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More than 10,000 years before the first Europeans set foot on the coast of New York, there were thriving societies of people working the land and building political confederacies. Although it isn’t a huge place, Long Island was home to multiple Native American peoples, and they had a massive role to play in making it what it is today and building it into what it will become tomorrow.
Long Island’s Name
Before white settlers called the piece of land off the coast of New York Long Island, residents called it Paumanok, Sewanhacky, and Wamponomon. There were plenty of other names for the island written on maps, and different spellings abounded. The native peoples of the region did not have a written language, so Europeans had to guess at spellings phonetically. Since many settlers and explorers did not have great spelling, even people who agreed on the same name might have spelled it differently. Even the same person might spell a word differently depending on the day.
Two names for the island, Sewanhacky and Wamponomon, refer to wampum, shells from local clams, or quahogs, usually strung into decorative ropes and belts. The settlers traded with them, treating them as money during negotiations with indigenous groups.
Lots of people means lots of jobs are needed to support those people. Those who lived on the island off the coast of New York turned to the sea for food, and they were expert fishers. Of course, fish weren’t the only thing living in the water, and whales, lobsters, clams, and more landed on the dinner table. People also hunted, and a few farmed staples like corn on the island.
Dugout canoes were the preferred form of transportation. Hunters and fishers came home to round, woven buildings with a central smoke hole that worked like a chimney. This highly adaptable way of life suited the area well and demonstrated the innovation the first true settlers must have used to battle the elements at the tail end of the Ice Age.
Tribes of Long Island Origin
It’s difficult to say with certainly exactly how many native peoples called the island home. Certainly many came and went during the thousands of years before Europeans crossed the Atlantic. Because of vast cultural differences, white settlers often failed to understand the cultural dynamics of the people they met, which means the 13 tribes they reported finding when they first visited could be a number that’s too high, too low, or perfectly accurate. The 13 tribes white settlers reported meeting were the Canarsie, Rockaways, Merricks, Massapequas, Matinecocks, Nissaquogues, Setaukets, Corchaugs, Secatogues, Unkechaugs, Shinnecock, Montaukett, and Manhansets. Like all early accounts from white settlers, these reported names should not necessarily be taken at face value. Some ongoing research suggests that the language barrier and cultural differences between the people of Long Island and the white settlers led to many miscommunications, including mistaking land or area names for the names of native peoples. Introductions to groups might have been confused with directions.
New England and Long Island Indians
The people of Long Island generally spoke Algonquian dialects. Algonquian is more than a group of languages: It’s also a vast group of peoples connected by cultural links that stretches down the East Coast and up into Canada.
People living on the island were all part of what historians sometimes call the Montauk Confederacy. This confederacy was probably part of the Delaware or Lenape communion. That communion was also linked to the Powhatan Federation, best known for their interactions with the settlers at Jamestown and the kidnapping of Pocahontas. Cultural and political ties stretched all over North America despite plagues that wiped out entire communities.
Contemporary Indigenous Peoples of Long Island
Although the vast majority of native peoples were driven away from New York and Long Island before the Revolutionary War even began, that doesn’t mean they disappeared. Today, some have returned, and many are trying to preserve or reignite elements of their culture that mission schools, unjust laws, land theft, and oppression have tried to obliterate. The Shinnecock people are currently working on reviving their language, for instance. The Confederation of Sovereign Nanticoke-Lenape Tribes is still around today, and various indigenous groups actively help people connect with long-lost relatives, discover ancient roots, and work hard to preserve and improve their communities. Some leaders are also taking part in discussions about New York City’s seal and how it can better represent indigenous citizens.
It’s true that 90% of Native Americans were killed, either intentionally or incidentally, by European settlers, but that doesn’t mean their descendants aren’t still with us. They are working to reclaim land, educate neighbors, and celebrate the original American lifestyle, just as they have for more than 10,000 years.
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