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Question 59

Por Mariel Fiori
November 2022
Question number 59 on the civics test of the Naturalization Test, one of the last steps before obtaining U.S. citizenship, is: Who lived in what we now know as the United States before the arrival of Europeans? The obvious answer: the indigenous peoples, or according to what they tell us, the "American Indians" or "Native Americans" (neither Indians because they are not from India, nor Americans, because in English, American is understood as being from the United States, and when the Europeans arrived, the United States was not a concept, oh well…).
The other question, of the 100 questions in total of the citizenship test, which includes the indigenous peoples who live in this country, is number 87: Mention a tribe of American Indians in the United States, and as an answer they give a possible list of 22 to choose from, when in fact the federal government recognizes 574 “Indian tribes”. I imagine it would be too long to print, or too overwhelming to have to think that there are so many indigenous peoples in this country with millenial histories that we know little or nothing about.

Since November is National Native American Heritage Month, I decided to find out about the people who lived in the Hudson Valley (ahem, Mahicannituck, the river that flows both ways) before and after the arrival of the Europeans. Curiously, we als have our Thanksgiving Day in November; an ancestral tradition (on both sides of the Atlantic) this thing of being grateful, but that in this country is linked to a fairy tale presented as real – as homework, go find out more about that topic. Here I share some of what I learned about the first New Yorkers, the Lenape.

Stephen Blauweiss and Karen Berelowitz write in the first part of their book The Story of Historic Kingston, Blauweiss Media, that indigenous peoples lived in our region since the end of the Ice Age, thousands of years before European explorers reached these shores. The Lenape occupied a territory they called the Lenapehoking that stretched from present-day Ulster County and New York City to New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and eastern Delaware. A more accurate map can be seen at this link:

The clan that occupied the Hudson Valley region spoke a dialect known as Munsee. Also known as the Munsee Indians, Esopus ("little river"), or Esopus Munsee. Esopus was the name Henry Hudson gave to what is now Kingston. The word still refers to a neighboring town and a 26-mile creek that empties into the Hudson River.

At the time of European contact, they numbered around 20,000 people, divided into approximately twenty autonomous groups, closely interconnected through clan membership, which was traced through the mother. The Lenape had a matrilineal lineage. Unlike some cultures, women were not treated as the property of men, but rather were considered owners of the home.

The Munsee of the 17th century practiced small-scale agriculture, growing the revered “three sisters” crops of corn, beans, and squash. The concept of shared land use was central to Lenape society and completely foreign to the European system of land tenure. The dominance of the European system would prove devastating to the Lenapes, whose communal identity was rooted in a land of fluid natural boundaries.

As more settlers arrived, the vast territories on which indigenous peoples had farmed, hunted, fished, and lived without private property for generations were given borders and titles. Infectious diseases such as smallpox, measles, diphtheria, and scarlet fever that the colonists brought with them killed thousands. The missionaries preached the conversion of traditional practices to Christianity.

Nineteenth-century “Indian removal” policies forced Native Americans to relocate to uncharted territory with poor soil west of the Mississippi River, far from their ancestral lands. Promised services were rarely provided, treaties were broken, and abject poverty became rampant. Despite laws guaranteeing self-governance and federal funding, Indian reservations still struggle with poverty, addiction, and legal battles over land.

Most of the remaining Lenape in the United States today live in Oklahoma on land purchased from the Cherokee, who were forcibly moved there in the 1830s in a tragic march known as the Trail of Tears. According to New York Nature, as fragmented and scattered as the Lenapes have become, their culture, identity, and language persist, with around 10,000 people living between Oklahoma, Canada, and Wisconsin.

Despite everything, and as the native peoples say in videos and write where they can: we are still here.

Mariel Fiori
Managing Editor
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La Voz, Cultura y noticias hispanas del Valle de Hudson



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