My parents and my grandparents were Native American Indians. They were all indigenous to this land. I was born in Woodbury, New Jersey on June 13, 1934. I grew up there as a child. The forest surrounding our home was abundant with life. One of my very first memories was of a hummingbird. My grandmother took me outside to our backyard on that day. It was a sunny spring morning. In that memory, I can feel the cool, fresh wind blowing against my face. I look up and I see puffy white clouds drifting in a deep blue sky.
The trees and flowers are shaking gently in the wind, especially bright red trumpet flowers. My eyes focus in on the moving red colors. A tiny hummingbird appears out of nowhere; it quickly dips into a red trumpet and hovers, zipping to another. The sight of it captivates me. It’s moving with precise bursts, back and forth, hovering, dipping and feeding, hovering, and gone. I look over and see my mother hanging clothes and I watch them blowing in the wind, then it fades. I think that this was the first time I actually started putting thoughts together.
There was always wildlife around. I saw a lot of birds, squirrels and rabbits. Another time, I remember hearing baby birds peeping in the backyard. My father had put a birdhouse up in a tree. I knew there were baby birds in it and I watched periodically until they eventually came out. I can still see them flying out. I had a natural curiosity and fascination with nature. I lived in an environment that was just made to order for a person like me. Something was alive in the wind. It was life-giving. I was a person being injected with stimulating sights and sounds, like hearing birds singing the first thing in the morning. You know, for a kid who really hadn’t started to develop yet, those sounds were the tunes going on in my head.
Traditionally, Indian children spent more time with their grandparents than with their parents. This was because of their grandparents' knowledge. Their knowledge was, I won’t say superior, but it was more important than the parents because the parents themselves were still growing. The grandparents’ knowledge brought a stabilizing effect to the whole family because the children learned to respect their elders at an early age. That has been like a stepping-stone right down through their parents and their aunts and uncles. It has a lot to do with why our family units were so strong.
My mother’s people are Lenni-Lenape from Southern New Jersey. My father’s parents, Anna and Harry Gilbert, were from Virginia; the Powhatan Nation. His father passed away when he was young and he never knew which tribe he descended from because of the displacement of the tribes in the past.
My mother was born and grew up at the homestead in Gouldtown, NJ, where the Lenape village had been. After my mother and father married, my father moved to the homestead in Gouldtown. I had four older brothers and three older sisters, so I am the baby of the family. They were all born at home in Gouldtown, except for my oldest sister, who was born in Woodbury.We lived at the end of a one-lane dirt road that ran through the woods and led up to the main street in the City of Woodbury, New Jersey. Do you remember that TV show, The Waltons? My family was very much like that when I was growing up.
I believe I was different because of one thing: I took to the outdoors in a big way. That’s where I felt really at home. The community considered me kind of a strange kid. There was one large gravel hole near us and everybody in the community learned how to swim in this huge gravel hole. If a storm was coming and everybody else went running for cover I would stay there in the gravel hole and swim because nobody was there. I had it all to myself. If a snowstorm was coming and everybody was rushing to get home that’s when I wanted to be in the woods. I wanted to see what takes place. I wanted to be a part of what nature was. Running and hiding from a storm, that didn’t seem right to me.
If I am a person who is a part of nature then I have to know what nature is all about. Not just in its beautiful times when the sun is shining but when the weather is at it’s severest. I think it strengthened me physically. I know it has mentally. I felt very comfortable out in the woods, the swamps and the creeks. I was selfish. I didn’t want to share that with people because I didn’t think others would understand. I was sure they wouldn’t and they didn’t so that’s one of the reasons why I was considered a strange little kid. The other kids would be out playing baseball and I would be heading for the swamps. I know those early years had quite a bearing on me, on who I am today. I love to go back to all those peaceful days I spent by the creek and in the woods. It was paradise to me.
In our mythology of the creation of this land, which we call Turtle Island, the Creator first created Grandfather Sky and later, the waters. It was like that for a very long time. Then a giant turtle surfaced. The snapping turtle is the turtle that represents this Turtle Island (North America). The water ran off the turtle’s back and later the first red cedar tree grew up from the turtle’s back. From the roots of that first red cedar tree came the first Lenape man and woman. That’s why the Red Cedar is sacred to traditional Indian people. The turtle is also a very sacred symbol to us. The turtle also represents the Mother Earth, fertility and long life. Now this mythology of the creation of this land we call North America is not just with the Lenape, many tribes have the same mythology of this land.
This Turtle Island is made up of the blood and the flesh and the bones of thousands of years of my ancestors who have died and gone back to Mother Earth. Our religion tells us we come from Mother Earth and we are to return to Mother Earth. In our way of life, nature is all powerful and for one reason: It provides everything that we need. Because of this very close connection, we have a sacred obligation to protect this land. This land consists of the spirits of my ancestors. We are the indigenous people of this land. We are tied to this land because of this ancestral way and the religion of the land.
For the traditional people of all tribes, the earth is sacred. It might be celebrated in different ways, but that is the universal theme. All of Creation is considered sacred. There are those who still seek traditional ways. Mother Earth is the giver of all life and still the resting place. It’s tied in with the religion of the land that we come from the Mother Earth and we are to return back to Mother Earth. You go back to the Mother Earth only to return again, maybe not in the same form, but part of the never-ending cycle of life.
My Uncle Copper had a tree that grew many different fruits. One year it had apples, the next year pears, the third year it would have peaches, and the fourth year it might have some of each. I would see him sitting in the backyard sharpening his pocketknife. Sometimes he sharpened that knife for an hour. When he made his cuts and grafted those limbs together, they were perfect. And when he inserted them in the slot, you couldn’t tell they had been put together. He had a secret. It had something to do with the sap. He cut out a groove and put this sap in there. Then he joined and tied them together. There was something about the sap I think, that had a lot to do with keeping that life flowing, which caused his success with this grafting.
Somehow word had gotten out about this tree. I believe it was Rutgers University that sent a couple of professors to try to get Uncle Copper to tell them how he did it. It was either during or right after the Depression years. He never divulged the information. When I got older I gained a new perspective on what else was going on. Looking back, I realize that during those hours he sat in silence sharpening his blade, he was praying. He was asking for the power to make sure that what he was doing was going to be right. He had a real gift when it came to plants. Many of the houses in East Woodbury and the Delaware Street area of West Woodbury had landscaping which my Uncle Copper designed. That’s where the wealthy people lived.
The berry season came in the early spring with the wild strawberries. Strawberry time was very special for the Lenape people. They had ceremonies that dealt with the coming of the strawberries because strawberries were the first spring fruits. These ceremonies were very important because strawberries were a spring medicine. There’s a lot of power, a lot of medicine in strawberries. In that ceremony, they would thank the Creator for the strawberry.
Today you will see signs saying Strawberry Festival. It’s usually little hamlets in the country that have these strawberry festivals. The different churches that have these festivals don’t really know the total history of it. So the next time you see a sign saying Strawberry Festival, remember that it stemmed from those ceremonies my people had every spring when the strawberries became ripe. The Season of the Ripening Berries included all the activities and the ceremonies that took place within that season.