“Native New York” re-examines the place of the Indians beyond colonization

The big question the exhibition asks is “what makes New York a native place?” How would you respond to that?

Well, it really is an ongoing issue, and I really appreciate that you have captured the enduring nature that is often so invisible in New York City and New York State. We see the names, for example, even “Manhattan” comes from the term “Manahatta,” which means “where the hickory bows were made.” We have names and places and lives shaped from history, but it is also a place where Native American people still live. There is a large urban population in New York City. And then there are tribal nations that continue to exist and exist across the state of New York.

Now the exhibition examines some parts of American history that may be very familiar to people, but re-contextualizes these moments from an Indian perspective. What are some of the moments that really stood out to you while curating the exhibition?

So I did about five years of research based in the communities that stayed in New York and that are also in the diaspora. The original Lenni Lenape people from lower New York, Manhattan, New York City, Hudson Valley, the majority of these people were pushed early out to Wisconsin, Ontario, Oklahoma where they are now. And one of the things that really, really struck me deeply was how they carried the memories of the New York countryside, as in their clothes, in their songs, in their language in places they had never seen. You know, it’s like how do you remember a place you’ve never been? How do you carry a past that you are cut off from?

And we’re really getting to the double meaning of the phrase we hear all the time, “native New Yorker,” right?

Absolutely. And I chose the expression I decided to give the exhibition the name “Native New York” to play on that idea and think about what it means to have that level of originality? What does it mean to create a sense of home, a sense of place, both for people who have been in the area for thousands of years who were cut off from it and want to touch it. And at the same time, it’s really important, no matter who you are, if you go the steps of the city and you have created it home and it has come under the skin and into your blood to get a deeper sense of place. I believe in the 2000 census that New York had the largest Native American population in the United States. And also, so many of the skyscrapers that have been built, including the Empire State Building, our lost World Trade Center and the one that has risen again, have Mohawk and other Haudenosaunee high steel workers in their hands. They call themselves “skywalkers,” and they are still involved in the construction of the tall steel buildings in New York City. Native people have built this city from its inception, and Native New Yorkers have been tough throughout. And I think that lies in the future.

“Native New York” is now on display at the National Museum of the American Indian, 1 Bowling Green, New York, NY 10004 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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