A culture and people come alive

“Shelter Island is an incredibly sacred place.”

That’s one of the lessons Shelter Island 4th graders learned last week from John Pagliaro, who was invited by the Shelter Island Historical Society to share his knowledge of Native American history.

The lesson was told through flint and stone arrowheads.

Mr. Pagliaro, an Island artist and owner of the Handwerklab Art Gallery, as well as an amateur archeologist and historian, was attracted to hunting arrowheads to uncover Shelter Island history, which he knew was misrepresented in sources he had consulted.

The Native Americans living here weren’t primitive souls who learned everything from the colonizers who arrive in the 1600s, he told the students. They were resourceful and intelligent, he said. Having occupied the land for thousands of years, they were the ones who taught the European newcomers how to live here.

Through his collection of arrowheads, he showed students how the Native Americans created the weapons using stone hammers to delicately shape the arrowheads, and further explained how they made axe heads from stones and handles using wood and rope to create instruments that were highly sophisticated.

The people who lived here were also accomplished seamen and hunters, Mr. Pagliaro said, adding that “they were extremely advanced.” Ideas embedded in the United States Constitution came from their values about humanity and human dignity, he said.

When students asked for arrowhead samples, Mr. Pagliaro encouraged them to find their own at places like Crescent Beach between the Pridwin and the Perlman Music Program, or on the beach beneath the Quinipet Campgrounds, where they could find arrowheads not touched by human hands for thousands of years.

The arrowheads washed up from the bays and creeks and became buried in sand, often preserved by mud that protected them from disintegrating, he said.

The value of the arrowheads isn’t in what it costs to purchase them, Mr. Pagliaro said, but rather in the tales they tell of the people and culture that created them.

He introduced them to the “New England Typology” reference book, one of the guides he’s used to identify arrowheads in his collection. The library, he added, is also an ideal resource for gathering information about the Island’s history.

Some students had their own stories of arrowheads they’ve found on the Island while exploring beaches.

Wide-eyed, the students were rapt listening to Mr. Pagliaro’s stories of animals, such as the woolly mammoth and mastodons who roamed the land here, and the hunters who pursued them, leaving their history to be discovered on a beach, or in the woods in 2019.