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Long Island

LI’s first inhabitants’ lasting legacy

Unkechaug, Shinnecocks, Montauketts and other Indian tribes have left their names across the Island

Josephine Smith of the Shinnecock Nation holds bead

Josephine Smith of the Shinnecock Nation holds bead work of whale in an eagle feather bustle. Photo Credit: Marisol Diaz

Take a drive through Long Island.

You might notice village or hamlet names such as Massapequa, Hauppauge and Ronkonkoma, all of which are rooted in Algonquian, the language group of the island’s American Indians and its first inhabitants.

Maybe you pass an aging state marker along a turnpike that shares a tidbit about an Indian name or battle location, or see one of the three main museums dedicated to Native American history and culture.

Perhaps you drive through Mastic near one of Long Island’s two remaining Indian reservations, nestled along the back roads of South Shore suburbia.

Or maybe, you miss them all.

Long Island’s Native Americans lived in “kinships,” or clans, stretching from what is now Brooklyn to Montauk more than 11,000 years and 550 generations before Dutch explorers found the wooded, fish and clam-rich haven and coined it Lange Eylandt. In present day, they largely make up the Unkechaug, Shinnecock, Montaukett, Matinecock and Setalcott tribes.

Newsday captured the past and present history of these first Long Islanders in Chapter 2 of “Long Island: Our Story,” published in 1997. Twenty years later, the story continues, with thousands of tribal members still fighting to correct a centuries-old narrative that has rendered them, in their eyes, extinct.

“We’re not dead,” said Unkechaug Indian Nation Chief Harry Wallace. “Our history is a living history.”

On the edge of the 55-acre Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic is a log cabin-like smoke shop. Inside, there are cases with jewelry made of wampum, strings of shell beads often found in white and varying shades of purple that were also used as units of exchange.

One case holds four wampum belts — the largest depicting a scene of a turtle above 13 waves. The waves represent the 13 native Long Island Indian communities, while the turtle embodies the Indians’ creation story.

“The concept is 10,000 years old,” said Wallace, 63, emerging from behind the store counter. The Unkechaug chief is tall — standing more than 6 feet — his graying hair tied back in a braid. His crimson T-shirt reads, “It’s All Indian Land.”

Wallace said he intends to present the belt to Chief Robert Pharaoh of the East End’s Montaukett Indian Nation, which has been fighting for 107 years to gain state recognition after a New York State Supreme Court judge ruled them extinct in 1910. The Unkechaug and Shinnecock nations already have state recognition and established sovereignty, which allows tribes to manage their own affairs. The state recognition bill, introduced by Assemb. Fred Thiele (I-Sag Harbor) and Sen. Ken LaValle (R-Port Jefferson), passed unanimously in the state Senate and House in June and would have granted immediate recognition. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo vetoed the measure Thursday, stating that it would be “premature to act on this bill” before the state completes a review of the tribe, which the bill would have bypassed.

“I can tell you that this was a huge blow to the hopes of Montauketts, but it isn’t over,” Montaukett historian and Amityville resident Leighton Delgado wrote in a text Thursday after learning of the decision.

Delgado, 64, noted before the decision that tribal members of various nations celebrate every victory, and endure every setback, together.

Fight for recognition

Instances of tribal recognition, in any form, are often few and far between. For the Matinecock Indian Tribe, acknowledgment of their ancestors — who lost their land to English settlers in the late 1600s after the Battle of Madnam’s Neck in Little Neck — came in 2015, when the intersection of Northern Boulevard and Marathon Parkway was co-named Matinecock Way.

For the Shinnecock Indian Nation with about 1,500 members and an 800-acre reservation in Southampton, federal recognition in 2010 followed a decades-long legal battle involving more than 165,000 pages of documents proving the tribe’s existence, said Lance Gumbs, former tribal chairman. The tribe is also seeking repatriation for 3,600 acres on the East End that they say the state took from them in 1859, despite the U.S. Court of Appeals’ dismissal of their case in 2016.

“We’ve always been fighting it . . . but [the state and federal government] would never let us entertain it in court,” said Gumbs, who is also vice president of the National Congress of American Indians for the Northeast region. “And now we’ve been held up because the courts say we waited too long to address the issue. . . . It’s a Catch-22.”

For centuries, the prevailing version of history was that the Europeans came, “bought the land fairly and squarely,” and then the Indians disappeared, said John Strong, a Long Island historian for more than 50 years and professor emeritus at Long Island University.

Dutch explorer Henry Hudson and his crewmen were the first Europeans to make contact with American Indians in 1609 on Long Island’s western end — in what is now present-day Nassau, Queens and Brooklyn — after Giovanni da Verrazzano initially spotted the island in 1524. The first land transactions recorded with the Indians date to 1636 with the Dutch in Brooklyn, followed by additional purchases by the English from the 1640s through 1780s, Strong noted.

“Owning land,” however, was not a phrase in the early Indians’ vocabulary.

“The Indians saw it as shared land use; they had no idea what absentee ownership was,” said Strong, adding that the Indians likely thought the Europeans were asking for hunting rights. “And that was a big confusion for them.”

Forced off the land, many left Long Island or became indentured. Countless others succumbed to disease — presumably smallpox, Strong ventured — or faced massacres nearby by settlers such as John Underhill, an Englishman and a soldier.

By 1670, the Hempstead minister’s son Daniel Denton had written an account that, “There is now but few upon the island.”

“It’s easier to take their land if you can convince everyone that they don’t exist anymore,” Strong said. “So the history of Long Island begins when the settlers arrived.”

And while there have been undertakings to document and recreate Long Island’s Indian history since then, many outsider narratives became breeding grounds for discrepancies and falsehoods.

One misconception that irks Montaukett Chief Pharaoh is the notion that all Indians look like those depicted on the big screen: riding on horseback and sporting long braids and war bonnets.

“Their dress was different, their cultures were different, they looked different,” Pharaoh said. “The true culture is not being taught today. It’s being hidden.”

In actuality, Montaukett clan mother Leila “Loving Spirit” O’Neal maintained that early Long Island Indians wore burlap, animal skins and “whatever they could get their hands on.”

Unkechaug Chief Wallace said he is tired of people calling the Algonquian language “lost,” or referring to Algonquian-based languages, such as Mohegan-Pequot and Munsee Delaware, as “dialects.”

“Is Spanish a dialect? Is French a dialect?” he asked, grudgingly adding the European tie-in. “No. They’re languages.”

Bringing up Sag Harbor pharmacist William Tooker seems to lighten the mood. At the turn of the 19th century, Tooker began digging through old deeds, land records, historical documents and Indian vocabularies to produce a published list in 1911 of nearly 500 Long Island place names, such as Massapeague. Many, however, were mistranslated.

“William Tooker,” Montaukett historian Delgado smirks. Wallace rolls his eyes. The two are now standing behind the smoke shop, next to a Japanese maple tree and a dome-shaped communal sweat lodge. It is made of sap links and is used by tribal members to pray.

“Tooker was going on the basis of the sources that he had at that time,” Wallace said. “If you have bad sources, you write bad history.”

Crafting a curriculum

Last year, officials in the Southampton School District approached Josephine Smith and other Shinnecock Nation members with a proposition: They wanted their help crafting a new, Indian-based curriculum.

The curriculum, which is slated for implementation in the elementary school starting with the 2018-19 school year, will integrate aspects of Shinnecock culture and history into various subjects according to grade level, said district superintendent Nicholas Dyno.

Math, for example, could include a counting lesson in Algonquian while children bead necklaces. Science, a lesson about how the Shinnecocks planted based on the seasons or according to the moon. Music, a chance to experience native drums and other instruments: what they were made of, how they were played, the rhythms used. There will also be an e-book available to fourth-graders.

“It’s exciting because it helps affirm our native students,” Dyno said. “And it teaches other students the importance of that history in Southampton.”

About 12 Shinnecocks have collaborated with the district, which educates nearly 1,600 students, to develop the curriculum over the past year, Smith noted. A few are also teachers in the district.

“The more students learn about the Shinnecock students’ history, the more understanding they have, and the more respect they will have for them,” said Smith, 59. About 7 percent of students in the district identify as American Indian or Alaska Native, according to 2016-17 state education department data.

The curriculum will roll out to the middle school and high school in the next two to three years, Dyno said.

Outside the classroom, the Shinnecock have also hosted an annual powwow on Labor Day weekend for 71 years to show visitors their heritage. The three-day festival attracts thousands, including crafts vendors and ceremonial dancers from as far as Washington state, South Dakota and California.

“I remember when we were young, making the food, going to the cookhouse to help prepare the beans and the corn for making the big pots of succotash,” Smith recalled. “And now I’m a food vendor myself. . . . Everyone coming together, it was just a great time then, and it’s a great time now.”

Remembering aspects of tradition and culture is vital, said O’Neal, 73, who grew up in Amityville and now lives in Clover, South Carolina. As clan mother, she has conducted naming ceremonies and funeral wakes, and has taught countless tribal members to make crafts and garments, and how to dance. One of the tribe’s favorites is the blanket dance, where “the woman beckons the man to come in and be her boyfriend — or close friend,” O’Neal said.

O’Neal admits she has forgotten some things over time, though. She can no longer recognize plants in the ground and dig them up to snack on like she used to in grade school, for example. But she wants to change that.

“I’ll have to look into making sure I start learning again, because that’s something you need for survival,” O’Neal said.

Tribes also need their native language — the “lifeblood of a nation,” Delgado said. So he and Wallace joined forces in 2009 to start the Algonquian Language Revitalization Project.

The initiative aims to not only create a combined dictionary of the Montaukett, Unkechaug and Shinnecock languages, but also to cultivate teachers who can make the language accessible to the community.

About 20 people — representatives from those three tribes, the Matinecock, Stony Brook’s linguistics department and current Stony Brook students — are involved, Delgado said. They use “A Modern Mohegan Dictionary” by Mohegan tribal member Stephanie Fielding as a guide.

Wallace estimated that the dictionary contains 10,000 Algonquian-based words.

“We’re creating an environment where the language can be taught at all levels,” Wallace said, noting that the group includes trained linguists from Connecticut and Maine and community-based language teachers.

Project members hope to soon extend this teaching to schools. The Unkechaug tribe and its liaison, Irene Navas, are in discussions with the Center Moriches School District about possible curriculum options — one being a high school language elective course, district superintendent Russell Stewart said.

While O’Neal considers the task of learning the entire language “a bit out of my league,” she said she is still eager to pick up phrases wherever she can.

The colonists and government “have always taken things from us,” she said. “We cannot let them steal our culture. No. I have had it with people like that.”

Mohegan words and phrases

ahqôpáyuwôk / time

akuwôk / coat, jacket

aquy / hello

cáhqin / house

cáhsháyuwôk / family

iyo / now

kisuq / sky, heaven

kon / snow

maci / bad, evil, wicked

nikôni / first

tayôsq / bridge

uqanaqôn / rainbow

wisuwôk / name

wuhsintamuwôk /

marriage, wedding

yôpi / again

Nipun / It is summer!

Iyo, wuták nahak nipawiq / Now, stand behind me.

Pahqaciq wuci nitay /

Come out of there!

Pitkôs asu kusawôk

cuwôhtam áqunuk? /

Does she want to wear a dress or a skirt?

Ni yáyuw / It is so.

Wiqáhsun / Good morning!

Source: A Modern

Mohegan Dictionary

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