At the northeast corner of Union Square, a new turtle shell rises over the former Tammany Hall. The steel and glass dome alludes to the Indigenous leader from whom the building and the society it once housed took their name; the animal represents Chief Tamanend’s nation, the Lenape. The turtle is also a contemporary marker of Turtle Island: in the Lenape’s origin story, North America was created when a great turtle rose from the ocean.
Before this landmarked building was erected at the corner of 17th Street and Park Avenue —before the city’s grid plan had even established these coordinates on paper — the site was a dense woodland. The island of Manahahtaan was part of Lenapehoking. Encompassing a unity of land, people, living and nonliving things within its territory, Lenapehoking extended across what are today New York City and New Jersey, to portions of New York State, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Connecticut. Centuries of occupation by European settlers, displacement, forced migration, and genocide of the original peoples, and intense development conspired to erase any sign of the Lenape’s long presence on the land. Today, New York City vaunts its diversity, with over 200 languages spoken, and a large population of American Indians from a number of tribal nations, but the relationship of the city to its original peoples is not part of the picture.
Yet Lenapehoking is still the homeland of the Lenape diaspora, which includes members of three federally recognized nations in Oklahoma and Wisconsin, and two in Ontario, Canada. The Lenape Center was established in 2008 with the mission of continuing Lenapehoking. The organization’s work has taken various forms, from staging an opera on the purchase of Manhattan, to consulting with BKSK Architects on Tammany Hall’s new turtle dome, and planting indigenous corn in the city’s community gardens. They also partner with other organizations seeking to promote the living culture of the Lenape. Land acknowledgements — in the form of opening statements at events, or plaques at the entrances to buildings — are becoming more common, as cultural institutions work to recognize the traditional indigenous people of the land where they are sited. Attempts to grapple with legacies of violence, displacement, and stolen lands, from debates on monuments to the Settler Colonial City Project’s recent project in Chicago, are complicating widely held understandings of the city’s history. But beyond recognizing the past, Lenape culture is pointed toward future generations. We spoke with Joe Baker and Hadrien Coumans, co-founders and co-directors (with Brent Michael David and Curtis Zunigha) of the Lenape Center, about their efforts to bring the original peoples and their culture back home in the 21st century.