Welcome to the latest edition of this NYC election-focused newsletter. I’m independent journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and as we head toward Indigenous Peoples’ Day, we figured we might briefly discuss some of the history and current context for the Native American communities here in New York. It should come as no great surprise that the original inhabitants of the land that we’re all on now were not the Dutch settlers that would eventually name this city New Amsterdam.
The name Manhattan is directly derived from “Manahatta,” or “hilly island,” the original Lenape residents’ name for what is now the metropolitan heart of the state. As history has shown, the relationship between the incoming Europeans and the native peoples was fraught. Dutch settlers famously purchased Manhattan from the Lenape and built a wall along what is currently Wall Street in part to keep them out.
There are a number of great resources to explore this history, but this is a contemporary political newsletter, and we’ll focus on some of the current dynamics at issue when it comes to the state’s American Indian population, which according to the latest census, at around 194,000, is not among the top in comparison to other states, but is nonetheless sizable.
The repercussions of forced schooling
Canada has over the last several years been engaged in a painful but transparent and ongoing conversation over its treatment of Native American children in particular, many of whom ended up in the so-called residential school system, a network of live-in schools in which around 150,000 students were forcibly placed. Most suffered mental, physical, and sexual abuse, if they survived at all—thousands perished there. While we haven’t had the same commissions and public discourse, the United States had an analogous system, including one such school in New York: the Thomas Indian School on the Cattaraugus Reservation just outside Erie County.
While it doesn’t appear that the school was the site of quite the level of horrors painstakingly documented in the Canadian reports, it very much featured the types of extreme discipline, corporal punishment, and psychological torment that characterized this approach to what officials then offhandedly referred to as the “Indian problem.” Unlike with our neighbors to the north, we have never very comprehensively documented or dealt with the repercussions of this institution, or the system writ large.
Getting the recognition they deserve
In fact, many ongoing political projects involving New York’s Native Americans have at their root some form of basic recognition. A particularly acrimonious debate has involved recognition of Christopher Columbus, including the fate of a statue occupying a prominent place in Columbus Circle at the southwestern corner of Central Park. Caught between advocates for removing the effigy of a man who had Native Americans dismembered and paraded through the streets and an Italian-American community that has embraced him as a hero, Mayor Bill de Blasio punted the issue to a commission that ultimately decided to keep it, though also promised to erect more commemorations of the city’s Native American forebears. Almost four years on, there remains paltry evidence that the administration is actually attempting to put up these markers of recognition.
Photo: Shinnecock Nation Cultural Center and Museum
Clashes over sovereignty
The friction isn’t just in the city itself. There are currently 11 Native American reservations of varying sizes and several distinct tribes in New York State, and they continue to sometimes clash with their neighbors and with state and local officials over questions of sovereignty and land use. The Shinnecock Indians have for decades attempted to build a casino in their Hamptons reservation, and are now facing the latest attempt to derail the project from neighboring wealthy homeowners, who characterize the proposed gambling establishment as a garish departure from the area’s refined sensibilities. Leaders in several tribes have also called on the state government to make significant investments in tribal schools, claiming that their physical infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate to dangerous levels.
Along the Cattaraugus reservation, a stretch of decrepit Interstate 90 has caused friction between the state government and the Seneca Nation, each of which accuses the other of having failed to engage in a dialogue that would result in the tribe granting state agencies permission to conduct repairs on the stretch of highway that cuts across their land. It’s not even the only highway-related dispute, as various tribes have clashed with the government over a reneged promise to put up Native American-focused murals along Exit 3 of Interstate 87, a project which took place on former Native American sacred land and was so important to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo that he took the inaugural drive along it in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1932 Packard, which was used when he, too, was governor.
More broadly, Native American communities around the country found themselves particularly hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic. National indicators around health, household income, and insurance coverage, among others, remain lower for Native Americans than for the general public. Recognition is good, but it’s ultimately not sufficient to contend with the harms that have been done over centuries. Indigenous Peoples’ Day is about not only honoring the legacies of the people without whom the countries’ earliest settlers would never have survived, but honoring and respecting the current lived reality of their descendants, who are often left entirely out of the conversation when it comes to public policy.