A hardy bunch of nature buffs braved the ice and windy subzero temperatures this past Saturday morning for an invigorating walk along Historic Huguenot Street and the Nyquist-Harcourt Sanctuary, led by the engaging Justin Wexler, who specializes in folklore and land use among the indigenous people of the Hudson Valley. More than two dozen people, most of whom were smartly equipped with micro-spikes on their feet, gathered around a replica wigwam, poised shelterlike on an ice-covered lawn next to the DuBois Fort as Wexler introduced his first of four seasonal nature walks, “The Midwinter Hunt: Bears, Stars and Snow.”
Wexler has been studying the history, language and cultural practices of Hudson Valley’s indigenous people for most of his life. He explained that the Munsee people built these wigwams (meaning “home”) with saplings covered in grass, bark and/or animal skins. He also pointed out that indigenous people lived in this area for thousands of years prior to European contact, and that the “extensive archaeological digs and research” conducted along Historic Huguenot Street each summer by the SUNY New Paltz Department of Anthropology have yielded “substantial evidence that gives us some insight into how the Esopus Munsee lived and moved and even constructed their wigwams right here on this very lawn.”
The young ethnoecologist was quick to point out that, besides the actual artifacts uncovered by anthropologists, most accounts of Munsee life? “come from the written record post-contact period,” he said. “So, you have to read these descriptions and narratives with a grain of salt, or at least with the understanding that these impressions are coming from a 17th-century Eurocentric, and male, perspective.” The name “Esopus” Indians came from white European settlers. “When the Dutch settlers were constructing Kingston, they referred to the native people who lived ‘by the creek or river’ as ‘Esopus’ Indians.”
He went on to explain that the Munsee people moved seasonally, as they viewed themselves as part of the land and not separate from it. “Their entire language is so different from ours,” he said, noting that linguistically they can be traced back to the Algonquian language family, which he said “is very rich and descriptive as to what they’re seeing right in front of them. There’s not the same tenses or sentence structure that we have at all. But sadly, there are only two people alive today that are still fluent in the language, and I’m trying my best to learn as much as I can. But some of the words we use today can be traced back to them, including ‘Manhattan’ and ‘Shawangunk,’” he said.
The walk and talk focused mostly on the way that the Esopus Munsee interacted with the land seasonally, noting that in “early winter they would be living up in the mountains, where they could hunt and trap deer and bear. By this time of the year, they would have settled into their wigwams along the riverbank, because they relied more on ice fishing and hunting smaller game like squirrel and turkey.”
As the walk moved north along Huguenot Street, he pointed to an Atlantic white cedar tree on a residential front lawn (Craig Shankles’ home) and said how the Munsee revered this tree because it was one of the “only trees that they could use to construct their wigwams in the winter, because the bark was able to be peeled and stripped in the winter, unlike most of the trees they used to construct their homes.”
Although the Munsee were driven out by several forces (violence, genocide, alcoholism and land treaties mostly designed to benefit the Europeans’ interests) from the area by the late 17th century, there are still many descendants living on reservations in Wisconsin (the Stockbridge-Munsee community) and Ontario (Canadian Munsee community). Wexler has visited various enclaves of descendants in Ontario, and spoke of one Esopus Munsee descendant living in a “typical residential neighborhood” in Ontario who “sets fire to his lawn each year,” so that a certain type of mushroom will grow after the earth has been scorched. “That’s a practice his Munsee descendants used, and he still follows it today. So, although it’s been 400 years, there are still people who are practicing these land-use traditions.”
As the group came to the entrance of the Nyquist-Harcourt Sanctuary (a co-sponsor of these seasonal nature walks), Wexler paused and looked towards the sun-streaked sky to talk about the Pleiades constellation and how it “was a big part of their spiritual life. They had many rich folktales about supernatural and animistic pregnancies. They also believed that orphans held great power and believed so strongly in the purity of children and protecting them.” The story goes, as Wexler tells it, that a group of children were dancing and started floating into the sky. Their parents began to call out for them to come back. Although they wanted to come back, they could not, instead forming a tight cluster in the sky to become a calendar for their relatives and descendants to follow. “They would use it to decide when it was a good day to hunt or to fish…for so many things.”
Down along the frozen oxbow, with ice clusters snapping and cracking, along with a cacophony of wind slicing through the bare-limbed trees, Wexler cautioned everyone to walk carefully and dig in their spikes, then pointed to a black walnut tree with reverence, as if he were placing his hand on something sacred. “Do you see these strong ridges and the dark brown color of the bark?” he said, gently moving his gloved hand along the trunk of the thick tree. Its Algonquian name could be loosely translated as “round fruit tree.” He explained how important all trees were to the Munsee people – but particularly this tree, because of its fruit, mostly for its medicinal purposes. “They crushed the nuts to make oil, but it was so strong that it could burn the skin. They used it to treat ringworm and other ailments, as it consists of antifungal properties, as well as the sap being used as mosquito repellent and the hulls used to expel parasites from the intestines and tea created for laxative purposes.
“But they never just cut into a tree. They would first come and ask its permission and bring it offerings like tobacco,” he explained. “Then they would wait so that the tree had time to communicate with other trees further away and alert them that there was a need for their healing properties. And they would not just strip it; they would try to take some of the sap from the roots or branches, so as not to kill the tree.”
Pointing towards the water that lay frozen and dusted with snow and ice crystals, he talked about how the Munsee people would “cut holes in the ice and then put a blanket over them, and when the sun shone it was like looking into an aquarium and they could spear fish.” He also said that, based on descriptions and artifacts, the Munsee people did not believe in heavy layering during the winter months. “They had shoes [moccasins] and a robelike garment, but there was a lot of skin exposure.” In fact, Wexler said, it was common practice for young boys to wake up and bathe in icy water every morning. “It’s a matrilineal culture, and so the mother’s brother, their uncle, would supervise this morning bathing while he smoked tobacco. They believed that this made the children hardier towards the cold and less vulnerable to it.”
Asked what they would eat in the winter besides the fish or small game that they caught, Wexler explained that they would have dried fruit and berries and smoked, dried fish, as well as corn and squash that they either kept underneath their beds so they didn’t freeze, or in a storage pit approximately eight feet underneath the ground that they would access with a ladder that was “basically a log with shallow stairs,” he explained.
Being mindful of the cold and hearing no requests to go for an ice bath, Wexler and his band of interested citizen/scholars wound their way back towards the warmth of the DuBois Fort, where they could look at various exhibits, films and artifacts that spoke to the lives led prior to the arrival of the European settlers. Wexler’s knowledge is multifaceted, his understanding of the Munsee language extensive and his enthusiasm for the land and its indigenous people infectious. He will be back in warmer weather for spring, summer and autumn nature walks, where he will identify local flora and fauna and explain their material uses in Native culture while explaining the species and the surrounding ecosystems through Munsee language and folklore. To preregister for the events or learn more, go to www.huguenotstreet.org or call the Historic Huguenot Street offices and ask for Kara Augustine, director of public programming, at (845) 255-1660.