A Native Son's Tribute to New York
Thomas W. Coffin (Prairie Band Potawatomie). Untitled (Coyote arrives in New York), 1988. Pastel on paper, 40 x 40 cm.
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If I can make it here, I’ll make it anywhere!—Centuries before American pop culture immortalized living in New York as the ultimate measure of success, generations of Native people—a few known, most not—were making it here, and we continue to make it here every day. It was Native people, not Broadway talent scouts or Madison Avenue ad men, who first determined that New York was the place to be. With its many waterways and ample natural resources, Mannahata—“the hilly island” in the language of the Delaware—and its environs provided a bountiful home for several Native communities. What is now New York City was a melting pot long before the Dutch, the English, and other immigrants laid claim to it.
New Yorkers readily recognize the Native presence here in the many Native place names around the metropolitan area. Yet it may surprise many to know that New York City has the largest urban population of Native people in the United States. Almost 90,000 New Yorkers claim American Indian or Alaska Native heritage, according to the 2000 census. I am one of them.
I’m also the only native New Yorker in my family and, like any New Yorker, very proud of that fact. My Pueblo father and Spanish mother were born and raised in New Mexico. My two sisters were born in Nebraska and California, respectively. My father was the first Native American dentist in the United States, and his tours of duty in the U.S. Public Health Service took our family to various places around the country. In the summer of 1960, the family moved from Harlem, Montana—on the Fort Belknap Reservation, home of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes—to Staten Island, where my dad had been assigned to a residency program. I was born less than a year later. This would be our last stop.
My family remembers their arrival in New York. As my father approached the city on the New Jersey Turnpike, he caught his first glimpse of the famous Manhattan skyline. At that moment, he decided not to take the Staten Island exit, but to head straight for that skyline, which he had only seen in movies like Broadway Melody and 42nd Street. With my mother and sisters in tow, he drove our 1958 Chevy over the George Washington Bridge and headed downtown, into the heart of the city, to see Times Square, Macy’s (from Miracle on 34th Street), the Empire State Building (On the Town, An Affair to Remember, King Kong), the Metropolitan Opera House, and other iconic New York sites. As every New Yorker knows, he’d have been better off taking the Lincoln Tunnel, but he wanted to see everything. Heaven only knows how this Pueblo dentist, just in from Montana, navigated his way through Manhattan’s streets and traffic, but he was on a mission. For him, this was New York. Still is.
After spending a few nights in a Staten Island motel, my parents found an apartment at the northern end of the borough. At night, from the dining-room window of our small apartment, we could see the lights of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge as it was being built. I am certain that these early memories, along with the knowledge that my Grandpa Blue Spruce was an accomplished draftsman and furniture-maker, indirectly influenced me to become an architect.
My acutely nonurban parents fully embraced the New York experience and encouraged my sisters and me to do the same. They made sure that we appreciated every cultural landmark New York had to offer—the “new” Lincoln Center, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, the Cloisters, Madison Square Garden, Yankee Stadium, Shea Stadium, the Bronx Zoo, Broadway and Times Square, Rockefeller Center and Radio City Music Hall, the American Museum of Natural History, the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Coney Island, and the Museum of the American Indian at West 155th Street and Broadway. My parents divorced a few years later, and my father left New York in 1966. My mother, barely thirty and now a single mother, struggled, but she continued her role as her children’s ambassador to New York City. We couldn’t afford a car, so we made all of these excursions by bus, subway, and that floating New York icon, the Staten Island Ferry, which gave our trips an air of adventure.
Unfortunately, my parents’ divorce not only split up our family, it separated my sisters and me from our Pueblo heritage. We never had enough money to visit New Mexico. Our Spanish relatives came to visit, but their visits were rare. Even so, I can still remember my Grandma Martinez, in our cramped kitchen, flipping dough back and forth between her hands as she made us tortillas for breakfast. Aside from the Pueblo artwork around our apartment and stories of New Mexico from my mother, our knowledge of our Native roots was limited. Still, my sisters and I were proud of our heritage, and not just because we had the coolest last name of any of our friends. More than two decades later, I reunited with my father and other Pueblo family members, and they have bridged many of the cultural gaps that had opened over the years.
The opening of the National Museum of the American Indian–New York within the historic Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House, 1994. Photo by Krause/Johansen for NMAI.
In 1975, I was accepted into the prestigious Regis High School on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. This meant that I had to take the bus, the ferry, and the subway to get to school—an hour and twenty minutes each way, on a good day. At the tender age of fourteen, I became a seasoned New York commuter, complete with a stoic commuter face and my fingertips blackened by New York Times newsprint. One of the more intriguing parts of my daily commute was the short walk from the Whitehall Street ferry terminal to the Bowling Green subway station, when I walked past an amazing, though empty and lifeless, building—the U.S. Custom House, now home to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian–New York. Little did I know then that I would go off to Syracuse University, pursue a career in architecture and museum work in New York, Santa Fe, and Washington, D.C., and, thirty years later, wind up working in that very same Beaux Arts landmark.
Not a bad story for a Pueblo/Spanish kid who grew up on Staten Island, but it’s just one of thousands of stories of Native New Yorkers and our experiences in the city. I hope that these memories give you a sense of one Native American’s feelings for this city and for the National Museum of the American Indian here, a New York cultural institution dedicated to presenting the stories of all the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere.
—Duane Blue Spruce (Laguna and San Juan Pueblo)
Duane Blue Spruce, planning coordinator at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York, is currently taking part in the Smithsonian Palmer Leadership Development Program. Photo by Cynthia Frankenburg, NMAI.
This essay is adapted from the foreword to Mother Earth/Father Skyline: A Souvenir Book of Native New York, edited by Duane Blue Spruce and published by the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). The drawing of Coyote arriving in New York is from the NMAI children's book Coyote in Love with a Star, written by Marty Kreipe de Montaño (Prairie Band Potawatomi) and illustrated by Thomas W. Coffin.
© NMAI, Smithsonian Institution.