Skyscrapers and teepees

From the Empire State Building to Canada's last indigenous communities, Paul Willis follows the trail of Native Americans.

On a late summer's day on Manhattan Island I'm taking refuge in the marble-domed George Gustav Heye Centre, near the start of Broadway, admiring two pieces of flint.

Not just any pieces of flint. Dating from between 11,000BC and 13,500BC, these are among the earliest evidence of Paleoindian culture in any museum collection in the world. Each has been carved in fluted points a few centimetres long.

To archaeologists, they are Clovis points. To the rest of us, they are easily recognisable as the lethal tips fashioned by early hunters and fastened to wooden shafts to make spears.

Aside from their antiquity, the really interesting thing about the spearheads is where they were found: just 320 kilometres north of here in Washington County, New York State.

So when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that later bore his name to claim New York on behalf of the Dutch East India Company in 1609, the natives who greeted him were part of a continuous occupation that had gone on for millennia. Yet in less than 400 years they have almost completely disappeared.

I'm in North America's largest city on my way to a Native American festival across the border to learn more about the sad decline of a proud culture. I begin at the George Gustav Heye Center, opened in 1994 in the historic Alexander Hamilton US Custom House as the New York branch of the National Museum of the American Indian. The spearheads, like most of the collection, were gathered by Heye, a New Yorker who quit Wall Street in the late 19th century to indulge his passion for Indian artefacts.

Heye was one of the few men of his era interested in preserving the continent's pre-Colombian past, amassing 800,000 pieces in his lifetime. He opened his first museum in 1922 in order, as he put it, to "unveil the mystery of the origin of the red man". Yet, despite his best efforts, little material evidence of Manhattan's native history has survived.

There is the name, of course. Manhattan derives from the word Manna-hata written in the logbook of one of Hudson's officers and meaning "island of many hills" in the language of the Lenape Indians who lived there.

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There is also the route of Broadway, which follows an old Indian trail.

But the most striking examples of Native American craftsmanship in the city today are the skyscrapers. In the '20s and '30s Mohawk Indians were employed in building some of New York's landmarks, including the Empire State Building - sadly, because they worked for such low wages and reputedly had good heads for heights.

Like the Lenape, the Mohawks were native to New York State and many of them were driven inland or had their population decimated by disease in the wake of European colonisation.

Famously, the Lenape lost Manhattan in a treaty with the Dutch in 1626 in exchange for $26. What's less well known is that the reason they gave away their homeland so cheaply was primarily because they had no concept of land ownership. To the Lenape, you could no more own the land than you could the sky. And, anyway, they believed the Europeans merely wished to share the island with them.

The Lenape were exiled to Oklahoma. But most of the remaining Mohawks now live north of the border on reservations in Quebec, where I'm heading for a Native American festival in Kahnawake Mohawk territory on the south shore of Canada's mightiest river.

One of the festival organisers tells me that Kahnawake means "place of the rapids" in the Mohawk's native Iroquoian language.

We drive there on a grey afternoon, crossing the Saint Lawrence River into the reservation. Battered clapboard houses, gas stations selling cliched Indian souvenirs and scores of smoke shacks line the roadside - tobacco is sold tax-free on the reserve.

The streets are deserted, the houses shut up and the only signs of life are a few children playing on porches. My host, Jean, takes me to a cafe where an old photo of the town's lacrosse team hangs on the wall. Lacrosse, like the smoking of tobacco, is a Native American tradition that caught on with the colonisers.

We sit outside watching cargo ships slip by on the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the canal that links the Atlantic to the Great Lakes, which runs through the reserve. "The locals are wary of outsiders," Jean says in hushed tones. "They prefer to be left to themselves."

The Mohawks began to come here in the 16th century. Since then they've been involved in a long struggle that continues today. In 1990, the nearby Mohawk community of Kanesatake was involved in a land dispute with a local mayor that ended in a violent stand-off and the death of a police officer.

A 20-minute drive from the Mohawk communities, Montreal feels like another world. Established by French fur traders about the time the Mohawks came to the region, it developed into Canada's second city and the country's cultural capital, with more than 100 festivals throughout the year. With a largely bilingual, French- and English-speaking population, it is a friendly, cosmopolitan place with a melange of Gallic charm and North American practicality.

The city's annual Just for Laughs comedy festival is finishing and a fashion festival is about to begin, but I'm here for the First Peoples Festival, a 10-day celebration that brings together indigenous artists, musicians and filmmakers from around the globe. The focal point of the festival, held here for the past two decades, is the Place Des Festivals where traditional teepees are assembled in front of the stage and a ceremonial flame is lit on the first night. The headline act on the main stage is Samian, a rapper from the Abitibiwinni First Nation, in western Quebec. A star among the province's indigenous community, his arrival on stage is greeted by screams from adoring fans. He raps in French and in his native tongue, Algonquin, which he learned from his grandmother. "My language is dying out and it's important I do what I can to save it," he says.

Elsewhere are films, poetry readings and displays of traditional song and dancing.

"This is obviously not Just for Laughs," says the chief organiser of the First Peoples Festival, Andre Dudemaine.

"We have an agenda to create space for aboriginal artists. There are severe problems burdening our native communities. Unemployment and drugs are the two that come to mind. But there are reasons to be optimistic, too, one of which is the festival. Ten years ago a platform like this could not have been imagined."

We speak amid the gentle bustle of the Quartiers Des Spectacles, where most of the organisers of more than 100 festivals locate themselves. I wonder how Dudemaine thinks the First Peoples Festival can stand out in such a crowded marketplace.

"If you really want to know about the authentic culture of this land, then this is the only event that offers that opportunity," he says. "It is a chance to participate in a living history."

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Several airlines, including Air Canada, fly between New York and Montreal (90min) for about $370 return. The train from New York's Penn Station leaves at 7am daily, arriving at Montreal that evening; $US65 ($61.50) each way, see amtrak.com.

Staying there

There is no accommodation on the Kahnawake Mohawk territory but the reservation is a 20-minute drive from west Montreal. The Hotel De Paris, a 10-minute walk from the festival zone, has double rooms from $C80 ($76.50); see hotel-montreal.com.

In New York, Second Home, a converted 19th-century townhouse on Second Avenue, has rooms decorated in cultural and tribal motifs, from $US80. Phone +1 212 677 3161.

Touring there

The George Gustav Heye Centre is open daily (except Christmas Day); free entry, see nmai.si.edu. The First Peoples Festival is held annually in August; email tev@nativelynx.qc.ca.

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