Poospatuck Indian Reservation. Photo courtesy of Paul Helou.
Manhasset, Montauk, Massapequa, Merrick, Setauket. The names originally bestowed by Native Americans upon areas throughout Long Island still are spoken on a daily basis. And as we attend to the everyday necessities of urban and suburban life, we relate these names to the neighborhoods, businesses, schools and geography that are so familiar to us.
Our associations may be modern, but the roots of the names retain the original natural richness experienced by those who came before us, and offer the opportunity to alter the way we perceive our neighborhoods. For instance, Massapequa means “great waterland;” Merrick, “plains country;” Setauket, “land at the mouth of the river;” Matinecock, “at the hilly land.” (For those interested in further reading, William Tooker, a Sag Harbor native, published an exhaustive account of Indian place names on Long Island). Though much of Long Island is built up, there are spots that convey a certain energy where the natural world can still nurture and rejuvenate us.
The existence of the Long Island Native Americans both past and present — the Shinnecock and Poosepatuck (the Unkechaug Nation) reservations are in Southampton and Mastic, respectively — can inspire us to relate, in the here and now, to treasures of our home.
Retracing Native Steps
Kathryne Natale, President of the Garvies Point Museum and Preserve in Glen Cove, notes that “the Native Americans had a different way of looking at the world. There were no town lines and they didn’t think that way. For instance, rivers often formed the boundaries between lands.” Although there were territories inhabited exclusively by certain groups, the Indians — used to an abundance of land and natural resources — were more fluid in their concepts of property ownership than the Europeans. No single tribe owned a river or other geography in the sense of possession we know now through townships and other civic organization.
Tucked away along an unassuming cul-de-sac among the hills and winding roads of Glen Cove — perched on a bluff above one of the North Shore’s boulder beaches on the Long Island Sound — Garvies and its grounds reflect a peaceful location where the Matinecocks surely lived and worked. The compound includes an indoor exhibition hall and auditorium, with 62 acres of moraine covered by forests, thickets and meadows. A visitor may take in the exhibits, browse the gift shop and linger among the trails, wooded areas and beachfront.
The serenity of the location is a reminder that our predecessors lived in rhythm of, cooperation with and reverence for the land; it was a necessity for survival. Though most were hunters and fishermen, some were farmers who raised beans and corn — a pattern repeated throughout all the Long Island Native Americans due to the similarity and accessibility of the Island’s natural resources. Game, which was rather plentiful on the Island at that time, included deer, bear, raccoon, turkey, quail, partridge, goose and duck. Also, where fresh water met salt water in the salt marshes on the South and North Shores, seafood was plentiful. Skilled with bows and arrows or simple hook/string methods of catching fish, the Indians set up campsites along such inlets and caught crabs, clams, scallops and lobster, as well as herring, bass and bluefish.
The salt marsh in Wading River on the North Shore of Suffolk County, currently under the protection of the Nature Conservancy, was a spot where Native Americans once harvested the abundant quahogs and periwinkles in the marsh’s shellfish flats. Wading River’s name is believed to have been inspired by the Indian word “Pauquaconsuk,” meaning “the river where we wade for thick, round-shelled clams.” The Nature Conservancy states that archaeological digs have uncovered evidence of hunting and shell-fishing by Native Americans as early as 3,500 B.C.. Other surviving salt marshes on Long Island include those in Bay Shore, Port Jefferson and Montauk Point, as well as The Battery and Willets Point in New York City.
The Matinecock Indians roved across the North Shore from Queens to Huntington. They were excellent hunters and fisherman. Ms. Natale has a special interest in how the Native Americans lived — such as how they acquired their food and crafted their tools. “It is easier to live off the land when there are less of you,” she explains. “They spent less time working than we do now but it depends on what kind of work you are talking about. Being a hunter-gatherer is no easy job.” As the exhibits at the Garvies Point Museum and Preserve illustrate, Indian houses on Long Island were dome-shaped structures from 10 to 20 feet in diameter, covered with grass. Apertures covered in clay at the tops of the dwellings prevented them from burning when fires were lit inside, and vents allowed smoke and heat to escape. The museum currently has a structure on exhibit where one can view the intricacies of the design.
Among the plant fossils, lignite and pyrite nodules on the beach at Garvies Point Preserve, a visitor may find “Indian Paint Pots” — natural concretions of stone most likely used by Native Americans for coloring pigments. The concretions can be described as chunks of iron ore encased in a saucer of rock, sometimes broken open by the waves on the stone beach. Once wet, the rusty iron oxide turns into a permanent dull orange pigment. Keep an eye out if you visit — you just might find one.
“At Garvies, you can sense the spirit of those that came before us when you’re in the woods here and looking out over the water,” Ms. Natale reflects. “People can feel the presence of the Native Americans that lived here depending on how sensitive the individual is. The people who feel a connection with the past, those are the people who come here.”
About a 10 minute drive from Garvies, one might feel the Native American presence in the neighboring village of Sea Cliff, one square mile of Victorian houses along hilly, winding roads that were once horse paths. Aptly named for being 187 feet above sea level, Sea Cliff was certainly part of the “hilly land” the Matinecock people inhabited.
Indeed, the interest in Native American culture has inspired some Long Islanders to connect with Indian culture. Baldwin resident, musician and woodworker Matthew Fallon owns Tribal Wind Arts and makes Native American flutes. Located on the South Shore of Long Island, Baldwin was originally inhabited by the Native Americans known as “Merokes,” or Merrick. “My interest in making Native American flutes comes from a passion to unite people of different lifestyles and cultures through music and art,” says Mr. Fallon, who sells his crafts and instruments at fairs and other events. “The Native American culture and approach to life, from what I know, speaks to my heart — and this is my way of sharing that vision.”
In addition to Garvies Museum, for those interested in experiencing Native American culture on Long Island, one may want to visit the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum in Southampton. Established in 2001 as the only Native American owned and operated non-governmental, not-for-profit organization on Long Island, the museum exhibits Shinnecock history spanning the 10,000 years the Algonquin people have inhabited Long Island. Built from Adirondack white pine, the facility contains 5,000 square feet of exhibition space.
Another excellent resource is the Southold Indian Museum, with the largest extant collection of Algonquin ceramic pottery, as well as an impressive collection of earlier pots and bowls carved out of soapstone. One might also refer to the Suffolk County Historical Society Museum in Riverhead — with more than 20,000 historical artifacts, as well as permanent and changing exhibitions used to interpret important themes in Suffolk County history.
There are also numerous events one can attend throughout the year, including the Shinnecock Powwow on Labor Day Weekend and the Garvies’ Annual Thanksgiving Native American Feast in the week before Thanksgiving. In the meantime, a visit to any of the museums will certainly point one in the right direction.
Reviving the Language
If language is “the DNA of a culture” — as Bruce Cole, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, has noted — then there are some new investigations occurring on Long Island that bode well for the Native American culture here. The New York Times reported in 2010 that, “As far as the records show, no one has spoken Shinnecock or Unkechaug, languages of Long Island’s Indian tribes, for nearly 200 years. Now Stony Brook University and two of the Indian nations are initiating a joint project to revive these extinct tongues, using old documents like a vocabulary list that Thomas Jefferson wrote during a visit in 1791.”
Professor Robert D. Hoberman, who leads the initiative at Stony Brook University’s Linguistics Department, told the Times: “First we have to figure out what the language looked like, using primary sources, remembered prayers, greetings, sayings and word lists like the one Jefferson created. Then we’ll look at languages that are much better documented, such as short word lists to see what the differences and equivalencies are, and we’ll use that to reconstruct what the Long Island languages probably looked like.”
The Times asserted that, “The Long Island effort is part of a wave of language reclamation projects undertaken by American Indians in recent years. For many tribes language is a cultural glue that holds a community together, linking generations and preserving a heritage and values.” The project is still in the early stages of development.
In any case, in the spirit of the lyrical and culturally rich names the Native Americans have left us, we can do our part by simply connecting to the natural places still left on Long Island. Ms. Natale observes: “Most people today have no idea of a connection with nature. And there are others who hate humans because they think we’ve ruined the world. But we’re part of nature, too. We’re part of nature whether we agree with it or disagree with it — or whether we know about it or not. We are just further from it, but we can find ways back to that connection. The Native Americans certainly knew and revered that relationship with the natural world.”
NYSOM Tip: For a solitary and self-reflective experience, visitors and residents of Sea Cliff often gather at Sunset Park — perched on a cliff located at the end of Sea Cliff Avenue — to look out over the Sound, relax and take in the beauty and stillness of a slower pace of life – and perhaps imagine who has tread in this place before.