IT IS PERHAPS HISTORY’S most famous real-estate deal. In 1626, Dutch settlers reputedly bought the island of Manhattan from local Indians for some $24 worth of goods.
Traditionally, the story has been viewed as one of clever Dutchmen and gullible Indians. But what if the reverse is true? Some have suggested that the Indians in question may actually have been a savvy band of Brooklynites from the Canarsee tribe, “selling” the Dutch an island to which they had no real claim—much like the con artist who, nearly three centuries later, famously “sold” the Brooklyn Bridge to an overly credulous fellow for $200.
Of course, the details of this transaction are murky. What is clear is that the corner of Long Island that came to be known as Brooklyn has a rich Native-American history that continues to this day.
While the Canarsee presence may be a thing of the past, Brooklyn continues to draw Native Americans from across the continent. The 2000 census identified 10,117 American Indians and Alaska Natives residing in the borough.
Despite this relatively small population, Brooklyn has become a something of an epicenter for efforts to preserve and promote indigenous culture and contemporary Native American ways of life. The borough is home to the Redhawk Arts Council, an 11-year-old nonprofit that sponsors Native-American educational programming and cultural events throughout the tri-state area. The Brooklyn Museum has a vast collection of Native American art and artifacts. And the borough plays host to an annual powwow that draws thousands in a celebration of the traditions of Native peoples.
In the early 17th century—long before Bruce Ratner came to Brooklyn—the Canarsee Indians were the area’s major landholders, inhabiting sites from present-day Brooklyn Heights and Gowanus to Gravesend and Flatlands. The following decades, however, weren’t kind to this band of Lenape Indians. In the early 1640s, the Canarsees and other local Indian tribes clashed bloodily with the Dutch. Hostilities eventually ceased, but the Canarsees sold off most of their Brooklyn properties between 1636 and 1684. Most of the Canarsees either left the area or succumbed to disease. According to Frederick Webb Hodge’s Handbook of American Indians North of Mexico, the last Canarsee Indian died around 1800.
Courtesy of Redhawk Arts Council
The Canarsee Indians may have left Brooklyn long ago, but every summer Native-American spirit returns to the tribe’s old stomping grounds in force. Brooklynites—Native, native, and otherwise—are treated to three full days of Native-American arts and crafts, dance, drumming, food, and more at the annual Gateway to Nations Native American Heritage Celebration. Sponsored by the Sunset Park-based Redhawk Arts Council, the powwow takes place in the Gateway National Recreation Area's Floyd Bennett Field. Organizers for this year’s gathering, which took place June 9-11, estimate that more than 10,000 people attended the powwow.
Brooklyn’s Native American population may number only 10,000, but the borough's leading museum boasts more than 40,000 objects produced by the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This is tribute, in no small part, to the efforts of ethnologist Stewart Culin, who served as the first curator of the Brooklyn Museum's Department of Ethnology from 1903 until his death in 1929. Culin traveled extensively, acquiring more than 9,000 artifacts from numerous North American tribes, including the Tlingit, Hopi, Navajo, Zuni, and Nuu-chah-nulth, among others. The museum’s current “Living Legacies: The Arts of the Americas” exhibit displays many of the fruits of Culin’s labors.
New York’s skyline was built by Brooklynites—Mohawk Brooklynites. Mohawk ironworkers—whose specialty was working at great heights—began migrating from their upstate reservations to the Boerum Hill area (then known as North Gowanus) in the 1920s. By the 1930s, there were more than 700 Mohawks living in the neighborhood. They helped build the Empire State Building, Verrazano Narrows Bridge, Chrysler Building, and other city landmarks. In the mid-1950s, during a building lull, many Mohawk families left North Gowanus to seek employment elsewhere. Today, the most visible reminder of the neighborhood’s Mohawk past is the former Cuyler Presbyterian Church building located at 358 Pacific Street, once a community focal point and now private housing.
Martha Redbone’s first album, Home of the Brave, garnered her the Debut Artist of the Year honor at the 2002 Native American Music Awards. But Redbone’s Native-American roots aren’t the only ones this native Brooklynite is proud of. “I'm a real Brooklyn girl,” the singer-songwriter told Brooklyn Papers. Reared on Seventies and Eighties funk (she once sang backup for George Clinton), Redbone—who is of Blackfoot, Shawnee, Choctaw, and African-American heritage—describes her music as “Native Soul.” The 28-year-old Brooklyn Heights resident’s latest record, Skintalk received four stars from the music magazine MOJO, which called it a “fabulous old-school style soul album.”
Hers is a tragic story that has resonated across the centuries. In 1843, Do-Hum-Me, the 18-year-old daughter of Chief Nan-Nouce-Rush-Ee-Tol of Kansas’s Sac tribe, came East with her father, who was negotiating a treaty. She quickly met and married a young Iowa Indian brave named Cow-Hick-Kee. The newlyweds came to New York and became something of a sensation, performing traditional Indian dances at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum. Tragically, only five weeks after her wedding, the “Indian Princess” died of an infection. She was buried in Greenwood Cemetery, her final resting place marked by a monument depicting her grieving husband. The weathered monument is now being lovingly restored, thanks to a donation from Isaac Feliciano, a Greenwood groundskeeper who lost his own wife in the attack on the World Trade Center.
Rebecca Phillips is an editor at Beliefnet.