A new exhibit at Ellis Island National Monument draws attention to a seldom-noted fact. When Henry Hudson discovered New York Harbor 400 years ago last September 11, Native Americans were already there. They were the Lenape, aka Lenni Lenape (“the true people”). The Lenape homeland included not only the area now occupied by New York City, but also a large territory that extended between the Delaware and lower Hudson Rivers and included all of New Jersey as well as parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.
The Lenape (pronounced Leh-NAH-pay) fared well for a while after European contact, profiting from the fur trade, but the ensuing centuries saw their fortunes take a bad turn. Crowded out by settlers and ravaged by infectious diseases, the depredations of hostile tribes, and other calamities, the Lenape saw their numbers dwindle and their once-large territory whittled to tatters by treaties. Finally, most of the remaining Lenape were gathered up and removed to the Oklahoma Territory in the late 1860s. Today, most Lenape descendants live in Oklahoma, but there are also scattered populations in Wisconsin, Kansas, Ontario, and in the Middle Atlantic states where the traditional homeland lay.
“Lenape: Ellis Island’s First Inhabitants” is the title of the new exhibit telling the story of “the Lenape people’s experiences from their earliest known presence in the area, through their fateful encounter with Henry Hudson, past their removal from their ancestral homeland to their present-day communities in Oklahoma and Wisconsin.”
The exhibit integrates a variety of materials, including prehistoric artifacts, antique books, maps, archival photographs, traditional Lenape clothing and crafts, ceremonial objects, illustrations, paintings and dioramas, bronze sculptures, and documentary films, that create a historical narrative. These materials are combined with quotations on a wide variety of subjects by traditional Lenape.
The museum staff at Ellis Island worked tirelessly with exhibit curator David M. Oestreicher, Ph.D, using the content generated by him to design and develop the exhibit. Their contributions in this area also included the graphic design for the exhibition as well as editing of the text provided for length and accessibility and incorporating suggestions from one of the Delaware tribes, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community.
They also worked with Oestreicher and curatorial consultant Karen Frederic to reorganize the exhibition to fit within the galleries and have a coherent thematic structure. Museum staffers assisted in the selection of artifacts, developed two interactive computer kiosks that will enable visitors to access supplemental content, located additional images to illustrate text, and installed the exhibit.
“Lenape: Ellis Island’s First Inhabitants” can be viewed through January 10 in the third floor galleries of the Ellis Island Museum, which is located in the refurbished Main Building.