Lucianne Lavin’s book, “Connecticut’s Indigenous Peoples” is a history book, an archaeology text, and an honoring of Indigenous People’s relationship with the land, their spirituality and lifeways. It will whet your appetite to learn more about the 1,000 edible and medicinal plants growing wild in Connecticut. It has oral histories, personal stories, and a cultural guide that contains enough information about Eastern Woodlands tribes to surprise those who think the Native cultures on the coast were lost.
What is the book not? It is not a stodgy, old fashioned, scientifically disconnected, cold look at 12,000 years of Native history. It is equally scientific and respectful of the tribes who have long populated Connecticut’s coast and woodlands.
Lavin, who is the Director of Research and Collections at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, Connecticut, spent 40 years collecting research, and six years writing the book.
Faith Damon Davison, Mohegan elder and retired archivist for the Mohegan Tribe, wrote the book’s forward and said, “Most texts used to teach Connecticut archaeology in college courses are 30 or more years out of date.” Calling the book “a chronology of Connecticut from geological time to a more recent era,” she said, “I had not known how much new material was available until I read this book.”
Lavin is an appointee to the state’s Native American Heritage Advisory Council and also represents the Archaeological Society of Connecticut. One of Lavin’s happiest moments was when she walked into one of the meetings and tribal leaders told her they had all ordered her book for their libraries.
According to Lavin, no other book covers Connecticut history up to the present. “I tried to do that. I put the Native voice into it through interviews, quotes, and writings as well,” she said.
Published by Yale Press, Rosemary Volpe, editor, was credited by Lavin for researching old photographs and maps, and taking photographs of artifacts available through Yale’s resources. “The book probably should sell for a lot more than it did, but they kept it to a reasonable price so most people could buy it,” Lavin said. The 480-page book, originally published hardcover in 2013, and is now available in paperback. It is loaded with color plates of a wide variety of artifacts with no shortage of photos of leaders throughout the ages, with stories by and about them.
Although the heft of the book might be daunting, Lavin said she wrote it for the general public, students and educators, but perhaps especially for, “my Native American friends who say their history is never told accurately. I wanted to get the word out that we have real Indians in Connecticut, and that they have been here continuously. They were very a well organized and complex society, and still are today.”
The lifestyle information could be inspirational for those wanting to adopt more healthy traditions. Plants as food and medicine played an important part of the traditional lifestyles, and the book points out how some were used. Lavin said the Indigenous Peoples “were our first pharmacists. White people were going to them right up until the 1800s; going to Indian doctors, a lot of whom were women. The English doctors didn’t know anything about early plant lore,” she said.
The undoing of the Western myths about Native people is found in the writings of English settler and author Roger Williams, who lived among the Narragansetts in 1643. “He writes about their everyday life and talks about how they knew everything about zoology and botany and geology and astronomy,” Lavin said. “Even the children could name the stars and the constellations… I love quoting him because so many (mainstream) people don’t know that Native people were so sophisticated.”
Quotes from Connecticut Natives, both historic and current, begin each chapter and remind the reader whose world they are walking into; something that might be news to many schools. Laurie Weinstein, professor of anthropology, Western Connecticut State University, said Lavin’s book is the first comprehensive book on archaeology in the state since the 1980s. “There have been a lot of other books out there about New England Indians and archaeology, but this is very focused, and that is important,” she said.
A second book, already in the works, has Lavin and Weinstein working together. It will cover more of the historic, post-contact period, from 1600 to the present, as the current book didn’t delve as deeply into the present as Lavin would have liked. “Otherwise it would have been dictionary size and nobody would buy it,” Lavin said.
The new book will focus on the tribes west of the Connecticut River and the greater Western Connecticut/Massachusetts/Eastern New York areas connected by trade and intermarriage before there were state boundaries. “There were at least a dozen tribes in Western Connecticut and there are only two that the state recognizes,” she said.
Speaking about Lavin’s current book, Weinstein said, “I understand why she was motivated to take it into the present. Native people are still looking for recognition in Connecticut, and they never went away. It’s really important not to let the story end at 1900, and that’s an important part of education,” Weinstein said.