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In the Spirit of the Departed Munsees

Four years ago the Stockbridge-Munsee Indians decided to cancel plans to build a gambling casino in Sullivan County since Gov. Andrew Cuomo had approved another Indian-owned gambling casino in Orange County that was closer to New York, thus putting theirs at a disadvantage. Starting in the early 2000s, there was a growing momentum to build such casinos in the economically-ravaged Sullivan County. Like Flint, Michigan after the departure of General Motors, Sullivan County bled jobs after the Borscht Belt hotels closed down due to New York City’s changing Jewish demographics. In the 1940s and 50s, garment workers sent their wives and kids up to the Catskills in the summer to escape the oppressive heat of tenement apartments. When their children became lawyers, doctors or accountants after graduating from a CUNY college, they could afford to move to Long Island, install air conditioners in every room, and fly to Europe instead.

When Donald Trump first found out about these casinos, he went ballistic. He said, “We’re giving New York State to the Indians.” If you know the real history of New York, you’d say instead that “We’re giving New York State back to the Indians.”

Some politicians objected to the plans since it went against the norms of gambling casinos being located exclusively on reservations. How could the Wisconsin-based Stockbridge-Munsees build a casino so far away from their home? As it happens, the pols in Albany calculated that offering the Indians the right to build a casino in exchange for dropping a land claim in Madison County, NY for 23,000 acres illegally seized hundreds of years ago made sense. But then again, how could a tribe in Wisconsin be entitled to New York land? What’s going on here? The answer should be obvious to anybody who has studied Native American history. Ethnic cleansing and genocide.

Their full name is the Mohican Nation Stockbridge-Munsee Band. It originated in Stockbridge, Massachusetts when the upstate New York Mohicans, who had been converted to Christianity by Moravian missionaries, retreated to Stockbridge, Massachusetts. They were eventually joined by Munsees who had also converted. This was the same pattern identified by Steven Salaita, whose scholarly focus is on the parallels between Palestinians and Native Americans. In the same way that Palestinians retreated to Jordan and elsewhere, the New York Indians ended up in other states, at least those who weren’t murdered outright. Ever since the Dutch and the English colonized New York State, native peoples were subjected to the same combination of brute military force and illegal land grabs that have turned the West Bank into an Israeli settlement. As Benny Morris once put it, “Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history.”

Most people likely know who the Mohicans are, especially if you’ve seen Russell Means as Chingachgook in “The Last of the Mohicans”. Although James Fenimore Cooper was a product of his times and hardly a political writer, it is evident that the ethnic cleansing that drove the Mohicans to Stockbridge bothered him. In the very last paragraph of his novel, he allows a Mohican elder and sage named Tamenund to speak these words:

It is enough. Go, children of the Lenape, the anger of the Manitou is not done. Why should Tamenund stay? The pale faces are masters of the earth, and the time of the red men has not yet come again. My day has been too long. In the morning I saw the sons of Unamis happy and strong; and yet, before the night has come, have I lived to see the last warrior of the wise race of the Mohicans.

You’ll note the reference to “children of the Lenape”. The Lenape were one of the two dominant Indian nations in New York State and part of the greater Algonquin peoples. They were also called the Delawares, a French term (de la Ware was a reference to Baron de la Warr, the English governor of Virginia) for the Lenape that is like calling the Lakota people the Sioux. The Mohicans were located in the Adirondacks Mountains while the Munsees, another Lenape tribe, were located in the Catskills and further south. The Mohicans and the Munsees were also known collectively as “River Indians” because of their proximity to the Hudson. Together they were hegemonic in New York State but not quite as dominant as the 5-nation Iroquois confederacy that was as hostile to Lenape interests as it was to the Dutch, French or the English. All of these native Americans put together were in their heyday as powerful collectively as the Comanches were in Texas or the Lakotas were in the northern Plains.

We have a greater familiarity with the wars against the Comanches and the Lakotas since most of us have seen John Ford westerns in which they are beaten down. After reading Robert Grumet’s First Manhattans—a Brief History of the Munsee Indians, I have a much better idea of what happened on native grounds in New York, as Albert Kazin once put it. I obviously don’t have the wherewithal to make a Munsee version of “The Searchers” but in my own modest way, I hope to do them justice in a documentary about the Catskills I will be putting together over the next six months.

The Munsees lived in villages ranging from New York City to the Catskills when Henry Hudson arrived in 1609. Indeed, five years later the Dutch paid $24 to the natives for Manhattan, a symbol of the unequal exchange that would finally lead to the forced march to Wisconsin and other places in the Midwest.

The spirit of the departed Munsees is omnipresent in Sullivan County. From my living room window in Woodridge growing up, you could see the Shawangunk Mountains about ten miles away. The word Shawangunk was a Dutch transliteration of the Munsee word Shawankunk, which meant “in the smoky air”, a reference to the mist that blanketed the mountains. As a youth, I used to ride my bicycle along the Neversink River about 15 minutes from my home, a legendary trout stream where fly fishing first began. The Neversink was a branch of the Delaware River that bordered New York and Pennsylvania. When I was young, I always thought that the word meant that the river would never sink. When the Munsees were pushed off most of their land in the 18thcentury, their last settlement before relocating to Stockbridge was in Minisink Island on the Delaware River. In the Munsee dialect, Minisink meant “at the island” while Neversink meant “crazy river”.

Growing up in the 1950s, the Catskills resort area was oppressively materialistic and garish, where success was measured by whether you owned a Cadillac and whether you could buy your wife a mink coat to show off on high holy days in the Synagogue. (We owned a Chevrolet and my mother wore sensible cloth coats like Pat Nixon.)

The only balm in Gomorrah was the natural beauty of the area that must have been like an Eden to the Munsees. When my father’s fruit and vegetable store over-stressed my mother during tourist season, she’d drive me down to the Neversink River to dog-paddle around in a deep pool not far from the Avon Lodge, the hotel where Sid Caesar used to mount productions of Clifford Odets plays in the late 30s. Oddly enough, the underground Communist Party milieu that was strong in Woodridge back then somehow meshes in my mind with what Grumet has written about the Munsees. It seems like Reds and Redskins have something in common:

Sachems [chiefs] like Tackapousha could maintain authority, however, only by demonstrating skill and ability. They were authoritative, not authoritarian. As William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, put it in 1683, Indian leaders were moved “by the breath of their people.” Those capable of demonstrating leadership won their people’s support. Those that did not could swiftly lose followers, who were free to vote with their feet and move elsewhere. Relying more on the power of persuasion than on the persuasion of power, sachems worked together with councilors to hammer out community consensus. Consensus in Indian societies in the region did not mean unanimity. Rather, it meant consent, sometimes grudgingly given, from those who elected to stay and relocation elsewhere for those who dissented.

Kieft’s War was the first round in the Munsee’s nakba. Wilhelm Kieft, who was in charge of the Dutch colonies in New York, wanted to remove Munsees from their village near present-day Norwalk, Connecticut in 1640. Sounding like a character in “The Godfather”, Kieft told them that they had to pay for “protection”, an offer they felt they could refuse. In the winter of 1642-43, Kieft paid musket-bearing Mohawk Indians to conduct a raid on the Munsees. As I stated earlier, the Iroquois Confederacy that included the Mohawks was hostile to the Lepanes. 70 people were killed and throughout 1643 Dutch soldiers would kill several hundred more throughout Munsee territory. Grumet states that hundreds of Munsees took refuge on the Rockaway Peninsula, where I have played chess with an old friend over the years. The word comes from the Munsee word “rack-a-wak-e”, which may have meant “place of sands”.

Seeking to annihilate Munsees for their scattered counter-attacks on settlers, Kieft—like Netanyahu—dispatched a force into Westchester and Staten Island where Munsee villages were located. When their warriors slipped away out of reach, the Dutch burned crops and pillaged homes of natives who had not necessarily taken part in the war. Even after a peace treaty was signed with the Munsee sachem, Dutch troops continued on their rampage assisted by English veterans of the genocidal Pequot war in Massachusetts. They slaughtered a hundred Munsees in Massapequa, a Long Island town best known today for its large Jewish and Italian population. Years ago, I used to hear co-workers refer to it as MatzohPizza. The Munsee word Marsapeague means “great water land”.

The next big conflict between settlers and Munsees started in 1656 over the same kind of issues. This time it was the Esopus band living in a village on present-day Kingston, New York, which was just across the Hudson River from my alma mater Bard College, that took the battle to the colonists, frankly even initiating it. As was generally the case, superior Dutch military power, including the possession of muskets denied generally to the Munsees, brought an end to the war on terms favorable to the colonists.

Additionally, the Dutch had the same secret weapon that the conquistadores had: disease. At the height of the Esopus wars, a smallpox epidemic ravaged Munsee villages. Grumet describes the relationship of forces that would finally lead to the loss of millions of acres of Lenape land throughout New York and their dispersal to other states:

Whatever their immediate impact or proximate causes, the constant barrage of war, disease, and other calamities killed or drove away a substantial part of the total Indian population in the lower Hudson and upper Delaware valleys between the 1640s and 1660s. Death, destruction, and dispossession reached into the hearts of nearly every River Indian community. Epidemic contagion, wars, rumors of war also desolated and demoralized colonists with feeling impartiality. Hundreds died in the nearly interminable fighting. More were carried off by epidemics. New immigrants from Europe would more than replenish colonists’ losses. Indian population numbers, by contrast, plummeted. Many who survived the wars and epidemics accepted adoption into more powerful Indian nations like the Susquehannocks and Iroquois intent on recovering their own dwindling numbers. Others began leaving their lands for new homes father from colonists and their diseases.

Traces of the Munsees can be found all across southern New York in the names of towns such as Natick, Massapequa, Mamaroneck, and Chappaqua. Writing in the Smithsonian Magazine after Obama renamed Mount McKinley to Denali, its original Indian name, Doug Herman offers an interesting interpretation of this practice:

There can be no doubt that affixing new names to expansion territories is inextricably linked with nation building. British names went out of fashion after the American Revolution. And among other naming trends was a return to the Indian place names as a means by which to deeply link the American nation to the American continent. State names came to be derived from Indian names for rivers (Colonists had not renamed rivers, instead appropriating the old Indian names for practical use.) The result is 26 of the 50 states have “Indian” names.

In other words, in the process of creating an exterminationist state, the exterminators used the language of those they killed. It is like Hitler renaming Berlin Jewville if he had been victorious in WWII.

Interestingly enough, there is an American town based on the word Munsee itself. Monsey, New York, just north of New York City, is home to 18,000 people—mostly Hasidic Jews. By 1997, it had 112 synagogues and 45 yeshivas according to a February 2, 2012 NY Times article! Among the congregants is the infamous (in Zionist eyes) Neturei Karta sect that is frequently seen at pro-Palestinian protests.

In this Youtube clip, you can see them dancing around a bonfire in celebration of Lag B’Omer, a Jewish holiday generally only observed by the super-orthodox.

The Talmud states that it originated in the 12th century when a divinely-ordained plague led to the death of 24,000 rabbinical students in the month of Omer. The “lag” refers to the day when the plague was lifted. As far as I know, there is no explanation why God visited such a calamity except maybe as a Job-like test of their faith.

The holiday is marked by dancing around bonfires and the children taking rubber bows and arrows into the fields sort like in a John Ford western. In today’s Israel, the holiday is celebrated as a symbol of Israel’s fighting spirit. Needless to say, the Neturei Karta has different ideas.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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