairs Canada for status but her application was unsuccessful given ongoing gender discrimination in the law and the lack of a birth certificate for Norman Johnson. More distant relatives in New York and Canada have been unable to secure their rights for similar reasons. Of particular consternation to many of them has been that despite the fact that they meet the exclusionary criteria of Canada's Indian Act, and despite overwhelming documentary evidence, including INAC's own records, they lack a birth or baptismal record which is the only type of documentation which Indian and Northern Affairs Canada accepts.
And they lack recourse in the United States, for here they are considered by the government Canadian Indians no matter their families' histories of continued residence in this country, histories which predate the country's very existence.
Christopher Roy is an anthropologist conducting research on various Abenaki-related topics throughout the Northeast. David Benedict is an Abenaki family historian and descendant of Sabael Benedict's son Elijah. They are actively seeking more information about Adirondack Abenaki history - feel free to contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
Roy will be speaking more about "Abenaki History in the Adirondacks" at the Adirondack Museum's upcoming Abenaki Day celebration on July 11, and at a lecture entitled "Searching for Sabattis, and Other Tales of Adirondack Abenaki Adventure" 7:30 p.m. July 20 at the Adirondack Museum.