Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Land Of The Nipmuck

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.


  1. it is a good thing to see native americans looking back to move forward. they can exist and even add to modern life as we know it. instead of being stuck on reservations surrounded by alcoholism, suicide and despair they can reclaim the honor of their past and become a proud people again. good post dee, take care....jack c

  2. Omigosh, what an interesting story. I think it is a tale that is told all through North American, isn't it? Like Jack says, it's wonderful to see them reclaiming their life and their culture. They had such a beautiful culture until it was stolen from them.

    Great post!

  3. It was a horrible mistreatment when the white settlers moved in! I am all in favor of cultures being honored.

  4. I think it's a great and powerful thing for all native cultures to continue their own stories and histories - to be able to teach the coming generations how to live within their times yet honour the past times. Thank you for telling the story, Deedee. Warm wishes to you, Vxx

  5. Wonderful post Deedee. And good luck to those trying to revive the culture and language. Extinction is forever and we need to preserve as much diversity as possible in this age when so much is becoming uniform.

  6. Thanks for the glimpse of history

    As dust in the wind
    Chaff from wheat
    People from their homes

    For me
    The darkest tragedy
    On this page of history

    How easy it was
    To justify

    How easy it was
    For the justification to live on

    How easily
    It does live on
    Even to this day


    All secondary
    To progress

    Consumed by greed
    For the benefit

    Of none

    Will serve it’s own
    Even to it’s own end

    Powaqqatsi will swallow all

    The Nipmuck knew this
    I guarantee it

    If these Hopi terms are new to you
    I urge you to see the films

  7. Deedee,
    I was so touched by your post. My grandfather told me stories when I was little about how he was taken away from his family to the "Christian school" (he never saw his family again) and was striped of his "indian-ness". Obviously I am a huge supporter of all Native cultures everywhere and hope before the elders die off, they can pass along the languages and history. I know they are trying. Sadly, some tribes are lost forever, but others are having some resurgence. It is a good thing. Already much of the herbal medicines they used for centuries are being taken up by the alternative medicine people.

  8. Language is crucial to the project of cultural recovery. Words and the way things are phrased shape our values and the way our mind works. As recent transplants, we have much to learn from those who spent 400+ generations how to live sustainably in North America. Thanks!

  9. Quite a trip you've taken us on..I can feel the ancient path, the lush forest, the peace. And then the intrusion that lasts till now. Still, there are places to be...

  10. Hi Dee Dee,
    A wonderful post about about a noble people. I mourn for their sufferings and their debasement. A tragedy indeed. Thank you telling the story.

    The snowball bush on my post is actually a viburnum. I love them because they do look so much like hydrangeas. Hydrangeas bloom much later in my garden. Thank you so much for leaving such a sweet comment. It made my day.

  11. Hi Dee Dee -

    Thank you for the nice comment.

    I look forward to reading more of your blog - this post was fantastic. Being half-native Alaskan and half-German I have mixed feelings about the settlement of the America's. My mother tells me stories of how it used to be - but without the settlement of the Anglo then I wouldn't be around.