Like Smoke and Shadow

What I’m about to tell you is true, but maybe it isn’t. Who knows? The Shinnecock sometimes begin a story with “I heard,” or “Did you know about?” or “Yeah, well,” and you can never be sure if it’s true, false, some crap your uncle or cousin made up, or something you overheard (when you weren’t supposed to be listening in the first place) at your grandmother’s house. Veracity is in the ear of the listener and never easily proven on the Rez. Me? I tend to take anything heard ’round the Rez as if it might be true. Here’s how this story goes.

For more than 2,000 years, we had this place to ourselves, coming and going where we pleased, when we pleased. Two thousand years of exploring every creek, bay, woodland, hill and hollow. Two plus millennia of learning the ways of the animals, the healing (and killing) properties of the various plants, trees and everything else that surrounded us. But there are also those who wanted to learn even deeper things. Think of them as our Merlins, Da Vincis, Mowglis, Shamans, Mad Monks and downright scary people. They weren’t given proper names, but everyone knew who they were and what they could do for—and to—you. What they learned was passed down from generation to generation, with each generation adapting to every new cultural situation and environmental change. For example, the northern tribes would come down for a trade or a raid, and since we didn’t have the numbers to fend them off, we had to learn to either be really good diplomats, or really good paddlers and runners. But they learned to be still and quiet, totally evading the danger. They learned to drift away from detection like an embers’ last wisp of smoke, or disappear like a whippoorwill at dusk on the forest floor, to be as still as stone, or mimic the rustle of windblown leaves. They could melt into the marsh grass, or resemble a seal’s head, or maybe seaweed in the water. They learned to be as smoke and shadow. They were the watchers of the trails, shores and horizon. It was they who saw the first sail come over the Eastern water and knew that the old ways were about to change forever. And it was after the newcomers’ arrival that their skills became more arcane.

Vintage image of Shinnecock celebrations
Vintage image of Shinnecock celebrations

They hired themselves out to the different armies and navies—it didn’t matter what side as long as they learned the newcomers’ ways. It wasn’t for money or material wealth; they had no need of those ephemeral things. They parsed out their knowledge to very few, but in return gathered more intelligence than the OSS, CIA, NSA and FBI combined might envy.

Like most reservations, ours had nothing on it when we were relocated here. It was hard for a little while (about 200 years out of 2,000) when we were first shunted onto the reservation, and lost the hills and the cove. The newcomers had cut down the woodlands, plowed under or over-grazed the grasslands, and even tried to limit our movements. And no matter what we did, what we gave up, it was never enough.

But they never had any boundaries, going where they pleased, when they pleased, and neither native or newcomer could do anything about it. And they still can’t. Maybe you’ve pulled into your driveway on an early night and thought you saw a figure standing underneath a tree in the yard, or by the bush next to the garage. Maybe you saw what looked like a man step into a solid hedge just as you turned a corner, or your headlights flashed for a second on something that wasn’t there when you backed up. There’s no need to become alarmed, they won’t even acknowledge you, much less harm you, they’re just checking on the tribal lands they view as being managed by the newcomers.

To the owners of the estates, farms, golf courses and businesses, they were just the hired help, the cooks and housekeepers, the handymen and gardeners, obedient and obsequious to a fault. They could be anything they wanted, adapting as easily as breaking in a new pair of shoes, all the while honing the skill of being and not being to an even finer sharpness. Like smoke and shadow, they haunted the towns and villages and walked the hills like they had always done, but became more circumspect as time went on. It wasn’t all that hard—the newcomers started to ignore us, once we weren’t considered a threat anymore and were supposedly vanquished.

So are these people still around? Well, you won’t get a straight answer from any Shinnecock, even if they know about them. After all, it’s just a story, rumor, legend or crap someone made up to scare the newcomers and their kids. But they still walk the woods and shores, and still swim the creeks and bays at will, night or day. They go to the post office and shop at the supermarket, just like anyone else. And they still believe (or know) that if they wait long enough, if they maintain their skills and vigilance, the land they’ve inhabited and watched over for more than two millennium will be theirs once again.

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