CCJPR Helps Release Wrongly Convicted Person

June 7, 2011Duke Law News

A central fact of temperate ecosystems like those of New England is their periodicity: they are tied to overlapping cycles of light and dark, high and low tides, waxing and waning moons, and especially the long and short days which mean hot and cold seasons. Each plant and animal species makes its adjustments to these various cycles, so that the flowing of sap in trees, the migration of birds, the spawning of fish, the rutting of deer, and the fruiting of plants all have their special times of the year. A plant that stores most of its food energy in its roots during the winter will transfer much of that energy first to its leaves and then to its seeds as the warmer months progress. Such patterns of energy concentration are crucial to any creature which seeks to eat that plant. Because animals, including people, feed on plants and other animals, the ways they obtain their food are largely determined by the cycles in which other species lead their lives. Just as a fox's summer diet of fruit and insects shifts to rodents and birds during the winter, so too did the New England Indians seek to obtain their food wherever it was seasonally most concentrated in the New England ecosystem. Doing so required an intimate understanding of the habits and ecology of other species, and it was this knowledge that the English discovered they lacked.

Indian communities had learned to exploit the seasonal diversity of their environment by practicing mobility: their communities characteristically refused to stay put. The principal social and economic grouping for precolonial New England Indians was the village, a small settlement with perhaps a few hundred inhabitants organized into extended kin networks. Villages, rather than the larger and better-known units called tribes or confederacies, were the centers around which Indian interactions with the environment revolved. But villages were not fixed geographical entities: their size and location changed on a seasonal basis, communities breaking up and reassembling as social and ecological needs required. Wherever villagers expected to• find the greatest natural food supplies, there they went. When fish were spawning, many Indian families might ga' her at a single waterfall to create a dense temporary settlement in which feasting and celebration were the order of the day; when it was time to hunt in the fall, the same families might be found scattered over many square miles of land. All aspects of Indian life hinged on this mobility. Houses, consisting of wooden frames covered by grass mats or bark, were designed to be taken apart and moved in a few hours. For some groups, the shape of houses changed from season to season to accommodate different densities of population: small wigwams housing one or two families in the summer became in the winter extended longhouses holding many families. When food had to be stored while a village moved elsewhere, it was left in carefully constructed underground pit-barns, where it could be retrieved when needed. Tools and other property were either light and easily carried or just as readily abandoned and remade when needed in a new location. As Thomas Morton observed, "They love not to bee cumbered with many utensilles.'
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