Brent Michael Davids
Days, hours, and minutes ago, the awaited “Native New York '' exhibit launched as a double-entendre promise at One Bowling Green, the waterfront home of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian. There, a native of the five-borough multiplicity and a native of the original Mannahatta might together encounter NMAI’s fresh take on a millennia-aged Lenapehoking, the ancestral home of the Lenape. Sad to say, fresh-as-a-daisy hopes became recycled hand-me-down tropes.
Consider: Standing Rock, George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, decades of priest pedophiles, an increasing body count of Native children discovered below Indian school grounds, statues honoring slave owners and White racists being removed, and Line 3 Pipeline water protectors trying to save the planet. With extreme weather events caused by fossil fuel consumption, the answer is literally blowing in the wind—the times they are a-changin’. One would expect the Smithsonian to rethink the history of Lenapehoking and to recognize the violence committed against the Lenape. How long has the Smithsonian been in existence?
Not only has “Native New York” misstepped with its amateurish Lenapehoking analysis, fumbling the chance to present history with inclusivity and sensitivity, the museum has failed to ever devote a major exhibition to the original people of Lenapehoking. What about a feature exhibit on the mythological “purchase of Manhattan” that never occurred? What about Kieft’s war and the massive Lenape diaspora? What about New York becoming stinking rich on the backs of the original people?
Take the first panel "A world of trade." The descriptive text reads:
Lower Manhattan has long been a good place for business. In 1626 the Dutch build Fort Amsterdam here. They were seeking beaver pelts from Native Nations from further up the Hudson River. In exchange, their Native trading partners wanted guns, valuables manufactured in Europe, and shell beads called wampum.
Compare this with the engraving and its accompanying text of a 1934 book on Indian Life of Long Ago in the City of New York, “Thus was Manhattan Island again left in primeval solitude, waiting till commerce should come and claim its own.” Adding insult to injury, the exhibition relies on a chronic line of defamation against the Lenape regarding trade, echoing age-old discourses that reek of white supremacy and excuse past violence in the name of economic development.
The parallel with the new exhibit and the older book is stunning. It seems as if the Smithsonian continued an exhibit in 2021 that began in 1934, when author Reginald Pelham Bolton, his boss William Louis Calver, and financier George Heye established the Museum of the American Indian (Heye Foundation). Hugh Raffles (2020) described these “week-end archeologists” as negotiating with the Parks Commission to become “honorary curators” of Inwood Hill Park, a site important for the Lenape that was thoroughly plundered.
We should not forget life before the museum where “primitive” culture was housed in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History with replica cavemen and stuffed saber-toothed tigers. Performance artist James Luna once locked himself in a glass case and played dead, as a commentary on the backward treatment at the Smithsonian. And when the National Museum of the American Indian was first built, loud objections came from Indigenous communities over the lack of attention to the American genocide. With the new National Museum of the American Indian, Natives were instead given a genocide-free museum to assuage white guilt. Criticism eventually prompted an added side exhibit with a small pin-lit map of America tracing forced migration routes like a board game for children.
Over its existence, in fact, the Smithsonian has never exclusively featured an exhibition on:
- the Lenape of Lenapehoking;
- the environmental destruction of Lenapehoking from colonization, clear cutting, water pollution, and over hunting;
- the enslavement of Lenape people for profit by the Dutch East/West India Companies;
- the Lenape enslaved to colonial farms
- the many atrocities of Kieft’s war, including the Pound Ridge, Pavonia, and Nechtank massacres;
- the legal battles of Lenape to retain Manhattan in 1660-70;
- the sophisticated Lenape peace-making diplomacy of the elders, such as Tammany;
- the barter and exchange Lenape system of sustaining life that underscores collective wellbeing;
- the Lenape culture of reciprocity and respect for “otherness” that renders ownership of land as inconceivable;
- the matriarchal and clan systems of the Lenape;
- the persistence of the Lenape into Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Canada, surviving genocide and erasure.
The above panel, from “Native New York,” further contributes to Lenape erasure by erroneously framing the Lenape as willing participants and equal partners in massive land theft and genocide by mischaracterizing those terrors as the simple by-products of commerce and trade. With its new exhibit, the Smithsonian has limited our ability to truly grasp the genocide and dispossession that Lenapehoking faced. This tendency of reproducing and adapting past tropes has a name: coloniality of power. There may have been efforts by the museum to come up with a more inclusive exhibit. But they are themselves prisoners of a mammoth institutionalized hegemony that author Diana Muir (2005) characterized as the “National Myth of the American Indian” for its incessant lack of attention to indigenous history. How can a few Natives hired by the Smithsonian undo this fortified milieu that celebrates White Supremacy? They cannot do this on their own. Nor can a few Lenape Nations knocking at the doors of the Smithsonian.
Hey Smithsonian, was there no Lenape curator qualified to organize an exhibit about New York and its original people?
Brent Michael Davids is enrolled in the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, and co-director of the Lenape Center in Manhattan. https://thelenapecenter.com/
Benoit Challand is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies at The New School for Social Research in New York City.
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