A Glimpse of the Lenape

The night before (page 2 of 7)

This is Muhheakantuck — the river that flows both ways — and it has its own particular kind of quiet. The night is still enough to hear teme — the wolf — howl from the ridge of an inland mountain.

But there's also the constant hum of mosquitoes that keep pressing in despite the protective layer of raccoon grease and the smoke off the small fire. Somewhere out in the dark, enormous rafts of kwikwinkëm — duck — mutter in their sleep; now and then, one startles awake, quacking, then settles back. Out beyond them, in deep water, the occasional booming splash is wisahosid — the sturgeon — twice the size of a grown man, leaping out of the water and crashing back down.

Just inland off the beach, the dark forest of hickory and oak is tangled with vines as big around as an arm. A sweet smell wafts down from the ripe grapes and berries. Firewood has gotten scarce here — it'll be time to shift camp soon — but the chestnuts and black walnuts have started to drop. In the daytime, the women and children collect them in woven baskets and store them for the coming winter.

Deeper in the forest, there's the almost imperceptible rustle of game: white-tailed deer settling in the thickets, raccoons coming out to hunt bird eggs, tahkox — the turtle — passing slowly over mucky ground. Somewhere, a black bear grunts. And on the ridge where the wolf howls, a cougar passes, but it makes no sound.

This is the first and last and most important knowledge: to know about the plants and animals. Without it, a person starves. And even with all the passed-down wisdom of how animals behave and which places to avoid, a moment's lapse of concentration and a life is gone. Children two and three years old sleep in this river camp tonight; because of the high odds that they won't live to adulthood, they still haven't been given names. And if they do survive, the young women may be lost in childbirth, the men on their long hunting trips. A nëntpikès — a person knowledgeable in herbs — might cure a wound or infection. The sick can take a sweat bath, crawling into a small hut or wigwam, breathing the steam off heated rocks where special plants have been laid. But even the strongest treatment won't break some disease. Few will live to see old age.

Over generations, this riverbank has provided regular campsites. A little creek runs not far away: good water, cold through most of the summer. The same dozen families return here because of that, and because there are rich oyster beds in the Tappan bay. Oysters as big around as a small boy's belly. Wade out, pry one lose, force it open with a stone chipped thin for just that use, eat it raw and salty, and drop the shell on the shore. Great piles of shells accumulate this way: one of the few lasting signs that people live here.

Muhheakantuck is called the river that flows both ways because the ocean pushes a wedge of salt water against the river current, bringing whales, seals, and fish of all sizes and descriptions. In the spring there are so many, it almost seems you could walk across their backs.

When a certain small tree blossoms white in the spring, the schawanammek — shad — have started to swarm upriver to spawn. Four hundred foot long nets woven out of tree bark fiber get staked in the shallows; wooden markers carved into the faces of manëtuwàk — spirits — show where they're set and call the fish in. Then, so many shad and stripers and eel bulge the nets that the wooden faces bob up and dance.

The First People Slideshow

A Glimpse of the Lenape

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