The Eastern Woodland Indian culture is found in the region of eastern north America east of the great plains and Mississippi River and from Newfoundland in the north to Florida and the Gulf Coast to the south. In the northeast as many as 60 indigenous groups spoke dialects of either Algonquian or Iroquoian languages. Their lifestyles were that of hunter-gatherer in the north taking advantage of the abundance along the coasts and waterways to a more sedentary agricultural base in the south.
Reprinted with permission from the series “Nipmuc Ways,” Blackstone Valley Register.
Native spirituality prior to colonization varied widely in the elements and symbols of ceremony, ritual and expression. Nevertheless, the basic precepts and understanding ofancient cosmologies in relation to the acceptance of a Creator Father and the Earth as Mother are common to the indigenous nations of North and South America. This idea is also basic to virtually all so-called primitive cultures in Africa, Australia, etc., including, of course, Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Among the Algonquian nations which include all southern New England tribes, excluding the Pequots, minor variations occurred according to environmental differences. For example, to the north, wild forage and game animals made up the bulk of the food supply—whereas along the Blackstone Valley area and our surrounding environs, agriculture provided the major portion of the year-round menu. Turkey, fish, venison and other meats, both fresh and dried, supplemented, but were not central to the diet.
Locally we have three names in our language signifying Creator. They are Cautantowitz (Great Creator in One), Manitoo-oo (Sacred One or Great Spirit), and Kitchtan (which compares to The Lord God, in English). There are also many titles identifying the presence of God in His creations and this was the cause of the Puritan colonists’ claim that there were from 14 to 32 different “gods” which natives worshipped. For instance, many natural but unusual phenomena were called Manitoo-ok—meaning a gift of Creator. To foreign immigrants just learning the native language, it appeared that this designation addressed a god, rather than simply crediting God as maker of the site. Tohcocummupaug manitoo-oc means “sacred spring,” rather than, “this spring is a god.” When observing an exceptionally beautiful view or being fortunate enough to observe an eagle circling above, it would be appropriate to say Manitoo-ok to give credit to, and express thanks for God who provides the blessings we enjoy.
Many mythical beings inhabit legends with a lesson or purpose that gives them a status similar to Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Our “Santa” is a venerable spirit believed to dwell among the evergreens. It is he who guides hunters and fishermen to game and leads foragers to productive berry patches and abundant tasty greens from the woods and meadows. His name is Nikkomo, which also means feasting and dancing. The winter solstice time ofgiving is called Nikkomo.
One of the favorites of Indian children is Granny Squannit who is one of the many little people (mukkeuhwesugg) who are sometimes seen for just a moment as they go about their business. As children we were told that ifwe couldn’t finish a meal we should take the remains out a way from the home for the little people. Usually a chipmunk, bird or squirrel found it first, but it was always fun to think that one day we might just see one ofthe little ones or even Granny Squannit herself, ifwe were particularly well-behaved and respected our elders.
Then there is Hobomook! Here in the northeast Hobomook is our coyote or heyoka (clown) figure. He earned a terrible reputation among the colonists who perceived him as an Indian version of the devil or Satan. Not so. Someone walking along a trail might be distracted by Hobomook causing them to trip and fall over a rock or root, perhaps skinning both knees and elbows in the act. You might say “what a mean thing to do”—but unknown to the hiker there was a rattlesnake crossing the path ahead and the fall kept them from being bitten. Another “trick” was to cause events that might bring two alienated friends together in a situation that would restore good feelings between them. A wise person might be compared to Hobomook, as was the case with Massasoit’s highest ranking council member who served as ambassador to the Plymouth Colony. History records his name as Hobomook.
That the breath oflife within the body was (and is) considered spirit, is evident in the Nipmuc language. The term chippe means separated or apart; cheepie refers to a dead body being separate from the life. Chepeck is the word (or one of the words) for dead.
While some colonists believed that Indians were less than human and even that it was God’s will that the “pagan” tribes should be destroyed as agents of the devil, there were those such as Roger Williams who recognized the important similarities of native concepts and the deeper truth ofthe Bible, particularly the teachings of Christ. Williams demonstrated Christianity without proselytizing, and the Nipmucs and Narragansetts were among the first to accept Christianity of their own free will, rather than at the point of a gun or sword. As a result the little Indian Church in Charlestown, RI remains active today, holding Sunday services, tribal gatherings and related activities. In recent years, the United Methodist Church has been highly supportive of American Indians and currently has the largest native membership of any denomination.
In spite of the fact that speaking in a native language was frowned upon, and in some cases actually unlawful, the work of Roger Williams, John Elliot, John and Josiah Cotton and most of all, James Printer (of Hassanamisset and Natick) in compiling dictionaries and grammar books for use in translating the Bible into the local dialects of the Algonquian language is invaluable today. Thanks to the “praying Indians” we have the tools to preserve our language, which along with a land base are the keys to maintaining cultural identity. And so it is that in our tongue, as well as in many others, we can offer the familiar prayer that begins ...Nooshunkeesukqut quittiannantanmunach koowesunonk: Our Father Who art in Heaven...
Nicolar, Joseph, 1893 (out of print) The Life and Traditions of the Red Man Edited and annotated 2007 by Annette Kolodny
Mitchell. John Hansen 1984, Ceremonial Time, New York, Warner Books
Kehoe, Alice B 1991, North American Indians
www.abbemuseum.org This is a wonderful site, go to Research and Exhibits.