by Emily J. Weitz
When you look out across the water and see a bayman scraping the sandy floor with a long rake, there is something about it that feels timeless, even primal. Maybe that’s because some of these methods of fishing and hunting have been around for thousands of years, and are still used in roughly the same ways, for the same purpose: to feed and clothe our families. It may not always be so direct – the diet of a bayman might not be all what he catches, and a hunter may not be walking around clothed only in fur. But still, the bounty of this place continues to serve those who hunt and fish, just as it did thousands of years ago. That’s the subject of the current exhibit at The Southampton Historical Museum at Rogers Mansion, which will be on display from this Friday through October 29.
Obviously, a great deal has changed since the earliest humans were hunting and fishing in the area. But David Bunn Martine, curator of this exhibit and director/curator of the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum, argues that much has also remained the same.
“Through the lifestyle of baymen and their families, especially in East Hampton,” he said in a recent interview, “it’s stayed the same a great deal. They use a lot of Native American techniques.”
Some of the techniques that remain common practices for local fishermen today were learned from Native Americans.
“Fishing with pound nets, fishing from the shoreline, and fishing with traps are ancient techniques indigenous to this area,” explains Bunn Martine.
Through looking at the development of the artifacts, you can also see how these practices changed over time, and how Native American practices influenced the hunting and fishing practiced across the East End today.
“Five thousand years ago, eel spears and eel rakes were used that were very similar to the ones the English settlers used,” says Bunn Martine. “Modern ones are made out of metal or iron, but they look similar.”
Replicas of many of the tools that were (and in some form still are) used for fishing and hunting will be on display at the exhibit.
“We have a dug-out canoe we made out of pine at the Shinnecock Museum,” says Bunn Martine. “Also we have reconstructed objects, like simulated fishing tools and hunting tools like spear throwers.”
There will also be stone arrowheads used for hunting deer and small game as well as other period artifacts like basket nets, basket traps used for fish and old fashioned netting featured in the exhibit. Paintings, like large pieces depicting the Paleolithic period on Long Island and others showing whaling ceremonies from the relatively recent 1700s, will also be on display.
Evidence of hunting on Long Island dates back at least 10,000 years, and there have been fifteen finds of Paleo points (arrowheads or spear points), to prove it. However, archaeologist Jo-Ann McLean of Jo-Ann McLean Archaeological Consultants, points out that “These Paleo points were found all over Long Island. They were never associated with a site where there was an encampment. This leads us to believe these were travelers passing through hunting.”
So the most ancient of hunting practices were likely nomadic peoples roaming through the rich natural world of Long Island and hunting for deer and other game.
One significant aspect of preparing this show, said Bunn Martine, was in the recreating of some of these objects. Even though nets, lures and traps can be purchased in stores, there was a time when everything needed to be constructed at home. At the Shinnecock Museum, people are now learning to make these things again.
“We want to learn to make these things again by hand using traditional materials like plant fibers,” says Bunn Martine. “We are learning how they made nets and fishing tools by hand, how they made lures and hooks and cordage. It’s part of our tradition… We are getting back in touch with traditional material culture: basket making, net making, object making. These are things we’ve been researching for years but [this exhibit] is another manifestation.”
Hunting and fishing, and all the processes that go with them, are deeply embedded in the life and culture of the East End. Still integral to the survival of many local families, these practices are as ancient as human existence in this area. This exhibit is an opportunity to see just how far back Long Island people, and their traditions, can be traced.