Spirituality, Ceremony, & Cosmology
The Native peoples of Long Island view the natural ecosystem very differently than the Europeans. They saw the natural world around them as a living, sacred entity that must be respected and protected from overuse. The Native peoples had studied and learned about their homeland for thousands of years . Their hunting, fishing, and planting strategies conformed to the natural rhythms of the seasons.
The animal spirits were given thanks in elaborate rituals for sacrificing their earthly forms to feed the people. There was no obsession with “taming” the natural ecosystem . Instead, religious rituals were humbly performed to ask the spirits in control of the earth’s resources to bestow their fruits on the people.
Lone Otter of the Unkechaug wrote in an epigraph, “the Great Mother of Earth and the Father in the Sun, and our grandmother the moon gave the people everything they needed, and the people praised them with song, dance, and gifts.”1
In 1761, Samson Occum’s diary reports on the fact that the Montauk and Shinnecock believed in many spiritual forces over different things such as fire, four directions, the sea, various vegetables as well as two main spiritual beings; Cauhluntoowut – Supreme being and Mutcheshesunnetooh, great evil being. Pow-waws (medicine-people) kept images, (carved figures) as fetishes or “oracles” that helped guide their ceremonies.2
Powaw were the spiritual leaders who conducted healing ceremonies in the pre-contact and early contact period. Some of their ceremonies were observed and briefly recorded by early colonists. In disapproval, the European colonists quickly eroded their power by attempting to disprove their spirituality, banning their practice, and converting their followers.
David Gardiner records his impressions of Powaw figures in 1840;
When the Powaws healed or conducted ceremonies, they received knowledge from visions. These ancient medicine people were powerful and could determine when dances or feasts were held, cure sickness, extract poison, evict evil spirits, cause influence to protect from; injury, drowning etc.3
Rev. Samson Occum describes Powaws, in his An Account of the Montauk Indians on Long Island, 1761;
As for their POWAWS, they say they get their art from dreams; and one has told me they get their art from the devil, but then partly by dreams or night visions, and partly by the devil’s immediate appearance to them by various shapes; sometimes in the shape of one creature, sometimes in another, sometimes by a voice. And their poisoning one another and taking out poison, they say is no imaginary thing, but real.
I have heard some say, that have been poisoned, it puts them into great pain, and when a powaw takes out the poison they have found immediate relief ; at other times they feel no manner of pain, but feel strangely by degrees, till they are senseless, and then they will run mad. Sometimes they would run into the water; sometimes into the fire; and at other times run up to the top of high trees and tumble down headlong to the ground, yet receive no hurt by all these.
And I don’t see for my part, why it is not as true, as the English or other nation’s witchcraft, but is a great mystery of darkness.
Visual evidence of the Native belief system throughout the Island exists on gorgets, slate plaques, cobbles, etc.
The figure of the Thunderbird found at Sebonac in the Shinnecock Hills represents a beneficent figure, as he brings rain, necessary for survival; the figure of the Great Horned Serpent from the Miller Place area represents evil forces.
The turtle gorget from Nassakeag Swamp in Setauket probably represents the Algonkian origin myth, in which the earth is formed on a turtle’s back.
Incised shells, deer ribs, and beaver teeth which indicate calendrical and other types of record-keeping were found at Mt. Sinai Harbor archaeological sites and published in SCAA’s Vol. V, The Second Coastal Archaeology Reader. Petroglyphs carved on two boulders were found at Jericho, NY, and a slate tablet with many images was found at Orient. Those images most related to the Montaukett are clay tablets in the East Hampton Library Long Island Collection, whose meaning is obscure.4
In 1840, David Gardiner reported that the Powaws, priests, or medicine-men had small figures (carved wood figures) that they used ceremonially.5
Wood "Idol" observed at Shinnecock by Rev. Azariah Horton, 1740s. Image from Gaynell Stone's Indian Place Names Map, 1991
Whales were important resources for the pre-contact people of Long Island. Occasionally, whales beached themselves, which was interpreted as an offering from the great spirit. The gratitude towards the whales may have influenced a reverence towards them.
The following are colonial descriptions of early contact-period cermonies;
Samuel Taylor reports on a healing ceremony on Shelter Island in a wigwam, during which the patient drank water from a gourd container, spit into his hands, then threw the water over his naked body, while a group of men sang songs and beat the ground with two-foot sticks. They say they are waiting for a spiritual sign as to the nature, diagnosis, or healing of the illness. Taylor says nothing will show up because he is there. He thought the Devil was going to show up.6
Throughout contact period indigenous storytelling, the Indians were possibly told or believed that their Gods wouldn’t appear as long as the colonists were in their presence.
Daniel Denton reports at Hempstead Plain of a great dance that was held with the men painting their faces half red-and black, or all black or all red, with white steaks under their eyes dancing around a fire. The main instruments the singers used were short sticks hitting the ground.
Their red and black faces bear a resemblance to the depiction in wood-carved form of the Misink (Mesingw – guardian spirits of the game animals) utilized in the Big-House Ceremonies (Xingwikaon) of the Lenape/Delaware. The Big-House Ceremony; a nine-day ceremony in the Long House in which visionaries recited their visions and songs were composed describing these visions with dancing, feasting on venison, combined with healings and community gathering. Munsee/Delaware influence would have been great throughout western Long Island.7
Description of the earth as on the back of a tortoise in the water is recorded by Jasper Danckaerts from an Indian on western Long Island.7
Story reported of the Legend of the “Winged Head” spiritual being. The legend goes that,
“One night, a widow sat alone in her wigwam and in a little fire near the door she was roasting acorns and taking them from the burning embers and eating them for her evening meal. In the doorway appeared a Winged Head. She did not see him.
He watched what she was doing and grinned. Then the ghost stealthily reached out one of his claw-like hands and snatched some small coals from the fire and thrust them into his mouth, thinking that was what the widow was eating.
With an awful howl of pain he rushed out of the wigwam, disappeared across the plains and neither he nor his like was ever seen again…”8
Nicholas Wassenaer, in his writing First Settlement of New York by the Dutch 1621-16329, describes the Native cosmology;
All the Natives pay particular attention to the sun, the moon and the stars, as they are of great interest to them, as to us, having like summer and winter…The first moon following that at the end of February is greatly honored by them. They watch it with great devotion, and when it rises, they compliment it with a festival; then they collect together from all quarters, and revel in their way, with wild game or fish, and drink clear river water to their fill, without being intoxicated.
It appears that the year commences then, this moon being a harbinger of the spring. Shortly afterwards the women begin to prpeare what is to be for food by planting, putting everything in a state of preparation, and carrying their seed into the field. They allow the succeeding moons to appear without any feasting’ but they celebrate the new August moon by another festival, as their harvest then approaches. It is very abundant in consequence of the great mildness of the climate. The summers are frequently very hot, and the land moist, which produces abundance of fruits and grain. Indian corn is abundant there, and is pounded by the women, made into meal, and baked into cakes in the ashes, after the olden fashion, and used for food.
As they care nothing for the spiritual, they direct their study principally to the physical, closely observing the seasons. The women there are the most experienced star gazers; there is scarcely one of them but can name all the stars; their rising, setting; the position of the Arctos, that is the wagon, is as well known to them as to us, and they name them by other names.
Native cosmology was described by Samson Occom in the 1760s and published in Gaynell Stone’s History and Archaeology of Montauk.
- John Strong, The Unkechaug Indians of Eastern Long Island – A History, 2011, pp. 4
- David Martine, Shinnecock Timeline pp. 7
- David Martine, Shinnecock timeline pp. 9
- Gaynell Stone, Transcript of Lecture on The Material History of the Montaukett, 1998, pp. 3
- David Martine, Shinnecock Timeline pp. 9
- David Bunn Martine, Shinnecock Timeline pp. 5
- David Bunn Martine, Shinnecock Timeline pp. 6
- David Bunn Martine, Shinnecock Timeline pp. 10
- Source: Documentary History of the State of New York, edited by O’Callaghan, Vol. III, 1850, pp. 28-29; Gaynell Stone, Languages and Lore of the Long Island Indians, 1980, pp. 212
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