New York’s Native Roots: Illuminating the Indigenous History of NYC
For a glimpse into the history of Manhattan and the lives of the Lenape (Delaware) people, consider this centuries-old Lenape dugout canoe, bone fishhook, and an array of clam shells from the collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
While these objects immediately suggest a form of transportation and a means of subsistence, they also represent far more complex sociocultural dynamics. The bone fishhook portrays the ingenuity of Lenape engineers to construct tools from available resources. Fishhooks, spears, nets, and more were used to catch the pickerel, bass, sunfish, trout, brown bullhead, and silver perch potentially abundant in local streams and rivers, and the 300-plus pound lake and Atlantic sturgeon.
The canoe signifies complex trading routes and diplomatic relationships with Algonquian and Haudenosaunee (“people of the longhouse,” the Six Nations also known as the Iroquois) communities. In addition, the Lenape made canoes for sea voyages, during which they applied knowledge of the stars to aid in navigation. Thus, Manhattan has been a portal and hub for inland and overseas trade for millennia, long before it was dubbed “The Capital of the World.”
Integral to this trade network were the clam shells the Lenape transformed into purple and white wampum beads. Used as a currency and for adornment by the Algonquian, these beads were also essential in documenting history, particularly for the Haudenosaunee. Wampum belts and strings served to commemorate significant people, mark historic events, and record treaties among Native nations, as well as between Native and European and then American governments.
Even today, wampum and locally harvested clam shells continue to be critically important to Native peoples of the New York area. As legal documents, wampum belts are still used to verify land rights and negotiate Native sovereignty. In the form of necklaces and earrings, the purple and white clam shell beads signify cultural pride and have become a valuable source of income for contemporary Native artists in the New York area. These concepts and more will drive the forthcoming exhibition Native New York: Where Nations Rise.
— Korah English, NMAI Curatorial Resident
Launched in May 2012, the NMAI Curatorial Residency program was developed to facilitate emerging Native museum professionals with necessary qualifications to become Native arts curators and succeed in tribal museum management.