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Few people may realize that Long Island is still home to American Indians, the region’s original inhabitants. One of the oldest reservations in the United States—the Poospatuck Reservation—is located in Suffolk County, the densely populated eastern extreme of the greater New York area. The Unkechaug Indians, known also by the name of their reservation, are recognized by the State of New York but not by the federal government. This narrative account—written by a noted authority on the Algonquin peoples of Long ...
Few people may realize that Long Island is still home to American Indians, the region’s original inhabitants. One of the oldest reservations in the United States—the Poospatuck Reservation—is located in Suffolk County, the densely populated eastern extreme of the greater New York area. The Unkechaug Indians, known also by the name of their reservation, are recognized by the State of New York but not by the federal government. This narrative account—written by a noted authority on the Algonquin peoples of Long Island—is the first comprehensive history of the Unkechaug Indians. Drawing on archaeological and documentary sources, John A. Strong traces the story of the Unkechaugs from their ancestral past, predating the arrival of Europeans, to the present day. He describes their first encounters with British settlers, who introduced to New England’s indigenous peoples guns, blankets, cloth, metal tools, kettles, as well as disease and alcohol. Although granted a large reservation in perpetuity, the Unkechaugs were, like many Indian tribes, the victims of broken promises, and their landholdings diminished from several thousand acres to fifty-five. Despite their losses, the Unkechaugs have persisted in maintaining their cultural traditions and autonomy by taking measures to boost their economy, preserve their language, strengthen their communal bonds, and defend themselves against legal challenges. In early histories of Long Island, the Unkechaugs figured only as a colorful backdrop to celebratory stories of British settlement. Strong’s account, which includes extensive testimony from tribal members themselves, brings the Unkechaugs out of the shadows of history and establishes a permanent record of their struggle to survive as a distinct community.
Back before time, back before there was time, our people were very young and plentiful. Most of the world as we know it was in its beginning. The people called Unkechaug had taken a long cold journey from their home far, far away. We came to live on this land.
The land was abundant with all things you could need—clean, clear water, tall and thin trees, tall and fat trees. You could make canoes, bows, arrows, and wigwams. There were fish of all sizes and wild game of all kinds. The Great Mother of Earth and the Father in the sun, and our grandmother the moon gave people everything they needed, and the people praised them with song, dance, and gifts. Life was extremely good, I was told. Donald Treadwell (Lone Otter), Turtle People: The Unkechaug People of Spirit Island 1988, 15, 22.
In his classic study of ecological changes in New England, William Cronon distinguished between Native American and European attitudes toward the natural environment (Cronon 1983). The Europeans, beginning with the sixteenth century explorers such as Richard Hakluyt, saw the "New World," as they called it, as a place rich in "merchantable commodities" (Cronon 1983, 20). They often itemized the natural resources that could be exploited and carried back to the European markets (Rosier 1906, 366). The land became capital, and the wildlife, such as the beaver and the whale, became commodities. The ecosystem was seen as a "wilderness" to be conquered and dominated. The newcomers hunted animals to near extinction and deforested aboriginal hunting territory. Forests were also a commodity, clear cut and sold for building houses and for keeping colonists warm. Woodlands were transformed into grazing land for livestock. Deforestation changed drainage systems, causing some streams to dry up and forcing Native peoples to move from habitation sites where their ancestors had lived for thousands of years.
The Native peoples of Long Island viewed the natural ecosystem very differently. They saw the natural world around them as a living, sacred entity that must be respected and protected from overuse. The Native peoples had studied and learned about their homeland for thousands of years. Their hunting, fishing, and planting strategies conformed to the natural rhythms of the seasons. The animal spirits were given thanks in elaborate rituals for sacrificing their earthly forms to feed the people. There was no obsession with "taming" the natural ecosystem. Instead, religious rituals were humbly performed to ask the spirits in control of the earth's resources to bestow their fruits on the people. As Lone Otter wrote in the epigraph above, "the Great Mother of Earth and the Father in the Sun, and our grandmother the moon gave the people everything they needed, and the people praised them with song, dance, and gifts."
Ages ago, what is now New England and New York State was covered by the great Wisconsin glacier. Then, about ten thousand years ago, the glacier receded, leaving behind deposits of sand, rock, and soil that gradually formed Long Island. The receding glacier carved out a huge depression, which soon filled with water, forming a sound. Averaging about ten miles in width, the sound separated the newly formed island from the mainland. This was to become the water highway connecting aboriginal communities on Long Island with the coastal Algonquian peoples in what is now southern New England. The Unkechaugs, the Setaukets, the Shinnecocks, the Corchaugs, and the Montauketts on eastern Long Island, for example, were closely related linguistically to the New England tribes who lived across the sound (Goddard 1978, 72–73).
The slowly melting ice mass deposited parallel terminal moraines that stretched the length of the island, forming a "backbone" of low hills. The Harbor Hill moraine running along the north shore of the sound was separated from the Ronkonkoma moraine, which ran through the center of the island, by an area consisting primarily of rich, fertile loam. Numerous freshwater streams cut through these hills as they flowed to the sound. It was here that the Setaukets, the northern neighbors and close relatives of the Unkechaugs, established their villages and their hunting territory. The Unkechaug territory was located on the sandy outwash plain to the south of the Ronkonkoma moraine. This land sloped gradually down to tidal bays on the Atlantic shore. Freshwater streams, as they flowed into the Great South Bay and Moriches Bay, framed the necks of salt meadows. Scattered throughout the area were "kettle holes," which formed as the weight of the glaciers pressed huge chunks of ice into the ground. Some of these kettle holes filled with spring water, forming ponds that attracted a rich abundance of wildlife in the gradually changing postglacial ecosystem (Murphy 1991, 4–9).
Over the centuries the climate gradually warmed, creating a new and more friendly environment. The warmer waters now teamed with clams, oysters, blue claw crab, sea sturgeon, rockfish, bluefish, flounder, brook trout, eels, perch, pickerel, bullhead catfish, shad, and striped bass. The freshwater creeks, salt meadows, and shallow bays protected by the Atlantic barrier beaches along the south shore provided a rich habitat for shellfish, fish, game animals, and water fowl. Seals were regular visitors to the sand bars in the bays. Daniel Denton, one of the first white settlers on western Long Island, said that on the south side of the island there were "an innumerable multitude of seals, which make excellent oyle: they lie all winter upon some broken marshes and beaches, or bars of sand" (Denton 1968, 6). There were also whales and other sea mammals, which frequently became stranded on the barrier beaches.
Over time a deciduous forest complex replaced the evergreen tundra ecosystem. A great variety of white and red oaks, hickories, tulip trees, maples, black cherry, black walnut, elms, and chestnut trees gradually covered the land left barren by the glacier. These trees provided a rich variety of nuts, fruits, and seeds and a cover for an undergrowth of nutritious plants. Conifers, such as pitch pine, white pine, red cedar, red spruce, Atlantic white cedar, and hemlock, also formed vast stands. The emerging ecosystem of forests, wetlands, and meadows was an abundant habitat filled with a diversity of edible plants. Fruits, such as blueberries, strawberries, huckleberries, cranberries, wild grapes, and beach plums, abounded. Nutritional plants with edible roots, such as ground nut, pond lily, cattail, Indian cucumber, sunflower, and arrowhead (duck potato), made the area more inviting to wild game and humans alike. This inviting ecosystem soon attracted the first Native Americans to Long Island.
Settling In: Village Lifeways
Gradually the Native peoples moved into this evolving habitat and established more stable village systems along the banks of inland ponds and freshwater streams, which fed into the tidal bays on the southern shores of what is now the Town of Brookhaven. According to William Wallace Tooker, an amateur linguist, "Unkechaug" is an Algonquian word meaning "land or place beyond the hill" (Tooker 1962, 265–66). This is plausible because the Unkechaug lands lie "beyond the hills" of the Ronkonkoma moraine on the outwash plain in the southern half of the town. One of the early settlements here was located along Poospatuck Creek, which flows into the Forge River and out into Moriches Bay. This village site, called Poospatuck, meaning "a little river that flows into tidal water," is still occupied by the Unkechaug people today (193–94). A small collection of prehistoric tools found along Poospatuck Creek by tribal members over the years (see figure 1) and excavations in the nearby area by professional archaeologists indicate that people were living here for at least four thousand years (Lightfoot et al. 1987, 134–35, W. Ritchie 1965, 1969, 1971). The Unkechaug Reservation today is located on this site. The village name "Poospatuck" and the tribal name "Unkechaug" continue to be used interchangeably by some outsiders who fail to distinguish between them. In the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, "Poospatuck" was often used as a tribal name by local historians, by reporters, and by government agencies.
An excavation on the Terrell River near Poospatuck Creek dating back to about 4000 B.C. illustrated a settlement pattern common to Coastal Algonquian peoples. Another site from the same time period was located on the east bank of Carmans River about a mile and a half east of Poospatuck Creek (Doucette 2010). This excavation revealed an assemblage, several stone projectile points made of local quartzite, chipping tools, and food storage pits. These archaeological sites are among more than thirty-five located within three miles of the Carmans River drainage system (8).
These locations afforded easy access to fish, shellfish, water fowl, and both land and sea mammals. The Unkechaug Reservation today also illustrates this ancient preference. The small community is located on Poospatuck Creek, a freshwater stream on Mastic Neck that flows into the Forge River a few miles west of the Terrell River. Excavations of the historic Floyd house at the head of Home Creek, a short distance south of Poospatuck Creek, revealed evidence of an early precontact site of Indian occupation there as well. There archaeologist Dana Linck found chert flakes and post molds, suggesting the possibility of a small village site. Linck recommended that further work be done here, but no funds were made available for the project (Linck 1985, 215–17).
The archaeological and ethnographic data on village settlements on Long Island and adjacent areas are very limited (Hasenstab 1999, 140–53). Descriptions from seventeenth-century observers suggested that at seasonal intervals, the villagers dispersed into smaller groups within their tribal homeland to facilitate hunting, fishing, and planting activities (Johnson 1993, 30–31). Men determined the placement of hunting camps, for example, by the seasonal habits of the game animals. In the spring, fishing camps were located near the fish runs. Unlike a European village, these small settlements consisted of scattered family wigwams, generally located in close proximity to one another. The structure of the wigwams, as noted below, facilitated seasonal relocation (Strong 1997, 63–84).
As the Native peoples settled into this ecosystem, the women identified plants that provided a balanced diet and passed this information along through the generations from mother to daughter. The roots of wetland plants, for example, provided carbohydrates, and the rich variety of wild fruits were a reliable source of vitamin C. In the fall the women enriched the family diet with fats and proteins by gathering walnuts, hickory nuts, butternuts, beechnuts, and acorns from a variety of oak trees. Throughout North America the Native American women who gathered these plants were careful observers of the ecosystem. The women applied their understanding of the natural world to guide the transition from the gathering of wild plants to the cultivation of the legendary three sisters: corn, beans, and squash.
Although we have no way of knowing how the process of plant domestication evolved on Long Island, the first evidence of corn in Long Island archaeological sites dates back to about 1400 A.D. (Ceci 1990a, 6–7; 1990b; 1979; Silver 1980, 124). The two stone hoes found at Poospatuck were probably used in corn cultivation during this period. Seventeenth-century European observers reported that the Indians here were growing a variety of cultigens. The Unkechaug vocabulary collected by Thomas Jefferson in 1791 included words for corn (sowhawmen), beans (mais-cusseet), and squash (ascoot) (Boyd 1982, 468). Corn, the most important member of this plant complex, was first domesticated in Mexico about seven thousand years ago and was introduced into the southwestern areas of North America about three thousand years later. By 1000 A.D. many aboriginal communities in the east were experimenting with these cultigens. The Unkechaugs and other coastal Algonquian peoples, however, were much less dependent upon the new technology because they had developed such effective strategies for exploiting the wild food sources. When they did begin to plant crops, they used the inland meadows located to the north of the tidal bays. By the time the first Europeans arrived, most of the Native peoples on Long Island had established planting grounds to supplement their food supply. Along with the three sisters from the south came tobacco, the sacred plant that played a dominant role in Native American ceremonialism.
Plants were also an important source of medicinal remedies (Vogel 1973; Angier 1978). These qualities in wild plants were discovered through centuries of experimentation, and the information was stored in oral traditions passed down from generation to generation by women who carefully studied all of the plants in the ecosystem (Carr and Westez 1980). As they foraged for ingredients for their daily meals, the women noted the characteristics of all the plants in the area. The women who mastered this body of knowledge and could identify important cures gained considerable status in their communities. When the Europeans arrived, they were quick to adopt many native remedies. Recent studies by contemporary scientists have documented over eight hundred species of plants growing in eastern North America that have proven medicinal value (Foster and Duke 1990, 1). Daniel Denton, a seventeenth-century resident in Hempstead, Long Island, said that the Indians told him that they could cure all the diseases common to their country without any medicine from Europe (Denton 1968, 4).
The tradition of herbal medicines has continued among the Unkechaugs. Knowledge of herbal remedies has been passed down to current generations. Lone Otter, an Unkechaug elder and chief (1937–1994), wrote in his autobiography, My People, The Unkechaug, that the Unkechaugs "had many remedies for truly life threatening health problems, as well as for simple cuts and burns" (1992, 37). He also included a brief list of herbal remedies in his unpublished manuscript, Turtle People: The Unkechaug People of Spirit Island (1988, 50). One Unkechaug informant in a study done at Poospatuck by Catherine Carballeira recalled that an elder told him "how to find edible things and what would be medication, and things like that" (Carballeira 2010, interview no. 109). Margo Thunderbird, the wife of the current Unkechaug chief, Harry Wallace, keeps the tradition alive by growing herbs and making homeopathic medicines (personal communication, July 25, 2008).
Coastal Algonquian communities were organized around elaborately structured kinship systems (Bragdon 1996, 156–83; Simmons and Aubin 1975). Individual identities were defined by one's place in this network of relationships (O'Brien 1997, 20–21). A wide-ranging kinship network linked families, with shared responsibilities for food production, protection, and the observation of religious ceremonies. Distant relations renewed their familial ties at regular communal feasts and ceremonies. Marriages linking people of high status in neighboring communities established important networks that were of great advantage in times of crisis. Such marriages could also greatly increase the power and influence of an individual leader, or "sachem."
Tribal names, based primarily on geographic location, were therefore less important than clan and kinship relationships (Johnson 1999, 158). The names for the tribes on Long Island were originally place-names taken from seventeenth-century deeds that identified sachems by the places where they lived. A closer examination of these documents indicates that the Algonquian people defined their identity in terms of complex clan and kinship systems (Strong 1997, 19–25). The tribal labels on maps, which often appear on local restaurant placemats and in some local histories, are therefore somewhat misleading. In spite of some ambiguity, these geographical references, as Smithsonian anthropologist William Sturtevant noted, are useful "ideal types" (Sturtevant 1983, 3). This same ambiguity is not unique to Long Island; it is found throughout North America. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, these tribal names had been adopted by the Long Island Native American peoples themselves.
Excerpted from The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island by John A. Strong. Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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