Native Intelligence

The Indians who first feasted with the English colonists were far more sophisticated than you were taught in school. But that wasn't enough to save them

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More than likely Tisquantum was not the name he was given at birth. In that part of the Northeast, tisquantum referred to rage, especially the rage of manitou, the world-suffusing spiritual power at the heart of coastal Indians’ religious beliefs. When Tisquantum approached the Pilgrims and identified himself by that sobriquet, it was as if he had stuck out his hand and said, Hello, I’m the Wrath of God.

Nor did Tisquantum think of himself as an “Indian,” any more than the inhabitants of the same area today would call themselves “Western Hemisphereans.” As Tisquantum’s later history would make clear, he regarded himself first and foremost as a citizen of Patuxet, one of the dozen or so shoreline settlements in what is now eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island that made up the Wampanoag confederation. The Wampanoag, in turn, were part of an alliance with the Nauset, which comprised some 30 groups on Cape Cod, and the Massachusett, several dozen villages clustered around Massachusetts Bay. All of these people spoke variants of Massachusett, a member of the Algonquian language family, the biggest in eastern North America at the time. In Massachusett, the name for the New England shore was the Dawnland, the place where the sun rose. The inhabitants of the Dawnland were the People of the First Light.

Ten thousand years ago, when Indians in Mesoamerica and Peru were inventing agriculture and coalescing into villages, New England was barely inhabited, for the excellent reason that it had been covered until relatively recently by an ice sheet a mile thick. As the sheet retreated, people slowly moved in, though the area long remained cold and uninviting, especially along the coastline. Because rising sea levels continually flooded the shore, marshy Cape Cod did not fully lock into its contemporary configuration until about 1000 b.c. By that time the Dawnland had evolved into something more attractive: an ecological crazy quilt of wet maple forests, shellfish-studded tidal estuaries, thick highland woods, mossy bogs of cranberries and orchids, complex snarls of sandbars and beachfront, and fire-swept stands of pitch pine—“tremendous variety even within the compass of a few miles,” in the phrase of ecological historian William Cronon.

By the end of the first millennium A.D.,agriculture was spreading rapidly and the region was becoming a patchwork of communities, each with its preferred terrain, way of subsistence and cultural style. Scattered about the many lakes, ponds and swamps of the cold uplands were small, mobile groups of hunters and gatherers. Most had recently adopted agriculture or were soon to do so, but cultivated crops were still a secondary source of food, a supplement to the wild products of the land. New England’s major river valleys, by contrast, held large, permanent villages, many nestled in constellations of suburban hamlets and hunting camps. Because extensive fields of maize, beans and squash surrounded every home, these settlements sprawled along the Connecticut, Charles and other river valleys for miles, one town bumping up against the other. Along the coast, where Tisquantum and Massasoit lived, villages tended to be smaller and looser, though no less permanent.

Unlike the upland hunters, the Indians on the rivers and coastline did not roam the land; most shoreline families would move a 15-minute walk inland, to avoid direct exposure to winter storms and tides. Each village had its own distinct mix of farming and foraging—one adjacent to a rich oyster bed might plant maize purely for variety, whereas a village just a few miles away might subsist almost entirely on its harvest, filling great underground storage pits each fall. Each community was constantly “joining and splitting like quicksilver in a fluid pattern within its bounds,” wrote Kathleen J. Bragdon, an anthropologist at the College of William and Mary. Such settlements, she remarked, have “no name in the archaeological or anthropological literature.”

“Sweet , Toothsome, and Hearty”

In the Wampanoag confederation, one of these quicksilver communities was Patuxet, where Tisquantum was born at the end of the 16th century. Tucked into the great sweep of Cape Cod Bay, Patuxet sat on a low rise above a small harbor, jigsawed by sandbars and so shallow that children could walk from the beach hundreds of yards into the water before it reached their heads. To the west, maize hills marched across the sandy hillocks in parallel rows. Beyond the fields, a mile or more away from the sea, rose a forest of oak, chestnut and hickory, open and park-like, the underbrush kept down by expert annual burning. “Pleasant of air and prospect,” as one English visitor described the area, Patuxet had “much plenty both of fish and fowl every day in the year.” Runs of spawning Atlantic salmon, shortnose sturgeon, striped bass and American shad filled the harbor. But the most important fish harvest came in late spring, when the herring-like alewives swarmed the fast, shallow stream that cut through the village.

Tisquantum’s childhood wetu (home) was formed from arched poles lashed together into a dome covered in winter by tightly woven rush mats and in summer by thin sheets of chestnut bark. A fire burned constantly in the center, the smoke venting through a hole in the roof. The wetu’s multiple layers of mats, which trapped insulating layers of air, were “warmer than our English houses,” sighed the colonist William Wood. It was also less leaky than the typical English wattle-and-daub house. Wood did not conceal his admiration for the way Indian mats “deny entrance to any drop of rain, though it come both fierce and long.”

Around the edge of the house were low beds, sometimes wide enough for a whole family to sprawl on together; they were usually raised about a foot from the floor, platform-style, and piled with mats and furs. Going to sleep in the firelight, young Tisquantum would have stared up at shadows of hemp bags and bark boxes hanging from the rafters. Voices would skirl up in the darkness: one person singing a lullaby, then another person, until everyone was asleep. In the morning, when he woke, big, egg-shaped pots of corn-and-bean mash would be on the fire, simmering with meat, vegetables or dried fish to make a slow-cooked dinner stew. Outside, he would hear the thuds of the large mortars and pestles in which women crushed dried maize into nokake, a flour-like powder “so sweet, toothsome, and hearty,” colonist Gookin marveled, “that an Indian will travel many days with no other but this meal.” According to one modern reconstruction, Dawnland diets at the time averaged about 2,500 calories a day, a higher level than those in famine-racked Europe.

Pilgrim writers universally reported that Wampanoag families were close and loving—more so than English families, some thought. Europeans in those days tended to view children as moving straight from infancy to adulthood around the age of 7 and often thereupon sent them out to work. Indian parents, by contrast, regarded the years before puberty as a time of playful development, and they kept their offspring close by until they married. Boys like Tisquantum explored the countryside, swam in the ponds at the south end of the harbor, and played a kind of soccer with a small leather ball; in summer and fall they camped out in huts in the fields, weeding the maize and chasing away birds. Archery began at age 2. By adolescence, boys would make a game of shooting at each other and dodging the arrows.


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