Long Island Indians believed in an abundance of gods, in a devil who was responsible for evil, and in an afterlife in which their souls went west to live either in peace or in torment.
“There were the gods of the four corners of the earth,’’ wrote Samson Occum, a Mohegan Indian from Connecticut who had converted to Christianity and -- in the early 1760s -- traveled to East Hampton to preach among the Montauketts. “And there was a god over their corn, another over their beans, another over their pumpkins, and squashes. There was one god over their wigwams, another of their fire, another over the sea, another of the wind, one of the day, and another of the night ...
“But they had a notion of one great and good God, that was over the rest of the gods, which they called Cauhluntoowut . . .,’’ he wrote in a letter to a friend in Connecticut, adding, “These were common notions with all the Long Island Indians.’’
These “common notions’’ had been reported more than a century before Occum wrote the letter, a copy of which is included in a massive collection called “The History & Archaeology of the Montauk,’’ which chronicles the lives, legends and tribulations of the people Occum sought to convert.
Although Occum is regarded as a reliable observer, he had turned away from Indian beliefs when he converted to Christianity. The Indian view of their beliefs is for the most part lost to history. There is no written record in their own words of what they believed in. Like so much of Long Island Indian history, we view it from a secondary point of view -- that of outsiders.
“As a child, I heard older relatives talk about things such as where they lived, or foods they ate, but religious practices were almost never discussed,’’ said Robert Cooper, a Montaukett Indian who lives in East Hampton. “I know they believed in spirits, and believed in harmony with the Earth. They saw themselves as being one with the Earth, which was their mother. That’s what I’ve taken from the old beliefs.’’
The earliest accounts of the Indians’ religious beliefs were written by the Dutch soon after their arrival in the early 17th Century. These accounts show both the rich diversity of beliefs among different Indian communities and their common threads. For example, the Indians encountered by the Dutch appear to have shared a belief in life after death, in certain creation myths, and in a multitude of gods as well as a devil who was to blame when someone died.
“Respecting Religion, we as yet cannot learn that they have any knowledge of God, but there is something similar in repute among them,’’ an unidentified Dutchman is quoted as stating in documents filed in the New York State Library. “They say that mention was made by their forefathers for many thousand moons, of good and evil spirits, to whose honor, it is supposed, they burn fires or sacrifices . . . The ministry of their spiritual affairs is attended to by one they call Kitzinacka, which, I think, is a Priest.’’
The same document states that the Indians believed a person’s soul “goes up westward on leaving the body. There ‘tis met with great rejoicing by the others who died previously; there they wear black Otter or Bear skins, which among them are signs of gladness ... Death is the offspring of the Devil, who is evil.’’
The Indians did have an elaborate belief system, as well as creation myths, according to another document called “A Description of New Netherland’’:
They pay great reverence to the devil, because they fear great trouble from him when hunting and fishing; wherefore the first fruits of the chase is burnt in his honor, so that they may not receive injury. If they experience pain in any part, they say -- A devil lurks in there. They fully acknowledge that a God dwells beyond the stars, who, however, gives himself no concern about the doings of Devils on earth: because he is constantly occupied with a beautiful Goddess, whose origin is unknown. She once came down from heaven into the water ... and would have sunk, unless land had suddenly bubbled up under her feet. The land waxed bigger, so that erelong a whole globe was perceptible, which quickly produced all sorts of vegetables and trees. Meanwhile, the goddess brought forth a deer, bear and wolf, and again cohabited with these animals: She thus became pregnant, and lay in of divers sorts of creatures at one birth. From this arises the variety not only of animals, but also of men, which in color are either black, white, or sallow.
The Dutch appear to have been particularly struck by how the Indians prepared their dead.
“The next of kin closes the eyes of the deceased,’’ a document in “A Description of New Netherland’’ states, continuing:
“After being waked there a few days, they are thus interred. The body hath a stone under the head ... They place beside it a pot, kettle, a platter, spoon, money, and provisions, to be made use of in the other world ... The men make no noise over the dead, but the women carry on uncommonly; they strike their breasts, tear their faces, call the name of the deceased day and night. The mothers make the loudest lamentations on the death of their sons. They cut off their hair, which they burn on the grave in the presence of all the relatives.”
As for what happened after death, Occum wrote in his letter:
“Their souls go to the westward a great way off, where the righteous, or those that behaved themselves well in this world, will exercise themselves in pleasurable singing and dancing forever ... They suppose the wicked go to the same place or country with the righteous; but they are to be exercised in some hard servile labor ... such as ... making a canoe with a round stone.”