History of Connecticut's Native American Tribes Explored in New Book, and Misconceptions



Native Americans have long been seen as having been at one with their landscapes, honoring the earth and its creatures and leaving only the soft imprints of their moccasins to mark their passing. This impression verges on the truth, but thanks to the work of dedicated scientists such as archaeologist Dr. Lucianne Lavin, director of research and collections at the Institute of American Indian Studies in Washington, Conn., a much fuller picture of the lives of pre-European contact Native Americans in Connecticut is now available.

Dr. Lavin recently published “Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples: What Archaeology, History and Oral Traditions Teach Us About Their Communities and Cultures” (Yale University Press/$45), the first book in more than 20 years to explore more than 10,000 years of pre-European history in Connecticut.

The book encompasses many discoveries made in the past two and a half decades, discoveries that add a fuller picture of Indian life and culture, and contains a plethora of maps and line illustrations, as well as photographs of site work and the best artifacts in the state of Connecticut.

For most modern Connecticut residents, the history of the state began in 1614 when Dutch explorer Adriaen Block sailed up Connecticut River. Settlement became brisk with the arrival of the English in the 1630s, but this ignores the more than 10 millennia of Native American occupation before Block’s cruise up what the Indians called the “long tidal river,” the quinnetukut, the river that later gave the Connecticut colony its name.

Dr. Lavin said this “invisible” Connecticut history is echoed today in attitudes toward the survivors of these early native people. “When people think of Indians, they tend to think of Western Indians,” she said as she sat in the spring sunshine that dabbled the woodlands around the Institute of American Indian Studies. “They have been so much less acculturated in the West—a lot of those Indians never even saw a white man before 1900 and didn’t speak English.”

In the East, 400 years have elapsed since first contact—400 years of genocide, prejudice, cultural indoctrination, intermarriage and dispersal of homelands. As a result, Dr. Lavin argues in her book, most Easterners do not recognize the Indians in their midst. “Many people I meet do not know that tribal communities continued to exist in or near their ancestral homelands throughout the last 400 years of Euro-American settlement in Connecticut,” she writes. “Misconceptions about ‘historical’ Native Americans abound. Specifically, they include the erroneous notions that all indigenous people moved west to get away from the Europeans or died out from the effects of warfare and disease … .”

Dr. Lavin’s book, while treating extensively the record of life pieced together from the archaeological record, also puts to rest the idea that native peoples are gone from our midst. The last two chapters of the book deal with the time from European contact to the present.

She finds the strictures imposed by the U.S. government on Indian tribes trying to receive federal recognition of their historic status to be ludicrous. Proving genealogical descent can be difficult when dealing with societies that did not keep written records. In addition, there was much movement among the tribes—especially after they began to be dispersed by warfare with the whites. Native American communities often welcomed non-tribal members into their communities.

“What is really offensive is that the government tells tribes who they can have on their tribal rolls,” the archaeologist said. “The tribes always allowed people to come in since the 16th and 17th centuries. A Jesuit priest who visited a Seneca village wrote that there weren’t many Senecas there because they had invited so many others into the village. There was a lot of movement going on.”

She said that recent studies have indicated that the movement often covered long distances, apparently including trade with tribes from the Midwest during the period before first contact. “Since A.D. 1000, there has been tons of movement east of the Mississippi,” she said. “You had the Hopewell/Adena [A.D. 700-1000] interaction spheres—there were a whole bunch of spheres with the trading of goods and ideas, a lot of population movement. During the Mississipian time, roughly A.D. 100 to first contact, you had huge [mound] complexes of 10,000 to 20,000 people in the Midwest, East and Southeast that some people think were incipient states.”

These cultures apparently sent out traders who had contact with Connecticut tribes. “What they got out of here was soap stone and marine shells,” reported Dr. Lavin. “Marine shells had great spiritual value—the Iroquois used them in political activity—and they have been found in graves.”

She noted that a lot of “exotic” artifacts have been uncovered in the Farmington River Valley, many in burial contexts. “Most have been made out of exotic slates found in Pennsylvania,” she said.

She wondered why these stones would be found in Farmington Valley sites until she looked at a map. “I saw that it is only a short portage from the Farmington to the Housatonic,” she said. “And only a short portage from the Housatonic to the Hoosic, which feeds into the Hudson, which connects to the Mohawk River, which flows right into the Midwest. They were using the waterways for trading.”

She said that many of the archaeological sites identified with Native American occupation in Connecticut have been found along the coast and on interior waterways because these sites are easier to see. Interior sites are often identified through accidental discovery, but that does not mean they do not exist in considerable numbers, she said. During the early periods, it is probable most sites were near swamps or lakes, but later moved near waterways used for transportation.

She said she has discovered spiritual monuments in areas where farming probably has not been conducted. “People always think stone cairns were piled up by farmers,” she said, “but a lot of them were probably monuments. I have seen stone piles shaped like turtles or snakes made with long pieces of stone. I have seen a number of stone piles in swamps where there never would have been farming. They are always on top of ridges overlooking springs or vernal ponds, which were considered sacred places.”

She noted that Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Mass., was named for a large cairn established by Indians. “We know it was built by Indians because the interpreter for [Stockbridge’s first missionary to the Indians] John Sargent told him that every Indian that passed the monument threw a stone on it and said, ‘I remember you, grandfather.’ Of course, we don’t know who ‘grandfather’ was.”

Indeed, she said, the ‘invisible” past of Connecticut’s Native Americans is more evident than we think. Most of the roads we drive today were once Indian trails. Route 7, for instance, follows the Old Berkshire Path, while Route 44 was an east-west corridor.

Connecticut’s Native Americans have endured a cultural odyssey, but Dr. Lavin’s interest in New World archaeology represents her own educational odyssey. A Connecticut native, she was originally interested in linguistics and envisioned herself as a U.N. interpreter—a focus on modern languages that was spiced up by a curiosity about the past. “When I was an undergraduate at the University of Indiana, I wanted to learn Mesopotamian, to learn cuneiform,” she related.

Her mother, Marie Michrina Neff, to whom the book is dedicated, encouraged Dr. Lavin to try archaeology. “She was very interested in Biblical archaeology,” said Dr. Lavin. “I took a course and loved it. Archaeology is never boring. And it’s not just one course [of studies]—you need to know geology, botany, languages, art … .”

She wanted to go into Biblical archaeology—her mother’s passion—but after graduation she was offered a full fellowship at New York University, where she earned her Master of Arts degree and Ph.D. That fellowship focused on New World studies, however.

Her studies started her on a distinguished career in Northeastern archaeology and anthropology that has included teaching, development of museum exhibits and curatorial work, along with cultural resource management and writing. She is a member of Connecticut’s Native American Heritage Advisory Council, and editor of the journal of the Archaeological Society of Connecticut.

She has taught at a number of Connecticut and New York colleges, and during her term as a research associate at the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University she co-directed its current “Connecticut Prehistory” exhibit and wrote the accompanying teacher’s manual. She was awarded the Russell award by the Archaeological Society of Connecticut and elected a Fellow of the New York State Archaeological Association for exemplary archaeology work in their respective states.

Success is sweet in retrospect, but it was not easy at the beginning. “A lot of women didn’t go into archaeology because in the 1960s it was considered to be a man’s discipline,” she said. “At Indiana, when we took labs, girls were not allowed to do experiments. It was assumed that girls went to college just to marry a college man. After I got my master’s I had a married girlfriend who really pushed me to get married.”

She did marry and have children, but that did not stop her career progression. It is a career that shows no sign of slowing for the busy archaeologist. She continues to work on sites in Connecticut—work begins anew this year on a Warren site dating back 5,000 years—and she continues to lecture and write. She is beginning a sequel to her just-published work that will investigate more thoroughly the Indians who lived in the Northwest Corner. She is working with Dr. Laurie Weinstein, a professor at Western Connecticut State University on this research.

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