Did you know that the word Manhattan derives from the Lenape word Manahatta, or “hilly island”? It’s true: the Lenape were living here when the Europeans arrived. To learn more about Native Americans and New York, visit one of the city’s museums dedicated to Native Peoples, attend an event at the American Indian Community House, or spend an afternoon exploring Inwood Hill Park, where the island itself may have been bought and sold. By Jessica Allen.
At the American Indian Community House, you’ll find wellness programs, beading and crafting circles, women’s groups, art installations, and an annual Native American actors showcase—featuring performances by indigenous peoples and attended by an array of folks from the entertainment industry. Founded in 1969, the Lower East Side nonprofit seeks to “improve and promote the well-being of the American Indian community and to increase the visibility of American Indian cultures in an urban setting in order to cultivate awareness, understanding and respect.”
One of the most extraordinary displays at the American Museum of Natural History is the Great Canoe. Carved in the late 1870s and suspended from the ceiling, the dugout canoe is a testament to the astonishing skill and craftsmanship of the First Nations of British Columbia. Nearby is the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, full of artifacts showcasing the cultures of the Native Peoples who once lived along the coast of northwestern North America. This hall is also the museum’s oldest, so you’ll get a double dose of history: a sense of not only of a rich Native American heritage but also of how the museum used to look.
Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the National Museum of the American Indian boasts one of the most comprehensive collections of photographs, artifacts, and media about indigenous peoples from throughout the Western Hemisphere. The collection is spread across three facilities; the NYC outpost currently has special exhibitions centered on ceramics, dance, and narrative art, as well as some 700+ objects on permanent display, including headdresses, ceremonial vessels, jewelry and drums.
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While we might know intellectually that Manhattan once consisted of vast rocky outcroppings, trees, and grasses, it’s very difficult to imagine the island as anything but a busy, bustling 21st-century metropolis packed to the brim with taxis, towers, and tourists. If you’re looking to get some sense of what the city might have looked like way back when, head uptown to Inwood Hill Park, whose caves were formed by retreating glaciers some 30,000 years ago. People were making their home here long before recorded history, using the caves as shelter and storage as they foraged and fished along the nearby Hudson and Harlem Rivers.
Just about every schoolkid in America learns how Dutch settlers bought Manhattan for a handful of beads and trinkets. But what you might not know is that you can visit the site of this transaction. Today, a boulder marks the spot in Inwood Hill Park where the deal between Peter Minuit and the Reckgawawang who were then inhabiting the land allegedly went down. We say “allegedly” because the rock’s plaque reads “according to legend.” Some historians argue that the exchange occurred somewhere in Lower Manhattan. At any rate, the land was eventually taken over by Europeans—and the rest, as they say, is history.