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Native History Comes Alive at the Wikun Village

Posted on 22 May 2013

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By Tessa Raebeck; photography by Matthew Ballard/Shinnecock Cultural Center and Museum

Recalling a time when wolves roamed Long Island and the East End wilderness was unhindered by share houses and golf clubs, the gardens, fire pits and wigwams of Wikun Village aims at offering visitors a historically accurate portrait of the South Fork.

Pronounced “Wee-Gun,” Wikun Village is a new living history site at the Shinnecock Museum and Cultural Center, located on the outskirts of the Shinnecock Indian Reservation in Southampton. David Martine, the center’s director and curator, was hired prior to the museum’s opening in 1994 to create colorful, vibrant murals depicting the day-to-day lives of the Shinnecock Indian Nation. The murals tell the history of Martine’s ancestors — and Wikun Village breathes life into those stories.

Martine explained the Shinnecock Museum and Cultural Center opened in 2001 after members of the community fundraised for everything from the flooring to the roof, envisioning the museum “long before we had a final space.”

Both beautiful and descriptive, Martine’s murals were among the museum’s first assets. They cover “six cultural phases of Long Island Indian history from the Paleolithic period up to the Historic period, which is about 10,000 years worth of history,” explained Martine.

In a newsletter to museum members, office manager Tohanash Tarrant described the murals as Martine’s “life work to bring history book chapters, black and white photos, archaeological reports and sketches of our shared culture back to people.” They are engaging, colorful and detailed, and help the visitor to personalize their experience.

After procuring the murals, the center grew its collection of artifacts. The wooded museum holds everything from preserved relics to items replicated by community members. In one room, the corners hold a spinning wheel, deerskins used to camouflage hunters, a piece of wood from a shipwreck off Mecox Bay and a stuffed wolf.

While the museum interior tells visitors about the day-to-day lives of the Shinnecocks, the Wikun Village aims to bring that history to life. The outdoor village covers the time period from 1640 to 1750, “a time of greatest change,” said Martine.

The post-contact Woodland period represents a hybrid of Native American culture, when homes could be filled with both traditional tools and colonial furniture.

On the path between the interior museum and Wikun Village sits a wigwam, or wetu, a domelike structure that would house one family.

“They’d have European-style furniture in here,” Martine said of the wetu. “They’d have a cabinet, or a bench, or a couple of chairs. That was probably a good 100 years where you’d have a transitional period of items. That would be very common to see all through New England.”

With mats acting as insulation and a central fire pit, the living conditions in the wetu were “actually better than the European cabins at the time,” said Martine.

The wetu was handcrafted with detailed precision by members of the Shinnecock community and offers a glimpse of what’s to come when construction is finished on the village’s other buildings. The site is a “work in progress,” so visitors can see both finished buildings and the development process of other projects.

“A lot of our traditional materials are not even available anymore,” said Martine. “Such as cattail reed or seagrass, so this phragmites reed is a substitute. It’s a little harder to work with, but it really gives you a feeling as to how they did it.”

The innovation of the modern Shinnecocks has allowed for the restoration of their history. One of few living Native culture sites in the country, Wikun Village is an entirely community-based effort.

On a two-acre pine and oak forested clearing, Wikun Village has a garden, a canoe, a fire pit, a demonstration arbor (for the staff to exhibit a variety of crafts) and an under-construction longhouse, a historic dwelling for extended families. Martine explained that the longhouse “is going to be covered with tied on bark slabs and completely covered.” Frequent visitors will watch the construction unfold.

The village will also host children’s programs, guided boat and village tours, dance presentations, craft demonstrations, workshops and more. The staff has learned numerous traditional skills to share with visitors, including finger-weaving, twining of wood, shell, and bone, reed mat weaving, and Woodland period correct garment fabrication. With their help, children can craft hands-on objects to take home.

The period correct philosophy of Wikun Village mandates authenticity. Unlike at other living history museums, the Wikun Village staff does not role-play. Rather, they are native people from the reservation talking about their own culture and history. Their dress is the traditional Native garb, but they act only as themselves.

“In a world that for so long pushed us to adapt to the changing times,” wrote Tarrant. “It is now our time to tell the world who we were and that we are still connected to the generations of ancestors that came before us right here in our Shinnecock Territory.”

Nearly 20 years after Martine was commissioned for his first mural, the scenes he so vividly researched and depicted are walking and moving around him — and they have a lot to show us.

The grand opening of the Wikun Village will be held Saturday, May 25 through Monday, May 27 from 11 to 5 p.m. at the Shinnecock Museum and Cultural Center, 100 Montauk Highway, Southampton. It is a free outdoor event with guided tours, singing and social dancing, children’s programs, traditional skills demonstrations, traditional cuisine, and commemorative gift giveaways.

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