The land that I live on used to be the homeland of the Nipmuck people. Ten thousand years ago, a group of Paleo-Indians, the ancestors of the Nipmuck traveled here from the southwest. They settled around what is now Worcester County, in south-central Massachusetts and lived in independent groups, eventually spreading into Connecticut and Rhode Island. In the beginning, the Nipmuck, or “fresh water people” subsisted by hunting the wildlife that roamed in what was then a sub-arctic climate. They crafted stone and wooden bowls and woven articles, and as the climate changed and the land warmed, they eventually evolved into an agricultural society.
The Nipmuck lived in peace for thousands of years, until the arrival of the white settlers. It is difficult to say with any accuracy how many Nipmuck lived here prior to contact with the Europeans because they were not a tribe per se, but a group of independent bands living in this area that were allied with powerful tribes such as the Pequot.
Some estimates put the number of natives in southern New England in 1614 at around 100,000. After King Philip’s War, the number was reduced to about 4,000. Those who were not killed, or sold into slavery fled from their homeland. Those who remained saw their cultural identities disintegrate as they moved into villages and their remaining lands were bought up by the government or stolen by squatters. The Algonquin dialect spoken by the Nipmuck people nearly became extinct. Today there are reportedly about 3000 descendants of the Nipmuck people remaining, but only a handful are fluent in the language of their ancestors. According to a story that the Boston Globe ran last Saturday, that may be changing.
The front page article detailed how the Nipmuck are struggling to revive their culture through the teaching of the language and the traditional songs of their people, and by retrieving lost artifacts.
Although they can do nothing to change the history that decimated their culture, they are taking steps to reinvigorate it, and I believe that is a very good thing.
There’s a state forest not far from my home that we like to visit sometimes. We bring Rigby and walk for hours through the woods, under a leafy canopy. I imagine the natives walking the same stony paths in the dappled sunlight, emerging in the open fields near the lake. I think about what it must have been like to live simply as stewards of the land, in peace and satisfaction. Then I think about what it must have been like to lose it all and to have your people scattered like chaff on the wind.
We walk back through the dark trees to the road and the sound of traffic and the terrible whine of leaf blowers and weed whackers. I slide in behind the wheel of my little Chevy tracker and for a moment, I mourn for the people and the beautiful, tranquil dwelling place they must have known. Their way of life and their world is gone forever.