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May 28, 2013

New York’s Native Roots: Illuminating the Indigenous History of NYC

Dugout Canoe
Lenape (Delaware) dugout canoe. Hackensack River, New Jersey. 

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.

Bone fishhook
Bone fish hook from East Hampton, Long Island. 13/100. 

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.

Wampum belt
Replica Iroquois wampum belt made of rolled purple and buff-colored fimo clay beads and imitation sinew. This belt is a recreation of the 18th-century Hiawatha belt that records when the first five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy—the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, and Mohawk (the Tuscarora joined later)—agreed to live in peace. The center tree symbol represents Onondaga, where Hiawatha, the peacemaker, planted the Tree of Peace under which the leaders buried their weapons of war. The squares and center line represent the other nations connected in peace.

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.


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Where and how do I harvest shells for wampum? How does one make it? This old man (with some Montauk ancestry ) has bad knees, time, a couple of small boats and access to the Chesapeake. How do I find out how to do this? Many thanks for your most excellent efforts!

Christopher—Thank you for your excellent question. Give us time to do a little research, and we'll get back to you.

Great Lenape canoe.....Lenape were scouts for
Fremont in 1844 and Capt. Fallen Leaf (Lenape)was one of the first Easterners to explore Lake Tahoe with Johnson 1848. We have found a dugout canoe in Fallen Leaf Lake and it doesn't look like anything build in the West. Is there someone we can contact that could look at this canoe?

Thanks John

Hi, John! For informal object identifications, contact NMAIcollections@si.edu and provide as much information as possible about the object (where found, history, description, dimensions, photos of the object, etc.).

For identification of archaeological objects from the U.S., the state archaeologist of the state where the object was found is likely able to provide the best information. Visit the National Association of State Archaeologists website for a list of state archaeologists.

I hope this is helpful?

~ Molly Stephey, NMAI

This shows the determination of people to earn for food. Maybe they used the boat for searching food for the family. And we can never deny the artistic work of the native people way back then. They are also very resourceful.

Christopher, thank you for your patience! Our curatorial fellow Korah English recommends checking out this website: http://www.wampummagic.com/about-us.php

Good luck and let us know how it goes!

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