Their words remain in our place names. Wappinger. Shawangunk. Matteawan. The spellings are phonetic, borrowed from the spoken conversation of people who’d never had the need or desire to write them down. And their children’s children remain in our communities, in many cases patiently, gently striving to nudge us in the direction of sustainability and healing.
“The people who lived in Ulster County were mostly Munsee Delaware; north of Saugerties, you get into Mohican territory. Mohicans were across the river in Columbia County too, and in Dutchess County you had the Wappinger,” says Professor Evan Pritchard, founder of the Rosendale-based Center for Algonquin Culture. “The oral tradition says that both the Munsee and the Delaware came out of the Mohican people long ago.”
The Dutch and the English mostly called them the river Indians. And beyond the language barrier, differences in understanding made it harder to sort out nomenclature.
“There were misunderstandings with some of the early Europeans,” says Reverend Jim Davis, environmental director of the Wittenberg Center for Alternative Resources in Woodstock. “They’d meet a bunch in spring and be told ‘We’re the people from the roundhouses.’ At another time of year the same people might describe themselves as ‘from the hills.’ Identity was more about where you were and what you were doing at the time, not so much national or political.”
Where they were—despite the early waves of epidemic that decimated the indigenous population before most settlers arrived—was pretty much everywhere. Most of our older highways were once their trails.
“Just about every square inch shows the legacy—major roadways, locations of towns, county lines,” says Pritchard. “Route 9 and Route 9W were both existing trails. Waryas Landing in Poughkeepsie was a ferry landing. What’s now Main Street in Poughkeepsie was a trail; you’d get down to the bottom and wave a pole with a white cloth, and someone would row a ferry across the Mohitanituck (Greatest Arm of the Sea that Flows Both Ways) to get you. They had boats made of burned, hollowed-out tulip trees, large and rot-resistant. The canoes were more like shopping carts at a market than privately-owned vehicles; there might be two at a ferry crossing and people could grab one and go. And someone might help in exchange for trade goods, wampum, or fur. An enterprising young lad could probably make a bit of wampum at the ferry crossings.”
This was not, however, a “job” in the sense that we think of one today. People lived collectively in longhouses and wigwams. Corn, beans, and squash were supplemented by wildcrafting and hunting.
After contact, the mishmash created by the collision between indigenous folks and European notions of land ownership meant that a lot of stories got blurry.
“We do know that the Munsee, Wappinger, and Mohicans generally got along,” says Pritchard. “There were geographically based clans—Wolf Clan, Turtle Clan, Turkey Clan—but exactly what and who those refer to, no one agrees upon. And once you get into the post-contact era, what with settlers and people being moved around, it got increasingly complicated.”
From the Iroquois, northern neighbors of the Mohicans, Europeans acquired much of what we now think of as our system of governance.
“The colonists were looking for a better way to organize themselves,” says Pritchard, “and a Mohawk chief explained about the confederacy system, where you had two longhouses—one with two representatives of every nation and the other with representation according to population. That was one piece of it, anyway; the original Great Law of Peace actually puts Robert’s Rules of Order to shame.”
That was not the only instance of collaboration, of course. Many more are recorded, as are European efforts to recruit and use the native folks on one side or another of conflicts that arose amongst themselves when they weren’t just trying to eradicate them completely. Toward the end of the 17th century, governor Benjamin Fletcher—described by a historian from the Society of Colonial Wars of Connecticut as “a man of violent passions, weak judgment, greedy, dishonest, and cowardly”—established a bounty on every Native head delivered to him. Heads took up too much space; the law was amended to require only scalps, making life still handier for the worst element among the newcomers.
Fast forward 260 years.
“I was born and raised here in Ulster County, and I remember, in the ‘60s this would have been, my grandfather waited until he had the house to himself to fill us in on the family tree, that no, we weren’t 100 percent Irish Catholic,” says Davis. “He didn’t know with certainty, what nation, or band we’d been part of. It wasn’t safe to speak about it openly; there was a very justifiable fear that the kids might be dragged off to boarding school to be ‘civilized.’ That was well within living memory. Even as recently as the 1970s, I couldn’t have been legally served in a bar in New Mexico.”
Amid this survival-based silence and a couple of centuries of slaughter, mingling, and migration, understanding history becomes a fascinating puzzle.
“I remember hearing of Cherokee families as a kid and knowing that they weren’t originally local,” says Davis. “What I found out was that the Cherokee were very involved with the Underground Railroad, and a lot of those freedom fighters fell in love with the Catskills and the Adirondacks and never left. Some Cherokee, Mohican, and Lenape intermarried with white families and got no land and no legal rights; they were essentially forgotten for generations. Many years later, the Bureau of Indian Affairs came up with a list of rules and regulations for people to apply for tribal membership: you had to be fluent in your original language, have a governing body, and be living in ‘open notoriety;’ all your white neighbors had to know.”
Talk about a catch-22. But as unsavory and unfair as much of the history may be, most Ulster County residents of indigenous heritage are more interested in working together to share wisdom and insight than in settling scores.
In 2013, the Hudson Valley welcomed the Two Row Paddlers of the Onondaga and the Unity Riders of the Dakota at gatherings characterized by songs, stories, and affirmations of mutual respect. The Two Row Wampum Renewal movement, of which the paddlers were a part, aimed to remind New York and the wider world that a four-hundred-year-old treaty still binds us in a “silver chain” of friendship and peaceful coexistence. The Unity Riders came bearing a related message of peace and healing.
Davis and his partner, Reverend Betsy Stang, have long been active in trying to get indigenous voices heard at the United Nations.
“In 1993, the UN actually allowed seven major indigenous nations 45 minutes to an hour of podium time so they could give a Reader’s Digest condensed version of the prophecies,” he says. “A lot of the prophecies are so metaphorical that there is a lot left to interpretation, but every nation that spoke had a shared common denominator: we won’t be able to turn the mess around unless we let women lead. It’s their turn; as the keepers of new life, it’s their job.”
The prophecies warn of a giant, negative spiderweb encircling the earth; Davis says he has come to believe it is the network of pipelines, trains, and barge routes that carry fossil fuel.
Activist Henrietta Wise, active for decades in the Association of Native Americans of the Hudson Valley, celebrates indigenous tradition at the Bloomington Reformed Church in Rosendale on the third Friday of every month, a joyous occasion involving potluck, singing, dancing and drumming led by the Reverend Nick Miles, a Pamunkey tribal member, lead singer, and Drum Keeper of the Cloud Breaker Society. Wise was there in 2013 at the UN, when Unity Rider Chief Gus High Eagle addressed the General Assembly at the ride’s end.
“Three minutes was up just as he got to the fracking issue; they tried to interrupt him and finally cut his microphone,” she says. “He looked around like, ‘guess I better sit down then.’ Then some crazy Irish reporter stood up and yelled, ‘Let the man speak! He came on horseback, 2,000 miles! Let him speak!’ There was a moment of stunned silence and then people started saying, ‘Yeah! Let him!’ A woman next to him grabbed the mic and he finished his speech with fracking and women’s rights. Everyone applauded. It was unforgettable.”
It’s no accident that it’s the indigenous protectors who are found on the front lines of environmental struggles on several continents. And while it would be impossible to trace a direct line of cause and effect, New York State instituted its fracking ban the year after the Two Row Paddlers and Unity Riders traversed the Mohitanituck.
“Since Standing Rock, things are getting so bad and so good at the same time,” says Wise. “It feels as though something I have prayed for my whole life long is finally blossoming; people are speaking in ways you can understand and it’s giving Native people more of a voice…The way we think is so different in so many ways. The land is not separate from our bodies, and when we think of something happening on it, it is happening to us.”
To join forces with local First Nations activists, find Neetopk Keetopk (“My friends, your friends”) on Facebook.