Sunday, May 27, 2012

Nyack Indian Houses


Nyack Indian Houses



In the "Journal of a Voyage to New York," in 1679-1680, by Jasper Dankers and Peter Sluyter, edited and translated by Hon. Henry C. Murphy, there is a careful description of a house of the Nyack Indians of Long Island, an Algonkin tribe, affiliated linguistically with the Virginia Indians. The Nyack house corresponds very closely with those last named. "We went from hence to her habitation," these authors remark, "where we found the whole troop together, consisting of seven or eight families, and twenty or twenty-two persons, I should think. Their house was low and long, about sixty feet long and fourteen or fifteen feet wide. The bottom was earth; the sides and roof were made of reed and the bark of chestnut trees; the posts or columns were limbs of trees stuck in the ground, and all fastened together. The top or ridge of the roof was open about half a foot wide, from one end to the other, in order to let the smoke escape, in the place of a chimney. On the sides or walls of the house, the roof was so low that you could hardly stand under it. The entrance, or doors, which were at both ends, were so small and low that they had to stoop down and squeeze themselves to get through them. The doors were made of reed or flat bark. In the whole building there was no lime, stone, iron, or lead. They build their fires in the middle of the floor, according to the number of families which live in it, so that from one end to the other each of them boils its own pot, and eats when it likes, not only the families by themselves, but each Indian alone, according as he is hungry, at all hours, morning, noon, and night. By each fire are the cooking utensils, consisting of a pot, a bowl or calabash, and a spoon, also made of a calabash. These are all that relate to cooking. They lie upon mats with their feet towards the fire, on each side of it. They do not sit much upon anything raised up, but, for the most part, sit on the ground or squat on their ankles. Their other household articles consist of a calabash of water, out of which they drink, a small basket in which to carry and keep their maize and small beans, and a knife…. All who live in one house are generally of one stock or descent, as father and mother with their offspring. Their bread is maize pounded on a block by a stone, but not fine. This is mixed with water and made into a cake, which they bake under the hot ashes. They gave us a small piece when we entered, and although the grains were not ripe, and it was half baked and coarse grains, we nevertheless had to eat it, or, at least, not throw it away before them, which they would have regarded as a great sin or a great affront." [Footnote: Journal, etc., p. 124.]
There is nothing in these statements forbidding the supposition that the household described practiced communism in living. The composition of the household shows that it was formed on the principle of gentle kin, while the several families cooked at the different fires, which was the usual practice in the different tribes; the stores were probably common, and the household under a matron. It will be noticed also that they gave him maize bread when he first entered the house. He little supposed that it was in obedience to a law or usage universal in the Indian family.