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Researching Hobart, a History

Posted on Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The tragic tale of laurelled Seneca warrior, Agayentah, has been closely associated with Hobart College since the college's inception.  Agayentah's story is an eerie one, cloaked in mystery and superstition, and struck a chord with Delvina Smith '09.

"Initially, I wanted to know who Agayentah was and why Hobart men received an oar just before graduation," Smith explains.  "But the more I researched, the more I realized that Agayentah was more than just a person; he was a legend, a hero, an icon. He symbolized the ideal characteristics of the Hobart man."

The anthropology major's penchant for cultural activism spurred a desire to see "more of a presence of America Indian recognition on the HWS campus," and thus began a semester-long independent study of the myths and legends surrounding Agayentah.  

According to numerous accounts, Agayentah sought refuge under a tree during a thunderstorm, but was struck by lightening and killed instantly. Both the warrior and the tree were swept into the stormy, churning waters of Seneca Lake.  The following day, the tree trunk floated upright, as if it were Agayentah's funeral barge, and the echoes of his cries could be heard through the shadowy mist above the lake.

Since then, Agayentah's story has been entwined with Hobart history. One legend claims that Agayentah presented a Hobart student with his oar to give him a constant, concrete reminder of his predecessors. The Druids now serve as keepers of the paddle and, during Hobart's Charter Day, new Druids are inducted into the honor society, becoming protectors of Agayentah's paddle. 

In addition, each Hobart student receives his own replica of the paddle just before Commencement. "Hobart men dunk their oars into the lake, which symbolizes a baptism, marking the transition from students to alumni. The oar, like the paddle of Agayentah, is symbolically used to navigate their lives through stormy weather," says Dean of Hobart College Eugen Baer.

Smith's research used multiple anthropological methods and types of evidence to study the story and used it to examine larger and deeper issues in the history of the relationship between the Colleges and the Haudenosaunee people, explains Smith's advisor, Associate Professor of Anthropology Jeffrey Anderson. 

"In the process, she came to find connections and disparities among the various versions of history and the legend itself, as well as the contradictions and ambiguities surrounding the historical and contemporary connections of local Euro-American communities and institutions to the indigenous settlements they replaced," Anderson says. "She began with a particular focus, gathered all the accessible evidence, identified the core problem, situated that problem in a larger context, and engaged her knowledge in discussion and social action."

As a part of her research, Smith interviewed an array of Hobart men, including fellow senior classmates, lacrosse players, teachers, coaches and deans.  "I enjoyed sitting down and hearing what each individual thought about Agayentah and the associated oar," she says. "The interviews I found to be most interesting were with two Hobart students of American Indian descent. Though they came from different backgrounds, it was very informative to see how their views on Hobart were connected with American Indian history."

Smith's project culminated in a final presentation and open forum that drew wide participation and galvanized a number of members of the HWS community who are now following some of the pathways that emerged from that discussion, including Instructor of English and Acting Chair of American Studies Mary Hess, who advised Smith on 19th-century literature and its attitudes toward Native people.

"Delvina and I had a very fortunate association," Hess explains. "I have always said we learn more from students than they learn from us, and it was really true in this case. She's a remarkable woman." Hess is currently conducting her own research on Native Americans and Hobart College.

For Smith, the most fulfilling aspect of her research was her presentation and panel in Intercultural Affairs in front of a standing-room only audience.  "I was very pleased with the amount of students who showed up, but particularly with the number of Hobart student-athletes," she comments. "I also found it very rewarding that people have looked at my research and my involvement with issues surrounding representation of American Indians to step out and do more, and to be more active on campus."

For her dedicated and thorough research, Smith was awarded a Hobart oar by Bob Gilman '70, president of the Alumni Association and John Norvell '66, chair of the Alumni Council's Heritage Committee. "I know that the tradition of the Hobart oar is strictly for Hobart students, and knowing that I was one of few women to be given an oar made me very proud to see that my research was appreciated at this level," reflects Smith.

Smith minored in peer education and human relations. She studied abroad in India, took part in track and field, and was a member of the Caribbean Student Association. This summer, Smith interned for the marketing operations division of Forest Laboratories.

In the photo above, Smith (right) presents her research with Hess.

 


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