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Stewart Huntington
Special to Indian Country Today

One of the enduring fictions surrounding the founding of the United States involves the sale of Manhattan Island by its Lenape inhabitants to the Dutch for a handful of baubles.

“It’s a myth,” said Joe Baker, executive director of the Lenape Center and citizen of the Delaware Tribe of Indians. “It’s magical recreation for the erasure of our people.”

It’s an erasure Baker and his colleagues at the Lenape Center have been fighting for more than a decade through advocacy work in the land originally known as Lenapehoking that stretches from Philadelphia and up past New York City.

The center has existed online since 2009 but is now entering a new phase as it explores establishing a physical presence in Manhattan to provide cultural and educational opportunities for Lenape descendants as well as members of the broader New York community.

“We’re in the discovery stage in advance of launching a capital campaign,” to help the Lenape raise their voice in the great and varied chorus that is New York City, Baker said.

For decades, there were only hints of the Lenape peoples in New York City, including a depiction of a Lenape man on the seal of the city. (Photo illustration courtesy of Stewart Huntington)

It’s a concept endorsed by New York City’s mayor-elect, Eric Adams.

"New York City's Indigenous peoples are an important part of this city's past, present, and future,” he said in a statement to Indian Country Today. “We all benefit as New Yorkers when each of our city's diverse identities has a chance to shine and share their story."

The Lenape Center’s expansion initiative coincides with the release of a new short documentary film produced by Chris Eyre, Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribes of Oklahoma, called “Back to Manahatta: The Return of the Lenape.” It was written and directed by Stewart Huntington, who writes for Indian Country Today.

The film premieres Saturday, Nov. 20, at Aspen’s Shining Mountains Film Festival, and is available to stream free through Dec. 1

“We’re excited to screen this film and to highlight the work of the Lenape Center,” said Deanne Vitrac-Kessler, the executive director of the Aspen Indigenous Foundation which sponsors the film festival. “The world needs to embrace Indigenous values. What better place to highlight this than in New York City?”

The film sketches the rich history of the Lenape from first colonial contact — in 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that today bears his name — to the present, where most Lenape descendents live on five reservations in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ontario.

“The Lenape were very capable of being fierce warriors but they were really known among their neighboring tribes as Muxumsak, or the grandfathers,” said Curtis Zunigha, the Delaware Tribe of Indians cultural director and Lenape Center co-founder. “They were known as being the oldest of the original people, considered to be the ancient ones, the wise ones.”

Curtis Zunigha, the cultural director for the Delaware Tribe of Indians, sits in his office in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in June 2021. “The Lenape were very capable of being fierce warriors but they were really known among their neighboring tribes as Muxumsak, or the grandfathers. They were known as being the oldest of the original people, considered to be the ancient ones, the wise ones.” (Photo courtesy of Stewart Huntington)

But first the Dutch, then the British and then the Americans drove them out under cover from the Doctrine of Discovery, a set of standards decreed by the Catholic Church in the 15th Century — and later adopted by Protestant churches — that sanctioned European colonial conquests.

“You go to these lands and take dominion on those lands and the savages that live on these lands and you are to convert the savages to Christianity,” said Zunigha, summarizing the practical implementation of the doctrine. “Those that won't convert, you kill.”

Or force out.

“The Lenape, like several Native Nations on the East Coast were pushed several times before finally having a home to themselves,” said Heather Bruegl, the director of cultural affairs for the Stockbridge-Munsee Community and a Lenape descendent. “The Lenape were forced from Lenapehoking and repeatedly shifted westward as colonial expansion started to happen more.”

Heather Bruegl, the director of cultural affairs for the Stockbridge-Munsee Community and a Lenape descendent, stands outside her office in Wisconsin in June 2021. “Like several Native nations on the East Coast, the Lenape were pushed several times before finally having a home to themselves,” she said. (Photo courtesy of Stewart Huntington)

For decades there were only hints of the Lenape on Manhattan, named for the Lenape word Manahatta that means “the place where they gather wood to make bows,” though the island was once peppered with Lenape villages. A Lenape Indian graces the seal of the City of New York and two monuments purport to note the sale of the island to traders of the Dutch West India Company who built a wall around their settlement that became the site of what today is Wall Street.

More recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Columbia University have erected land acknowledgement plaques. But Lenape Center leaders are determined to move past symbolism and restore a more vibrant Indigenous presence in the city.

“Our culture remains vital,” Baker said. "This is Lenapehoking. Our ancestors are still here.”

Lenape Center co-director Brent Michael Davids, Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation, said Lenape leaders are ready to take the next step.

“Our first decade at Lenape center has been focused on cultural things like programming as opposed to having a place, a building,” Davids said. “But now is the time when we’re thinking about having a place, an actual place where people can come visit and come stay and actually see the homeland and experience the homeland.”

Lenape Center co-director Brent Michael Davids sits near a creek in June 2021 on the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation’s Wisconsin lands. “Now is the time when we’re thinking about having a place, an actual place where people can come visit and come stay and actually see the homeland and experience the homeland.” (Photo courtesy of Stewart Huntington)

Plans are for the center to not only serve Lenape descendents but also be a resource for city schools, residents and visitors.

“The story of the Lenape is a complex story,” Baker said. “It’s a story of forced migration. It’s a story of diasporic communities that have been pushed west far from the homeland. It’s a story that has yet to be told and fully understood by the American People. It is part of our mission at Lenape Center to educate all of this country on the beginnings of the United States.”

Proponents are happy to see the message spreading, including via the new documentary.

"I think it is great that this film is getting a screening in Aspen," said playwright and attorney Mary Kathryn Nagle, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma. "The work that the Lenape Center folks are doing is vital and it is important that their message continues to reach new audiences."

Nagle, who narrated Back to Manahatta, also sees the possibility of a broader impact of the Lenape Center’s work.

“I think it’s an exciting time in the United States,” she said. “In the last few years we’ve seen the first Native women ever elected to Congress. We now have the first ever Native Secretary of the Interior. We’re seeing a lot of firsts in this country. And I hope that with those firsts will come erasure of some of the invisibility that Native peoples have had in their own homelands.

“So if New York recognizes the Lenape and honors its historic relationship with the Lenape and acknowledges that the Lenape are still here today,” she said, “I think that will benefit all Americans. Because no matter where you are living in the United States, you are living on the historic homelands of a tribal nation and restoring that respectful relationship will benefit everyone, not just the tribal nations whose homelands you live on.”

For more info

For more information on the Lenape Center visit www.thelenapecenter.com.

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