A Catskill Catalog: December 19, 2012

Lanapehoking: the original name of the place where we live. Lanapehoking: a word of the native Eastern Algonquin dialect that Europeans called Delaware. Lanapehoking: from lanape, people, and hoking, land. The land of the people, that’s the first name of our place.

Our place was Munsee land. It stretched from the middle Hudson Valley across huge tracts of upland forest, across the upper Delaware Valley, and down to the seacoast lowlands of New York and New Jersey. (Of course, all this was before there was a New York or New Jersey.) The people of this vast region spoke Munsee, their name for that Eastern Algonquin dialect that gave our region its first place name: Lanapehoking.

It has always been a peeve of mine when folks refer to our region as the Watershed. I want to shake the speaker (gently, of course) and growl, “We live in the Catskills, not somebody’s watershed!” Perhaps, I should get over that peevishness. After all, Catskills is a name only hundreds of years old, and, in the long sweep of history, a recent christening of what had long been the wet, mountainous upland of Lanapehoking.

History is the study of the written record of the past. The Munsee people had no written language. They left no written record. Their early culture is by definition pre-historic, accessible to us through archeological digs, colonial European observations written in Dutch and English, and the oral traditions of native peoples.

Somewhere around 11,500 years ago, Lanapehoking became inhabited by Paleo-Indians, stone-age people who arrived here after the huge Wisconsin glacier receded to the north. This was tundra then, a very different and very cold landscape, inhabited by caribou, walrus and the elephant-like mastodon. Local “arrowhead” hunters have found spear points, scrapers, knives, mortars and other stone implements that date from this period. These Paleo people were our region’s first inhabitants.

Climate change seems an ever-present reality. The climate of our region steadily warmed over the next several millennia. Between 10,000 and 3,000 years ago, the landscape changed to reflect this steady warming. Lakes, streams, marshes and forests developed over centuries, and the land began to become more like what we know today. Berries, seeds, and nuts provided food for the deer, turkeys, bear and other animals that moved into the warming region.

The people of this Archaic period are more recognizable to us, hunters and gatherers in a land that seems more familiar than the frozen tundra of the earliest times. Men hunted, with spears, deer and bear, birds and fish . Women used stone axes to cut firewood, and, with their children, gathered plants, roots, berries, seeds, nuts, eggs and any, and all, other edible collectibles. Cooking pots didn’t come into use until late in this period, so, it seems, most food was either roasted directly over a flame or eaten raw.

It is in the Woodland Period, from 3,000 years ago until European contact that the Munsee people come into sharpest view. Gradually, the hunter-gatherers added agriculture to the mix, growing gardens of corn, beans, and squash. Agriculture requires a more settled life, a place to stay while cultivating the land, a place to store the harvested food. In Lanapehoking, the people built small communities, unfortified hamlets of wigwams and longhouses made of saplings, with raised floors covered with furs and skins. Storage pits held the harvest. Firewood was kept dry. Civilization had come to the region.

When Europeans came, nearly 12,000 Munsee people lived in Lanapehoking. Population centers were located on streams running into New York harbor, along the shore on western Long Island, on the mid-Hudson, and at the upper reaches of the Delaware River. That last site, of course, is us.
The Munsee were not a nation, had no political system, sought no unity among their various communities. Rather, each community of Lanape operated independently from other communities, united not by politics, but by language and culture. Their families were matrilineal, with descent traced through the mother rather than the father. Each family was part of a larger clan, Wolf, Turtle, or Turkey, and young people were encouraged to find a mate from outside the clan. Marriage was a simple declaration to live together, and work was gender-specific: men hunted, constructed houses, made tools, weapons, and canoes, did the heavy physical labor. Women did everything else.

Squint your eyes a little tight, next time you drive past the Pakatakan Flat, that huge expanse of ground that stretches between Routes 28 and 30, where the Dry Brook runs into the East Branch. Between the slits of your eyelids, take a long look. See those round, stick-built wigwams? That round-ended longhouse? The fire-pits and the storage mounds? Those are the Munsee-speaking people, the lanape, who first dwelled here, in our place, the place called Lanapehoking.
If we squint hard, we might see them.
billbirns@gmail.com