I’ve been hiking around the Adirondacks, and taking detours on my way to work, getting a spectacular set of photos together for a spread. Still not there yet: a few more shots I want to get.
I was saddened this week by the death of Loretta Lynn. I enjoyed her memoirs as much as her music, and like most people I found her life story intriguing before and after Nashville.
My language teacher, Karen Mosko, died in September, and everyone who knew her has been broken up over that. No one can fill this woman’s moccasin’s. Yet we struggle along without her and continue to learn.
One of the things Melissa Otis discusses in Rural Indigenousness is the trope of the “Old Indian who used to live here.” I’ve read about this Old Indian in various places of the Adirondacks since coming to live here, and this new perspective was highly intriguing to me.
Melissa Otis contends that where the Old Indian legend arose, there lived an extended indigenous family group. This family group, usually Mohawk or Abenaki, often interacted with non-indigenous men as paid guides.
In Colonial times, indigenous guides were hired for geographic exploration or military reconnaissance. During the 19th century, guides were used more for location of geological resources or for recreational hunting and fishing. Guides recorded during this time, always men, were popular with hunting enthusiasts or associated with important mining developments.
As indigenous families ceased their seasonal use of the Adirondacks and created permanent settlements, they became obscured in the historical record. For one thing, their way of life in the 19th century was often no different from the Euro- and African- Americans who settled here. Permanent residents in isolated rural Adirondack communities, regardless of their ethnicity, practiced subsistence farming, hunting, and trapping, augmented by seasonal paid work. Indigenous families shared knowledge of sustenance activities such as farming, hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering plants with incoming residents. Of course, settlers brought knowledge with them as well, but there was more integration into indigenous culture here than was occurring elsewhere in the Northeast. This was true into the early 20th century, fostered by the remoteness the Adirondacks, the small year-round population, and the harsh living conditions.
Adirondack men, again regardless of ethnicity, often traveled away from home for part of the year for paid employment. They might live in lumber or mining camps or obtain seasonal commercial work in the cities and towns bordering the Adirondacks. Recall that indigenous people in the area moved seasonally as a survival strategy before colonial contact. Adirondack women would supplement their income in cottage industries. In the summer, there was money to be made from the rich city folk who traveled to the area for recreation.
Unsurprisingly, indigenous families often intermarried with settlers who lived as they did, class distinctions being more along the lines of part-time recreationalists versus permanent residents. Sportsmen referred to both White and Indian guides as “Natives.” Descendants of blended families might be listed as either “White” or “Indian” on census forms, the rationale for racial distinctions being unclear, as the same person might be recorded as a different race in different census years.
However they are recorded in official records, many families in the Adirondacks are aware of their Mohawk or Abenaki heritage. The old saw that the Adirondacks were uninhabited prior to tourism and commercial exploitation is blown away by this book. Indigenous people have always lived here, and live here still.
Last week’s post discussed Indigenous peoples in the Adirondacks before European settlement: Iroquois, Abenaki, and Mahican nations pre-contact and later Algonquian peoples displaced by English settlement along the Atlantic coast. According to Melissa Otis, much of the 1700s was characterized by indigenous accommodation of Euro-colonial hunters and trappers and a few settlers. Shared land use was negotiated through family alliances, often cemented by intermarriage. The period after the Revolutionary War brought a sharp increase in violence and upheaval as colonial expansion continued.
The violence itself was not altogether new. Before European contact, Iroquois and Algonquian peoples sometimes came into violent conflict over shared resources and disputed territories. What changed was the inability of indigenous groups to collectively resolve disputes. Euro-Americans had the upper hand. Even accounting for the primitive legal establishment, acts of aggression against indigenous people were under-prosecuted. Otis was not able to name a single trial for murder or violent aggression where the White perpetrator was convicted. Many Euro-American settlers, trappers, and businessmen continued negotiating with indigenous peoples on friendly terms; others simply took what they wanted, backing up their claims with violence. Still others, nursing hostility through prejudice or historical grievances, simply lashed out in unprovoked aggression. Copious amount of alcohol consumed by both White and indigenous men did not help the situation.
As competition with White trappers increased, mining and lumbering became established, and settlement expanded, indigenous groups found it more difficult to support traditional ways of life. Access to hunting and fishing territories became limited and animal populations declined. Euro-Americans appropriated Abenaki and Mohawk seasonal camps, claiming these peoples, with territories on both sides of the border, were in fact “Canadian Indians.” Dependence on the emerging wage economy further fractured indigenous communities and attenuated traditional practices.
There are two stories told about colonialism in America. In one story, the one usually told about the Adirondacks, the land was empty and unused, available for settlement. In another, acknowledged in more populated areas of the country, the people already living on the land were either massacred or uprooted in forced relocations. The indigenous people in the Adirondacks were not massacred, even though sporadic deaths by violence went unatoned. Nor were they physically relocated en masse, even though many moved away as traditional livelihoods evaporated. Neither story fits, although indigenous peoples did lose land, traditions, and social cohesion.
The next installment will discuss how indigenous people in the Adirondacks adapted to changing circumstances in the second half of the nineteenth century.
It’s been four years since I put up this present website, which is a very good one, if I do say so myself. This was my fifth site–my first was around 2002.
Since I started so early, I don’t use the web building programs much. This present website required a fair bit of experience with WordPress, plus knowledge of HTML, CSS, and PHP. I also used a bit of Java, but I took that code (legally) from somewhere else.
I spent my Sunday working on a program to show the date in Munsee Delaware. Doing so drove home for me how language becomes attenuated when it isn’t used. I had to get books out of the library to refresh my understanding, especially with PHP. It took some effort to figure this out, since I wanted to use this website to publish the calendar but I didn’t dare mess with my style sheet for fear of messing things up.
I seldom review books on this blog these days, and never children’s books, but I wanted to discuss a few pieces of misinformation that I found recently in the (beautifully illustrated) book Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island, by Jennifer Thermes, geared to grade school children. Misinformation about the Munsee-Delaware Indians can be found many other places, not just in this book, but I’ll use it as a touchstone since it’s the latest perpetuation I’ve found of certain well-worked themes.
Manhattan’s original inhabitants are referred to in the book as “Lenape,” which, while not incorrect, is misleading in its imprecision. Lenape is often used for referring to groups speaking the Unami-Lenape language. Many groups of people originating around what is now the New York City area spoke a related language to Unami-Lenape called Munsee and referred to themselves as Munsee people. To make matters more confusing, both groups refer to themselves as Lenape (in different spellings) in their own language. The cultural demarcations between the groups, such as they were, have been blurred through centuries of dislocation and colonialization, but at this point there are still two distinct languages.
So Lenape isn’t wrong, exactly, but I would refer to people originally controlling Manhattan as Munsee, Munsee-Delaware, or Munsee-Lenape. This is how they refer to themselves today. Alternatively, there are even more specific words that could be used, though they are rather obscure. It seems like Lenape would be the anti-colonialist word of choice to use in place of Delaware, which comes from the name of an English colonial ruler, but when used by non-Natives it’s mostly just confusing.
On to another piece of misinformation, which is the etymology of “Manhattan.” The book says it comes from a Lenape word “mannahatta” and means “island of many hills.” That’s a lot of meaning to pack into four syllables, especially for a language from that island and those hills. Wikipedia derives Manhattan from another purported word, “manahataan,” and translates it as “place where we gather wood to make bows.” Both derivations, if true, involve speculation on root words and exceptions to Munsee grammar rules. It’s more likely that the Dutch mangled some other word, which may or may not have been Munsee. What I have heard from Munsee speakers is that the name Manhattan comes from the (verifiably real) Munsee word “munahan,” which means “island.” So the Munsee might have called Manhattan a hilly island, and European speakers may have truncated the place name and mispronounced it. But Manhattan does not mean “island of many hills.”
On to the sixty guilder question: how did the Dutch acquire “Manhattan”? At least the book equivocates “As the story goes” before repeating that the Dutch West India Company “bought the island from the Lenape in 1626 for approximately $24 worth of wampum beads and trinkets. For Native people, the idea of owning the land was as crazy as owning the land we breathe. More likely, the Lenape only thought they were agreeing to share the island with the Dutch.”
It was all a misunderstanding! Those Indians, too naïve or too spiritually enlightened, take your pick, just didn’t know what they were doing.
Think for a moment. If I were to buy a block of present-day Manhattan, I would not be able to call it the Manhattan Republic of Hearth and live completely by my own laws. I would still be subject to the laws (and taxes!) of New York City, not to mention New York State and The United States. If any of these governments decided they wanted the land for some purpose, they could purchase it from me (no matter who I bought it from) at a price they decided was fair. In virtually every country on earth, the land ultimately belongs to the nation that governs it. The Dutch West India Company was a private company doing business on foreign soil. The sale of land was an acknowledgement of that relationship. To me, this doesn’t sound like naivete or enlightenment; it sounds like business. It certainly was not a relinquishment of sovereignty, and the subsequent establishment of a European government on that land was not misunderstanding, it was theft.
As for the amount of money that changed hands, in present day dollars it was much more than $24, and Manhattan real estate has gone through the roof, but the price of the land is not a material point. The Munsee, like many Natives, wanted to trade with the Dutch, so if they wanted to give the Dutch West India Company a sweetheart deal to facilitate trade, that was their calculation. A poor calculation, as things turned out, but not an unreasonable one based on information available to both parties at the time.
This is a long complicated explanation for a children’s book, but the whole thing can be explained in simple words:
The people who originally lived on Manhattan are known as Munsee-Lenape. They are still around, though most of them live in other places. They left because the Dutch and the English stole the land. The name Manhattan might come from a Munsee word meaning “island,” but we don’t know.
And leave out the part about how many wampum beads. It really doesn’t matter, does it?
Here’s a picture I made this week for a 2021 calendar. This is for the Strawberry Moon (June). It depicts a Delaware Indian story about a turtle and a hummingbird. The two agree to race, but Turtle tricks Hummingbird by sending a look-alike friend to wait near the finish line.
North American aboriginal lore is rich in story and folklore about the woodpecker. This wisdom is usually absent in Native animal-spirit books targeted to a mass audience, a testament to the lack of interest most English speaking people have in this bird. In a Lenape (mid-Atlantic) tale Rabbit is invited to dine with the twelve Woodpecker Girls and is impressed with the gourmet meal of grubs they offer him. He is envious and determined to outdo them. Rabbit is very talented – he molded the clan animals from the animals who died during the Great Flood – but unfortunately his pride in this instance is greater than his own greatness. He invites the Woodpecker Girls to dine with him and attempts to re-create the grub delicacies with disastrous results. The Woodpecker Girls laugh at him. This is why Woodpecker laughs at everything, even Creator.
In a myth attributed to the Hasinai-Caddo (Texas), people become woodpeckers after abusing a mescaline producing plant (like peyote). Elders warn that only those initiated in medicine ways should touch the plant, but most people ignore the warnings and spend their days caught up in visions. They forget about their children and one day notice that the children are missing. Creator hears the distraught cries of the parents and changes them into woodpeckers so they can hunt for their children. This is why woodpeckers tap at trees and poke into holes: they are looking for their children.
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