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Sandra Hale Schulman
Special to Indian Country Today

Manhattan is a Lenape word, loosely translated as “a thicket where wood can be found to make bows.” It’s unimaginable today that this island of expensive skyscrapers and packed grid of streets was once lush hunting and farming ground, teeming with deer and beaver.

Two contrasting exhibits at Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian and at the Museum of Modern Art PS1 in Long Island City, give colorful views of what Manhattan was for Natives centuries ago and what Native artists are creating there now.

The MoMA Ps 1 show, "Greater New York," a survey of artists living and working in the New York City area, returns for its fifth edition from Oct. 7 to April 18, 2022. Artwork by Indigenous artists is given strong placement in work ranging from sculpture to painting to film and installation.

Athena LaTocha, Hunkpapa Lakota/Ojibway, shows a monumental mixed-media work, “It Came From the North,” (2021) one of the largest works in the show. An enormous wall piece, she incorporates raw earth from New York’s Green-Wood cemetery, pieces of demolition debris, and lead sheet that has been aged by time and weather. Dark and powerful she aims to “look at how humans are shaping the Earth,” LaTocha explains in the exhibition’s wall text. “Human power versus nature’s power. Both are incredible forces, but nature’s always going to win.”

(Related: Seneca artist uses blankets, sewing circles for inspiration)

Mohawk artist Alan Michelson has created a work, “Midden,” that takes up a whole room as he projects a film of river barges plowing along on a floor “screen” laid with thousands of oyster shells. “Midden” refers to enormous mounds of oyster shells that were there when Dutch colonialists “settled and unsettled,” in Michelson’s words, what would become New York City. Long before Jewish bagels, hot street pretzels and Italian pizza, oysters were the regional culinary staple, flourishing in New York Harbor’s Lenape territory and beyond. “There is a poetic directness to Alan’s work,” said curator Ruba Katrib. “He’s very precise but opens up all these questions.”

Museum of Modern Art PS1's "Greater New York" exhibit. Mohawk artist Alan Michelson has created a work, “Midden,” that takes up a whole room as he projects a film of river barges plowing along on a floor “screen” laid with thousands of oyster shells. (Photo courtesy of MoMA PS1)

Diane Burns, Chemehuevi, a poet who prowled the Lower East Side streets in the 1980s, has a powerful looping video of her reciting “Alphabet Serenade,” where she taunts gentrification and pines for the community she left behind on the rez. A vitrine displays rare photos of Diane on a trip she took to Nicaragua with Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri, some taken by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, Muscogee Nation, who was also on the 1986 trip.

G. Peter Jemison, Indians Have Always Paid the Price, 2005. (Photo courtesy of MoMA PS1)

A whole room survey is given over to G. Peter Jemison, Seneca Nation, Heron Clan, who paints on paper bags and textiles. His work embodies orenda, the Haudenosaunee belief that every living thing and every part of creation contains a spiritual force. The cloth he uses in mixed-media paintings reference the Canandaigua Treaty of 1794, which granted sovereignty and gave the tribe $4,500 annually, a sum which bought much more back then.

Down at the stately Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, located inside the George Gustav Heye Center, a new long-term exhibition, “Native New York,” opened Oct. 25. Designed for all age groups, the exhibition takes viewers on a journey to 12 significant places in New York, reaching from the sandy shores of Long Island through Manhattan to thundering Niagara Falls. Using objects, media, interactives and narrative comics, the exhibit colorfully demonstrates how New York has always been a Native place.

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Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian has a new long-term exhibition, “Native New York,” that opened Oct. 25, 2021. (Photo courtesy of C&G Partners)

“Because Native American histories and cultures are still affected by inaccuracy and stereotyping, it is critical that the museum not only offers more accurate stories of the past, but also shows how those histories impact contemporary life and Native people today,” said David Penney, the museum’s associate director for museum scholarship, exhibitions and public engagement in a statement. Penney curated the exhibition with Gabrielle Tayac, Piscataway, whose years of consultations with Native communities (2012–2017) provided the foundation for the exhibition’s scholarship.

Using modern technology, immersive full wall environments, original illustrations, some by acclaimed Tongva artist Alvitre Weshoyot, and first-person accounts, “Native New York” shows visitors that the region’s story is complex and compelling. Large-scale graphics lead to a wooden path that follows 12 locations identified with their English and Native place names:

  • Battery Park/Kapsee (the sharp rock place)
  • Long Island/Poospatuck (where the waters meet)
  • Shinnecock Nation/Shinnecock (stony shore)
  • Beaver Street/ Tëmakunk (place of beaver)
  • Inwood/Shorakapkok (the sitting-down place)
  • Van Cortlandt/Keskeskick [translation unknown]
  • Empire State Building/ Tiotenonhsáte (the tall house)
  • Manhattan/Manahatta (the place for gathering wood to make bows)
  • Onondaga Nation Fieldhouse/ Tsha’ Thoñ’nhes (where they play ball)
  • Onondaga Lake/ Onoñda’gega’ (people of the hills)
  • Aurora/Chonodote (they grow peaches there)
  • Niagara Falls/Niagara (thundering water)

Each location shows what occurred there - from an Iroquois Nationals lacrosse game to farming fruit trees to the 17th-century fur-trade economy. There are narratives on resilience, cultural change connection to home and community; and the exercising of sovereign rights. A six-minute film “The Trouble with History” brings the stories to life.

Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian has a new long-term exhibition, “Native New York,” that opened Oct. 25, 2021. (Photo courtesy of C&G Partners)
“Native New York" illustrations by Alvitre Weshoyot. (Photo courtesy of C&G Partners)

In conjunction, the museum’s education initiative, has released Native Knowledge 360°, a module on the “sale” of Manhattan. To support the lesson, the museum offers virtual field trips led by staff cultural interpreters. The exhibition was designed by C&G Partners; the comics were created by AlterNative Media.

New York Natives, in all their complicated history, can still be found thriving and growing in this mega-metropolis.

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Sandra Hale Schulman, Cherokee, has been writing about Native issues since 1994. She is an author of four books, has contributed to shows at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, The Grammy Museum, The Museum of Modern Art NYC, and has produced four films on Native musicians.

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