Purchase of Manhattan: Opera Tells History of Lenape and Dutch—Watch Clips Here

An all-ages audience packed the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City on Nov. 20 to see another step in the reconciliation effort in Manhattan.
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An all-ages audience packed the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City on November 20 to see another step in the reconciliation effort between the Dutch and Lenape.

Most know the story of how the island of Manhattan was purchased from Native Americans for 60 guilders, or what is equivalent to $24, but that’s not the whole story.

The Collegiate Churches of New York and the Lenape Center joined forces to put the “Purchase of Manhattan” concert opera on as a way to promote “healing and wholeness between our peoples,” noted Dr. R. Mark King, executive minister of Marble Collegiate Church, before the opera. The tickets even cost $24 each.

The concert opera was composed by Brent Michael Davids, Mohican, and author Joseph Bruchac, Abenaki. The start of the opera has the Lenape and the Spirit of the Land, soprano Alexandra Loutsion, introducing the island of Manhattan before contact. The Spirit of the Land sings:

“I feel the feet of all creatures,

Running, walking and crawling,

Women dancing, shuffling their feet,

Men stomping, voices calling.”

The Indians then sing about the island, the importance of wampum, and the coming strangers. The following video is from that scene.

In the video, the Spirit of the Land sings:

“Brothers, we’ve seen other men like these.

We offered them friendship before.

They answered with ingratitude,

Violence and acts of war.

Sisters, a floating house first came

Like a dream out of the sunrise.

A giant canoe with wings on fire.

The sight astonished our eyes.”

The Lenape then sing:

“Crawling with human beings,

Unlike any seen before.

Their faces pale, covered with hair,

Were they part wolf or bear?”

Henrik Hudson sailed into the harbor of Muhheconnituck, the river that now bears his name, 405 years ago. Then, in 1626, a brief mention of a “purchase” of Manahatta, as it was called, was made in a letter. The term “Manhattan” comes from the Munsee description of the “place where we get bows,” because of the hickory trees on the south end of the island, the program tells viewers.

The concert opera is just the first of performances the Lenape Center plans to put on to show the hidden perspective behind Manhattan’s original inhabitants.

The collaboration began in 2009, when the Lenape Center and Intersections International—a multi-faith, multi-cultural, global social justice initiative of the Collegiate Church of New York—came together to facilitate a reconciliation event called Healing Turtle Island. Marble Collegiate Church is “the modern manifestation of the Dutch Corporation that we’re talking about in this story,” explained Curtis Zhuniga, Delaware Tribe of Indians, co-founder and director of the Lenape Center.

The Dutch brought with them Director General Peter Minuit, the one said to be responsible for the “purchase” of Manhattan. The concert opera shows the differences between how the Indians and the Dutch saw the land.

“My mother’s bones rest in this mound,” sings Stephen Powell, the baritone who represented the Lenape people.

“I see handsome profits from this ground!” sings John Bellemer, Wampanoag, the tenor who plays Minuit. This video below illustrates what Minuit offers to the Indians to buy the island.

“What did we bring to purchase this island?” Minuit asks.

“Many strings of beads, which they greatly prize. They sweat to make the beads, but we make them so easily,” replies the Dutch chorus.

“Sixty guilders worth of trinkets,” suggests Minuit.

The opera makes it clear that the Indians thought the Dutch were offering their friendship, and that they had no idea what Minuit was trying to get them to sign, or why?

Powell as Lenape, explains it toward the end:

“Let it not surprise you, my friends, when I explain,

This very spot on which we stand, where we sit down,

Has never been purchased or rightly obtained;

And by justice it should belong now

To the children of those who from the Sky Tree descended.

Though made to leave by force and hunger,

their title has never ended.”

The last scene called for reconciliation:

“Blood stains are everywhere; can we wipe off the marks,

so whoever joins us can have a clear mind?” asks the Lenape.

And that is the idea—to promote education and reconciliation.

Those involved seemed to be better educated after the experience.

Powell said he learned “the correct details about the story” by being a part of the opera.

Loutsion said she knew “basically nothing” about Native Americans before this performance, but now she knows a little bit more. “It was exciting to be a part of something so important,” she said.