Honoring indigenous legacy, without appropriation


The history of America’s relationship with the indigenous peoples who lived here before the arrival of European settlers has been fraught with sugarcoating, obfuscation, and downright ignorance.

On Long Island — where so many of our communities still bear the names of the native tribes that were here for millennia — that history continues to remain hidden and untaught, despite the fact that numerous municipalities still claim to “honor” the legacy of these tribes through school team and village logos that feature stereotypical headdresses and depictions of Native Americans.

Before the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano first saw what would become known as Long Island in 1524, there were tens of thousands of indigenous peoples living here, largely in peaceful co-existence among 13 tribes along the coasts of the island. These were the Canarsee, Corchaug, Manhasset, Marsapeague, Matinecock, Merrick, Montaukett, Nesaquake, Rockaway, Secatogue, Setauket, Shinnecock and Unkechaug.

They inhabited the land for more than 10,000 years, and were expert fishers and clammers who relied on the abundant fish, lobsters, clams and even whales to supplement the food they got through hunting and the harvesting of corn.

The various tribes had different names for the island they called home: Paumanok, Lepanehoking, Sewanhacky and Wamponomon — the last two referencing the abundance of wampum, or shells, from local clams used for decoration or currency.

The tribes themselves were closely related to several different nations from the surrounding land, with the majority of the western Long Island tribes speaking Algonquian dialects. The Algonquian people, at their height, stretched up and down the northeastern United States and into Canada. Their people, traded goods and culture traveled from Lake Superior to the Long Island Sound.

The indigenous people of eastern Long Island spoke a Lenape-Munsee dialect, showing their connection to the Lenape communion, a group of hundreds of tribes stretching from Delaware to the Hudson Valley.

Through their Lenape heritage, the eastern Long Island tribes were linked to the Powhatan Federation, famous for the daughter of one of their chieftains, Pocahontas, and their relationship with the Jamestown colonists.

In addition to the sustenance they acquired from the animals and crops of the region, the various tribes were also accomplished artists and musicians, particularly with the use of wampum shells for decorative pieces, and weaved elaborate and finely made clothing and blankets. They also made ornamental pottery, stamped with decorative designs, and traded these goods across the Sound and along the East Coast.

Since the beginning of white settlement on Long Island, roughly 90 percent of native people have been killed — either intentionally or incidentally — by colonists, through everything from violence to disease to loss of native wildlife and land displacement. The majority of tribes disappeared from Long Island before the Revolutionary War, and in the centuries since, a number of American historians have attempted to whitewash the presence and impact of Native Americans here.

Despite this, they still played a key role in Long Island’s early history, particularly in the close relationship between the Montaukett and the English settlers of what is now Suffolk County. When Long Island became a center for the whaling industry in the 18th and 19th centuries, many natives were hired for their bravery, strength and long history of whaling in their respective cultures.

A Shinnecock man named Eleazar was the first Native American to enter Japanese territory while serving as a crewman aboard the whaling vessel Manhattan, which anchored in Tokyo Bay while on an expedition in 1845.

Nowadays, there are only two reservations for indigenous tribes on Long Island — the Shinnecock Reservation, in Southampton, and the Poospatuck Reservation, in Mastic. The descendants of many of the tribes still live throughout the United States, forced to occupy reservations as far from their homeland as Oklahoma.

This is just the tip of the iceberg of native Long Island history and culture. The best way to honor them and their legacy is by educating ourselves on their history and finding ways to support the descendants of these tribes, whose land we now live on.

Anyone interested in preserving and honoring native culture can promote and patronize indigenous-owned businesses and places that educate on the history of the local tribes — such as the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum, in Southampton — and support increase funding for local school districts to include academic courses and cultural opportunities so our children understand the peoples who lived here before their ancestors.

While we may not have been taught much about them, the native tribes of Long Island are an integral part of our communities’ history. It is our duty — as both Americans and human beings — to not only honor their heritage, but also to uplift their voices and educate ourselves on their proud history and tradition.

Both because it is the right thing to do, and because there is still so much for us to learn.

Will Sheeline is a senior reporter who writes for the Glen Cove, Oyster Bay and Sea Cliff/Glen Head Heralds. Comments?