Mahican (Native Americans of the Northeast Woodlands)

Mahicantmp2011_thumb, from Muh-he-con-ne-ok,"People of the Waters That Are Never Still." This tribe is often confused with the Mohegans, a Connecticut tribe, in part because of the J. F. Cooper book Last of the Mohicans, a fictional story about a fictional tribe of Indians. There were originally several members of the Mahican confederacy, including, in the late seventeenth century, the Housatonic, Wyachtonoc, and Wappinger.

Location The Mahican proper lived on both sides of the northern Hudson (Mahicanituck) River, in present-day eastern New York and western Vermont. The confederacy was centered around Schodac, near present-day Albany, and included tribes living along the lower Hudson River as well as in western Massachusetts and Connecticut. Today, Mahican descendants live in north-central Wisconsin and Oklahoma.

Population There were between 4,000 and 5,000 Mahicans in 1600 and around 500 in 1700. There were approximately 1,500 Stockbridge-Munsees in the early 1990s.

Language Mahican was an Algonquian language.

Historical Information

History The Mahicans were drawn into the fur trade shortly after they encountered Henry Hudson in 1609. They soon began collecting tribute from the Mohawk for access to a Dutch trade post established in Mahican country in 1614. Shell beads, or wampum, came into use at that time as currency. For a time the Mahicans, trading with Algonquians to the north, monopolized the regional fur trade.

As nearby fur areas became trapped out, the European powers had some success encouraging their Indian partners to expand through intertribal conflict. With the help of French firearms, for instance, Mohawks drove the Mahicans east of the Hudson River Valley in 1628. The latter reestablished their council fire to the north, around Schaghticoke. Some defeated New England tribes joined this group in the 1670s.

Throughout the late seventeenth century, the Mahican fought the Munsee, Iroquois, and others in the Piedmont and the Ohio Valley in their quest for pelts. They even ranged as far west as Miami territory, where some of them remained. By 1700 or so, Mahican culture was in retreat, and the people began to sell or otherwise abandon traditional lands to non-natives. Traditional social and political structures, such as localized clan and lineage patterns (see "Government"), began to break down owing to the demands of the fur trade, as did traditional manufacture and economies. The people also underwent a general moral breakdown, due in part to the influence of alcohol and the general cultural disruption.

In the 1670s, some groups withdrew to live among the Housatonic Band of Mahicans, in Westenhunk, although Mahicans also remained in the Hudson River Valley. Some Mahicans also merged with the Saint Francis Abenaki in the Saint Lawrence Valley and joined other Indian communities as well. In the mid-1730s, a group migrated to Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and some resettled in the mission town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The so-called Stockbridge Indians fought with the British in the French and Indian War and with the patriots in the American Revolution. In the mid-1740s, Moravian missionaries persuaded local Indians to remove to the area of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. This group ultimately settled in Ottawa, Canada.

By the mid- to late eighteenth century, the Indians had completely lost their subsistence economy. Most survived by selling splint baskets, other crafts, and their labor. Despite assisting the colonies in their various wars of this period, the Stockbridge Mahicans were soon dispossessed, and many joined their relatives in the Susquehanna River area in Pennsylvania, there to merge with other tribes, especially the Algonquian Delaware.

By the end of the American Revolution, most of the dispirited remnant of the Mahican Nation had left Stockbridge and nearby areas and settled near the Oneida Indians in New York, where they established a thriving non-native-style farm and craft community. Between 1818 and 1829, these Indians left the Oneida country and migrated west to Wisconsin, where missionaries had purchased land for them.

They moved again several years later, after the Wisconsin Indians repudiated their land sales.

Some of this group dispersed to Kansas or died along the way after an abortive move to the Missouri River in 1839. In 1856, they were granted a reservation in Wisconsin, with the Munsee Band of Delaware Indians and, later, a group of Brothertown Indians (see Pequot). The community was marked by factionalism and various removals for years.

The tribe lost a significant amount of land in the post-1887 allotment process. It was officially terminated in 1910. In the 1930s, the Stockbridge-Munsee, landless and destitute, reorganized under the Indian Reorganization Act and acquired 2,250 acres of land.

Religion Manitou—the Great Spirit—was present in all things. Some families owned sacred dolls, which were feasted so that their spirit would protect the owners. The Mahican celebrated the Green Corn Dance at the beginning of harvest season as well as various first fruits and first game rituals. They believed that the soul did not die with the body.

Government Each autonomous village had its own chief and councilors. The positions of lineage leaders and clan chiefs (who may also have been village chiefs) were inherited matrilineally. The head chief, or sachem, kept the tribal bag of peace, which contained wampum, at least in the historical period. As Mahican local and regional power grew, the sachem acquired three assistants: owl, or orator and town crier; runner, or messenger; and hero, or war chief.

Customs The three matrilineal clans may have inhabited separate villages. Men helped women with the harvest after celebrating the Green Corn festival. Families scattered into the woods in late fall and remained through midwinter, when they returned to the villages. Old people remained in the villages all winter long, generally doing craft work. There may have been a recognized system of social status. People were buried in a sitting position and then covered with wood and stones. Graves were stocked with provisions such as food, dishes, and weapons for use in the afterlife.

Dwellings Villages were often located on a hill near a river. At least from the seventeenth century on they were often palisaded. Roughly 200 people lived in a village. Each village contained from 3 to 16 long, rectangular bark lodges, as well as domed wigwams, framed with hickory saplings and covered with birch, elm, or basswood bark pressed flat. Longhouses averaged three fireplaces and as many nuclear families. Animal skins were hung on interior walls for insulation. Villages were moved every ten years or so owing to exhaustion of land and firewood.

Diet The Mahican practiced slash-and-burn field clearing and regular rotation of fields. They used fish and ash as fertilizer. Women grew beans, squash, probably sunflowers, and several varieties of corn. Corn was used in bread, soup, and other dishes. Cornmeal mixed with maple sap and water made a trail food for hunters and warriors. Crops were the most important food. Women also gathered waterlily roots, greens, mushrooms, nuts, and berries and made sassafras and wintergreen tea. Maple sap may have been boiled into sugar.

Men hunted game such as bear, deer, moose, beaver, rabbit, otter, squirrel, raccoon, turkey, passenger pigeons, and many other birds. Deer were hunted in fall, moose in spring. In summer, men gathered mussels and caught herring, shad, and other fish. Fish as well as meat was eaten fresh or dried and smoked.

Key Technology Corn was stored in bark containers or bark-lined pits. Men caught fish with bone hooks, weirs, and nets. They hunted with spears and traps in addition to the bow and arrow. Their bows were made of hickory or red cedar, and they used flint arrowheads. Most Mahican technology was wood based: Wooden or bark items included bowls, utensils, and containers. Mortars were fire-hollowed stumps. Women made pottery and wove baskets, bags, and mats.

Trade Mahicans acted as intermediaries in the shell bead trade from the coast to the Saint Lawrence Valley. Major trade partners included Algonquins to the east and south.

Notable Arts Containers and clothing were decorated with porcupine quills and paints.

Transportation Men made dugout and birch-bark canoes as well as snowshoes.

Dress Women made most clothing of finely tanned skins. Men wore breechclouts, and women wore skirts. Both wore shirts, blankets, high leggings, and moccasins. Both also wore long braids dressed with bear grease and tattooed their faces.

War and Weapons War season began after the harvest was in. Warriors sometimes burned or plucked out their hair except for a strip down the middle. Mahican enemies included Iroquois tribes, especially the Mohawk, although this relationship sometimes became an alliance in the mid-seventeenth century.

Contemporary Information

Government/Reservations The Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation, Shawano County, Wisconsin (established in 1856), consists of approximately 46,000 acres of land, roughly one-third of which is held in trust by the federal government. The 1990 Indian population was 447. The community is governed by a seven-member elected tribal council.

Economy The casino is a major employer on the Stockbridge-Munsee Reservation. Other tribal members have jobs associated with tribal facilities and programs as well as small tribal businesses. Some people work in the local non-native economy.

Legal Status The Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians is a federally recognized tribal entity.

Daily Life Longtime president of the tribe Arvid Miller helped establish the Great Lakes Intertribal Council in the 1960s. The tribe, along with Menominee Indians and neighboring non-natives, has been fighting a huge low-level radiation dump since the late 1970s. Tribal facilities include offices, a health center, residential and recreational facilities for the elderly, a library and museum, a campground, and a casino.

The people observe a traditional 12-day new year celebration. Most Stockbridge-Munsees are Christians, although some participate in sweat lodge ceremonies. Some people study the Munsee-Mahican language and would like to teach it. Most traditional culture has been lost. The tribe hosts a large powwow in early August.

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