A Series by New Scientists
Winds and rain whipped across the rugged ridgetop of Pennsylvania’s Tuscarora Mountains as we scrambled over moss-covered boulders. The low clouds distorted landmarks that had looked so obvious on the map. Trudging through this unforgiving landscape was hardly how I envisioned the first day of my weeklong hiking trip. Exhausted from the first nine miles, we camped not far off the trail. I set up my tent and then collapsed, hardly noticing the raindrops that danced across the nylon.
Hours later, I woke to footsteps. Warm in my sleeping bag, I laid still, imagining that the steps belonged to my ancestors. A band of 300 weary Tuscarora migrants shuffling past in eerie silence, moving only as quickly as the slowest among them: the elders, the children. Carrying the bones of their lost relatives, they know all too well the perils of trespassing on enemy soil…
Five weeks earlier, I had traveled all night by bus with family and friends from the Tuscarora Nation in New York to Snow Hill, North Carolina in order to memorialize our ancestors’ 1713 defeat at Neyuheruke. This battle marked a bitter turning point in the Tuscarora War with the English, which left our ancestors little choice but to leave their homelands and migrate to the Great Lakes region, where they established the community I call home.
On the last day of this visit in 2013, a drizzly shroud hovered as we gathered to send off a group of young adults—who became known as the “migration warriors”—on a 1,300-mile journey to retrace our ancestors’ footsteps from south to north.
Čwę:’ neyakwa’nawę:rih is an old Tuscarora phrase which loosely translates to “We are still stirring or moving about,” and was the mantra chosen for this modern migration.
This expedition—the Tuscarora Migration Project—was not only a proud celebration of 300 years of Tuscarora survival, but also a commitment to persevere in an uncertain future of global environmental degradation. By recreating our historic migration with running shoes, bicycles, hiking boots, and paddles, the migration warriors sought to raise awareness of the need for more human-powered movement(s) to mitigate climate change. I was only able to stay for the opening sendoff because of my research at the University of Arizona, but I made it a priority to catch up with the migration warriors on the blue-blazed hiking path named for our ancestors: the Tuscarora Trail.
On that second morning on the trail, the fog hung heavy as we continued northward. The Tuscarora have a saying that when somebody dies, the rain will come to wash away their footprints. The other migration warriors noted that it only seemed to rain when someone new joined the group. With the memory of our ancestors’ loss heavy, the rain poured. The trail grew more obscured by the shattered trunks of collapsed trees, both young and old, uprooted and in disarray, though buds emerged from their broken branches.
I wondered what this forest looked like hundreds of years ago. I tried to imagine, too, what this ridgetop ecosystem might look like hundreds of years from now, when warmer temperatures force shrubs, trees, and animals to migrate upslope.
When our Tuscarora ancestors left their North Carolina homelands, they sought to protect the seventh generation of unborn faces coming up from the ground. Today, a warming climate is prompting important species like sugar maples to migrate northward, away from our current homelands in New York, but we no longer have the freedom to move with them. Our challenge is to strive, just as our ancestors did, to maintain a healthy homeland for the next seven generations.
Eventually the veil lifted and sunlight enlivened us onward to a familiar shelter we had visited three years earlier, in preparation for this migration. In the tradition of our ancestors, who would store seed caches along the trail for other travelers, we planted our own geocache—a metallic box filled with mementos from home that might cheer us up—near this shelter in 2010. While we did not have the exact coordinates to locate the geocache, there were other treasures found in the glow of the shelter’s built-in hearth, feasting on rehydrated meal packets, and telling jokes into the night.
The next few days of hiking from sunrise to sunset began to take their toll. When finally the support van driver met us near the end of the trail, we shed our backpacks and ran, relay-style, the last 12 miles—gladly resting in the van when not our turn to run.
That night we camped at the confluence of the Susquehanna and Juniata Rivers. I walked out to the peninsula separating the two bodies of water and felt a profound sense of gratitude for my ancestors who passed by this point generations before.
On the following morning, as I prepared to part ways, a light rain welcomed the arrival of new migration warriors who began paddling homeward, up the Susquehanna.
Preparing and hiking as a migration warrior with the Tuscarora Migration Project inspired me to pursue research that will enable indigenous peoples to prepare for the uncertainties of climate change. Through climate-adaptation science, I hope to inform tribal environmental decision-makers so they can improve their capacity to adjust to this rapidly changing world.
Undoubtedly, the trail forward will require us all to migrate away from our dependence on fossil fuels and toward our ancestors’ path of human-powered sustainability so that our future generations can also declare, Čwę:’ neyakwa’nawę:rih.
Header photo of Tuscarora Mountain ridgetop by Edward Schuyler Chew. Photo of Edward Schuyler Chew by Karletta Chief.