While doing some research on the first people of Long Island for the literary fiction I’m working on, I found an interesting paper online from The Hudson River Valley Institute by John Strong. If you’re interested in history you may want to read the whole article. I promise it’s not dry. I guarantee it’s more interesting than your seventh-grade history textbook.
In a nutshell, Strong’s paper debunks two myths at once, the tribal myth and the myth of extinction.
Schoolchildren on Long Island to this day are taught that there were thirteen tribes on Long Island when Europeans arrived. They are given a map with the island chopped up into thirteen geographical areas as though Long Island was a section of Europe, with clearly defined boundaries, the French here, Italian there. The truth is, native Americans lived in bands and thought of themselves more in terms of family and clan. Long Island is better understood as a place where the eastern part of the island had several dialects of the Algonquin language similar to the people in modern-day Connecticut, while the western Long Islanders spoke something in the Delaware dialect more similar to the peoples of what is now known as New Jersey. There was some linguistic crossover in the Hempstead region. The whole idea of tribes is a European concept designed to classify and control the people they encountered. The concept of “tribe” (at least in Long Island) doesn’t seem to predate Europeans at all! People didn’t say “I’m a Shinnecock” the way they would now. The just said things like “My family lives by the water abundant in clams” or something. (I made that up but you get the idea.)
That myth feeds into a second myth, which is that the native Long Islanders are extinct. They are not. White conquistadors have always assuaged guilt with such myths. “Oh, it’s sad, but they’re all gone now.” Except they aren’t.
The article includes some discussion of what makes one an American Indian, or, for that matter, how do we decide at all what race you identify with. As a melting pot, we’re going to have to move more toward self-identification and we desperately need to move away from other-identification. I sure don’t want some yahoo from the federal government dropping by to see if I’m Swiss-German enough to qualify for some benefit or avoid a penalty. The most striking quote from this article to me is from C Mathew Snipp. “American Indians are the only group in American society for whom bloodlines have the same importance as they do for show animals and racehorses.” (American Indians: The First of this Land, 1991) That’s a shocking indictment.
My conclusion is that if you’re a fan of books like Lies My Teacher Told Me, or if you’re simply interested in the broader topic of race in America (if you’re an American, you should be!) then finding and reading articles like this one is a helpful way to educate yourself.
If you read the Strong article I’d love to hear your comments!