Commentary by Henry John Steiner
Historian of Sleepy Hollow
“…God was with the woman who dwells with him, and no one knows when that was, or where they had come from. Water was all there was, or at any rate water covered and overran everything… What then took place, they say, was that the
aforementioned beautiful woman or idol descended from heaven into the water. She was gross and big like a woman who is pregnant with more than one child. Touching down gently, she did not sink deep, for at once a patch of land began to emerge under her at the spot where she had come down, and there she came to rest and remained. The land waxed greater so that dry patches became visible around the place where she sat, as happens to someone standing on a sandbar in three or
four feet of water while it ebbs away and eventually recedes so far that it leaves him entirely on dry land. That is how it was with the descended goddess, they say and believe, the land ever widening around her until its edge disappeared from view. Gradually grass and other vegetation sprang up and in time, also fruit-bearing and other trees, and from this, in brief, the whole globe came into being much as it appears to this day. Now, whether the world you speak of and originally came from was then created as well, we are unable to say.
At the time when all that had been brought about, the high personage went into
labor and, being confined, gave birth to three different creatures. The first was in every respect like a deer as they are today, the second resembled a bear, and the third a wolf. The woman suckled these creatures until maturity and remained on earth for a considerable time, during which she cohabited with each of the said animals and was delivered a number of times of various creatures in multiple births. Thus were bred all the humans and animals of the several kinds and species
that are still to be seen in our day. In due course, they began to segregate according to the genera and species still existing, both from an innate urge and for the sake of propriety. When all those things had thus been disposed and made self-perpetuating, the universal mother ascended again to heaven, rejoicing at having accomplished her task. There she continues to dwell forever, finding her entire happiness and delight in keeping and fostering the supreme Lord’s love for her. To that she is devoted, and from it derives her complete enjoyment and satisfaction; therefore, God vouches safe to her his fondest love and highest esteem.
Here below, meanwhile, humans and animals of all the various species that were the result of miscegenation increase and multiply, as does all creation the way we find it still. That is why human beings of whatever condition still exhibit the innate characters of one or other of the three animals mentioned, for they are either timid and harmless in the nature of deer, or vindictive, cruel, bold, and direct in the nature of bears, or bloodthirsty, greedy, cunning, and treacherous like wolves. That all this has changed somewhat now and is no longer clearly visible or recognized, they attribute to the times and people’s guile in disguising it. This, they say, is all we have heard on the subject from our ancestors and believe to be true.”
According to new evidence, the individual tribes of the lower Hudson Valley were part of a larger group known as the Munsees. This Native American nation was formerly thought by historians to be a part of the Delaware or Lenape Tribe, but it is now recognized to have been located in its own region and to have used a language or dialect similar to the Delaware tongue, but with some differences. The Munsee homeland ranged, roughly speaking, from northeastern Pennsylvania down to the New Jersey Pinelands, then east to western Long Island and up to the Taconic and Berkshire Mountains. In other words, all of Westchester County and far beyond.
The story told above was recorded by seventeenth century, Dutch colonist, Adrian Van Der Donck, an important scholarly and political figure of New Netherland. He was a keen observer of local geography and Native American culture. Fortunately he placed many of his findings in a book, so that we are able to “inherit” his wealth of knowledge. The title of the book was, A Description of New Netherland, first published (in Dutch) in 1655. A flawed English translation of the book appeared in 1841, and, until about nine years ago, it was the only English translation available. Then, in 2008 a new, accurate translation appeared, presenting a more reliable account of Adrian Van Der Donk’s book. The “Creation Narrative” above is excerpted from that recent edition, translated by Diederick Willem Goedhuys and edited by Charles T. Gehring and William A Starna.
In the excerpt we hear in Van Der Donck’s words what was told to him by “the mature and wiser” Native Americans of the Munsee Tribe. We hear directly what the Dutchman heard in the time that he lived in the Hudson River Valley. This period was from the time of his arrival in New Netherland in 1641 until his return to Holland in 1650.
In 2009, one year after the new translation of Van Der Donck’s appeared, a history of the Munsee Tribe appeared. The Munsee Indians, A History was written by Robert S. Grumet, an anthropologist and archaeologist. From Grumet’s book emerges a much clearer image of the Native American nation that once occupied the terrain that we call home. The picture that Grumet draws succeeds in explaining many of the contradictions that have muddled, for the past 100 years, even authoritative descriptions of the Native Americans of this region in the “period of contact.”