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The Mast-Head: From the Beginning

Wed, 02/24/2021 - 17:52

A letter writer this week posed a question in reaction to an editorial that appeared in The Star last week that I think is important to think about. Diane Lewis asked, “When (and by whom) was it decided that Native Americans were not part of the United States and were not included in all the benefits and privileges that other Americans enjoy?” The answer is: from the beginning.

The America we live in today did not begin in 1776; it grew out of Anglo-European colonization in which the exclusion of the land’s indigenous people was from the start routine. Among the earliest records for Long Island towns are laws that constrained the tribes. In 1640, the year the town was established, South­ampton was already placing geographic bounds on where the native people could plant crops and where they could not. Less than a year later, they forbade anyone from providing weapons of any kind, bullets, or gunpowder to the original inhabitants. The penalty was dire: forfeiting everything they owned within the limits of Southampton and corporal punishment that the court thought appropriate. Even an Indian seeking to have a gun repaired had to seek permission in advance from one of the town magistrates.

East Hampton, established a decade later than Southampton, put limits on the activities of the Montauketts, from whom they had received leave to set out a village on their land. No white man was allowed to sell powder, lead, shot, or musket flint to them, and there were rules forcing them to close up their grain storage pits. Also, they set a 30-shilling fine for the offense of selling any dog, young or old, to the Indians.

Montaukett and Shinnecock men did find places on the early white whaling crews, and were clearly valued by the colonists for this. But otherwise, the native people were pushed to the margins, left to fend for themselves but largely cut off from colonial commerce, except when needed as laborers. Native women wove baskets and made brooms and other household items to sell in the English towns, a meager living in a changing time.

I find particularly poignant a Montaukett burial ground at Pantigo that might have been used during a smallpox epidemic in the 1660s. Next to the graves were the remains of fires, as if the people had stayed nearby, dying on the outskirts of the growing English village. In one of the graves, in a 1917 archaeological excavation, there was a bottle next to a man’s skeleton. Scratched into the glass surface were the letters “wobetom.” A Wobetom was among the Montauk Indians who signed with an X a land deal with the English in 1657. I am probably mistaken, but I can’t help but think of the inscription as also carrying the meaning, “Woe be to me.”

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