WO library hosts workshop on area’s first residents

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WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange residents had the opportunity to learn about the first residents of their town on Saturday, Nov. 18, when New Jersey author Christopher Savio brought his knowledge about Native Americans to the West Orange Public Library, while Mike Dennis from Traditional Earth Skills, an organization that offers hands-on lectures and wilderness skill workshops, brought replicas of traditional Native American tools, toys and clothing to display.

Savio, who taught at nearby Glen Ridge High School for eight years as well as at the University of California San Diego, has won three National Endowment for the Humanities scholarships to study Native American history. In an hourlong presentation, he explained that his goal is to inform people as accurately as he can about Native Americans.

“I don’t teach history as a bunch of fairy tales; I teach it as what it was,” Savio said at the event.

He went on to describe the three groups of Native Americans who lived in New Jersey, all subgroups of the Lenni Lenape tribe: the Unalachtigo, the Unami of Central and South Jersey, and the Munsee of North Jersey. Savio also shed light on how the Native Americans reached North America, saying that the commonly referred to “land bridge” could not have been the only way.

“The land bridge was around 11,000 B.C.,” he said. “But we have artifacts that are older than that. So we’re going to have to find another way, other than the land bridge.”

According to Savio, historians have not yet agreed as to how Native Americans arrived aside from the land bridge, but theories that have been posed include boats and an ice bridge that stretched from Europe to Virginia.

Savio also highlighted several well-known New Jersey places whose names derive from Native American languages. “Hoboken” means “tobacco pipe,” which Savio said most likely refers to the clay that Native American people used to make pipes that was found in the area. “Watchung” means “orange mountain,” describing the sun rising over the hills.

Savio also talked about what typical Native American villages looked like, and how they changed when Europeans reached the continent. A village had between 25 and 50 people living in it at a time.

“Talk about knowing everybody, they knew everybody,” he joked.

The Europeans changed that when they combined the land to create towns, and in 1667 a settler named Robert Treat signed a treaty with the Hackensacks, a group of Lenapes. The land began at the Newark Bay and ended at what is now West Orange’s Main Street.

Among other cultural aspects, Savio discussed the food that Native Americans ate. They hunted deer and bears, and harvested the “three sisters” — corn, squash and beans. Savio also said that a current American favorite was most likely a Native American invention.

“French fries should really be called ‘Native-American fries,’” he joked. “They had potatoes; I’m sure they cut them up and fried them.”

Following Savio’s presentation, Dennis brought to life much of what Savio had discussed, piling a table high with replicas of Native American artifacts. Showing off a bow and arrow, he addressed questions about how Native Americans learned to build their tools. According to Dennis, trial and error was the best way to learn.

“When you have 1,000 years to learn how to do something, you get pretty efficient at it,” he joked.

Savio explained that while the area indigenous population has drastically dropped, it still exists.

“They still exist, they’re not a thing of the past,” he said. “In New Jersey it’s just hard to see that.”

Photos by Amanda Valentovic