The porcupine, the Algonquians felt, was proof that the universe does not make sense. Their day-to-day existence was swayed by the seasons, reliant on their local resources and filled with hard work. According to Mary Ellen Lepionka, in a recent presentation she gave on the early history of Ipswich River area, the people living in the watershed at that time were tall, fit and burning twice as many calories daily as is recommended for modern day adults. European settlers found that even some of the children stood taller than them.
The Algonquian people who lived along the Ipswich River called themselves the ninnu, the people, or ninnuock, the people of this place. They lived their days in accordance with the seasons. Some months were busier than others, and due to the distribution of responsibilities men and women had different periods of relaxation and work. Settlers mistakenly thought the native peoples led quite leisurely lives because in the summer months the men were less active; they didn’t notice the women and children were busy gathering the bounty of the hotter months.
What the European settlers also misunderstood about the native peoples was their relationship to the land. While the ninnuock did not have the European’s concept of land ownership, and their group systems were less tribe than family groups, they were stewards of the land. Contrary to the misconception of North America being an entirely forested land, the watershed had swaths of fields, maintained by the slash-and-burn method. The Algonquians were careful to maintain windbreaks and groves; these open areas allowed for the growth of native edible plants like blueberries and attracted deer.
Forest undergrowth was also cleared through controlled burns. This practice, called swailing, is a necessary aid for some native plants to germinate, and helps regulate both plant and animal species.
Although the native people did teach the European settlers to use fish remains as fertilizer for their corn, this was a last resort practice for them. More commonly, they used crushed shells to improve both the pH and stability of the soil. The use of fish as fertilizer attracted animals, which would dig up crops to get at the meat. One of the earliest laws in the North Shore settlements was a bounty on wolves, who were being drawn into the settlements by the fishy fertilizer.
It wasn’t only the native people’s concept of land cultivation that was drastically different from that of the European settlers; their very concept of land settlement was worlds apart. While the Europeans put roots in one place and altered the surrounding lands to provide for them, the native people moved to whichever area could best support them at the time. Settlers occasionally thought that a nearby “village” had been abandoned, when in fact, the people had only moved to a better location. They put a great deal of effort into tracking groundwater and relocated to different bio-regions depending on the season.
While they paid close attention to their resources, the Algonquians did have an impact on the environment. Contrary to the stereotype that Native Americans did no harm to nature, they had no problem utilizing and exploiting nature to survive. However, the region was able to support the population numbers. With the arrival of the European settlers, the number of people living in the Ipswich River watershed jumped dramatically. It has continued to grow to many, many times the number of people who once lived here.
The Ipswich River watershed is inarguably different from how it was when settlers first arrived, though aspects of that early time can still be found. Staghorn sumac, a common sight along New England highways, was harvested by native peoples to be used in cooking, dying fibers and as an additive to pipe tobacco. Edible flowers like aster are beautiful native additions to many gardens and buttonbush, which were encouraged to grow for their ability to attract bees, can still be sighted along most of the Ipswich River.
Rather than the untrue perception of their living in perfect harmony with nature, it is more helpful to learn from the Native Americans’ real way of living. In a world where porcupines existed, a world which couldn’t possibly make any kind of sense, they tried to find routine, order and security. Like adding shells to the sandy clay soil, they were trying for stability in a chaotic and unpredictable world. How? By paying close attention and understanding the movements and rhythms of the world around them.
The world today seems every bit as chaotic and unpredictable as the Algonquians found it. Storm surges and sea level rise are impacting our coastal towns, while other climate impacts such as changes in precipitation and increased drought affect both coastal and inland areas. Let’s take a lesson from the people who lived in our watershed for so long; let’s pay attention to the natural world and learn from it.