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Introduction

When we speak of the Nittany Valley, we should recognize that the Indians were here rst. ey gave their names to the places we inhabit today — Nittany, Waupalani and Bald Eagle, for example — and they rst gave voice to the spirit of the place. Later came the pioneering educators and students of what would become e Pennsylvania State University, who breathed in and gave form to that spirit, even naming themselves for it: ey became the Nittany Lions. Little is known of the factual history of the American Indians in whose spirit we live today. Almost all that is known are their legends and stories, passed on by the few who survived in this area by the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Fortunately, a young man from McElhattan, Henry W. Shoemaker (1880-1958), began hearing these stories as a boy. He made it his life’s work to seek out all the Indian and settler story-tellers he could nd, in order to record and
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publish them before their words disappeared into history. Penn State students read these stories in the Altoona Tribune, where Shoemaker rst published many of them, and then read the books in which he collected them. From him they learned the legendary origin of the Nittany Mountain, and the saga of the great Indian Princess who inspired it. e students chose her as their exemplar, and took her name as theirs. Several versions of this story, along with many others pertaining to the places and characters of this charming regional folklore, are collected here in e Legends of the Nittany Valley. In the years since their initial publication, there has been much debate over the authenticity of the legends as products of a genuine oral tradition, with many historians suggesting that most if not all of them sprung from Shoemaker’s fertile imagination. In considering the legends’ impact on the people of the Nittany Valley, such questions, while undoubtedly relevant for scholars, are largely immaterial. Whether Shoemaker’s stories are truly relics that have survived from our long forgotten past, products of his own creative impulse, or a bit of both (which is most likely), their in uence is indisputable. For the purposes of this publication in particular, they should be taken at face value, not as historical artifacts that reveal the precise history of peoples past, but as unique stories — our stories — that evoke our common cultural history and confer greater meaning on our present. Consider the unique power of myth to instill a sense of community. George Lucas described one of his goals in making Star Wars as the creation of a new mythology for the
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modern age. From Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi to the Death Star and The Force, Lucas has furnished us with a remarkably flexible and resilient contemporary common language with which to express timeless concepts like the quest for wisdom and the battle between good and evil. Today, people from around the country or the world can better communicate and relate through the shared language of myth. In this respect, it is no more relevant that the Star Wars mythology is only a few decades old, or that no one ever actually believed in Princess Leia, than it matters whether our own Princess Nita-Nee walked among the American Indians hundreds of years in the past or was invented by yarn spinners from the turn of the century. References to Yoda, Han Solo or Luke Skywalker help us share sentiment in ways that are simple, direct and transferable across distance and culture. So too can our own local myths provide a sort of cultural shorthand for those who dwell, in body or spirit, in Central Pennsylvania. The power of myth also grows from and strengthens a sense of place. J.R.R. Tolkien spent years of his post-war life meticulously crafting the languages, legends and history of his imaginary realm before he took to writing The Lord of the Rings, or even its predecessor The Hobbit, so that when Aragorn sings “The Lay of Leithian” the epic poem of the love and adventure of Beren and Luthien for Sam and Frodo while lapsing into Elvish or speaks with sadness of the fall of the Northern Kingdom, it lends an air of authenticity that draws the reader into the story. There can be no question that this attention to detail, employed throughout Tolkien’s books to add flavor and depth to the storytelling, has contributed greatly to their enduring status as among the great works of Western literature. We are able to escape the daily
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humdrum to “inhabit” the world of Middle Earth because, despite the fantastical trappings, it feels like a real place, complete with its own folklore and history. With these, our own legends, which endow the Nittany Valley with its own mythic qualities, our special places can come alive in new and similarly magical ways. Shoemaker once said, “No one can be truly happy who does not live in an atmosphere of the past, whether it be mental or actual.” In telling these stories, we can discover both. What is Mount Nittany? It is a geological formation whose distinctive slope is burned into collective memory, a place where generations of Penn State students have come to share camaraderie, conduct ritual, and even pursue romance, where we travel to find solace for peaceful contemplation, a symbol that means so much to the denizens of our Valley that more than once they banded together to preserve its unspoiled beauty for future generations. And perhaps... just perhaps... it is also a windbreak that rose up miraculously in one night to shield the fierce and lovely Princess Nita-Nee from the wicked winds of the North. To the extent that, for readers of these stories, it can become all of these at once, this book will have served its highest purpose. While we can never travel to the Shire and visit Bag End or call forth a lightsaber using the power of The Force, we can catch an early morning glimpse of Mount Nittany as the rising Sun burns the mist from its peak or hike its trails and look down into our Valley from its many scenic overlooks. We can have our pictures taken at the Nittany Lion Shrine, participate in the annual Homecoming traditions, and find the spot of the Old Willow on the Willard Mall.
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So while the Nittany Valley is, of course, a tangible, everyday place where people live and work, a magical kingdom lurks just beneath the surface, just waiting to be discovered by those with a pioneering and creative spirit. Revealing it is, at its very heart, the mission of e Nittany Valley Society, and it speaks directly to our purpose in publishing this book, which is to help the citizens of this community to take ownership of a shared mythology, one that helps solidify our grasp of a distinct, common identity in which we all can con dently take pleasure and pride. The legends appearing in this work are only a small sampling of the total number of Indian and settler legends collected by Shoemaker. They are chosen for their relation and proximity to the Nittany Valley. Most locations are within less than an hour traveling time, and you can easily visit them. While some are mythical sites, there is enough information in the legends to actually locate where they are situated. But most are actual historical sites with markers. Visiting all of them will take you on journeys into places where story and history, imagination and myth, as well as timeless feelings merge. In doing so, you’ll enter into the spirit of the Nittany Valley — the spirit that was here long before any of us arrived, and that will remain long after we pass through. Enjoy these stories. Share them with friends and family, and carry them with you, especially upon returning to the idyllic Pennsylvania Valley cradled in the shadow of Mount Nittany. Christopher Buchignani Founding President, e Nittany Valley Society State College, PA
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