Mapping the Appropriation of an Island

December 11, 2020

I seldom review books on this blog these days, and never children’s books, but I wanted to discuss a few pieces of misinformation that I found recently in the (beautifully illustrated) book Manhattan: Mapping the Story of an Island, by Jennifer Thermes, geared to grade school children. Misinformation about the Munsee-Delaware Indians can be found many other places, not just in this book, but I’ll use it as a touchstone since it’s the latest perpetuation I’ve found of certain well-worked themes.

Manhattan’s original inhabitants are referred to in the book as “Lenape,” which, while not incorrect, is misleading in its imprecision. Lenape is often used for referring to groups speaking the Unami-Lenape language. Many groups of people originating around what is now the New York City area spoke a related language to Unami-Lenape called Munsee and referred to themselves as Munsee people. To make matters more confusing, both groups refer to themselves as Lenape (in different spellings) in their own language. The cultural demarcations between the groups, such as they were, have been blurred through centuries of dislocation and colonialization, but at this point there are still two distinct languages.

So Lenape isn’t wrong, exactly, but I would refer to people originally controlling Manhattan as Munsee, Munsee-Delaware, or Munsee-Lenape. This is how they refer to themselves today. Alternatively, there are even more specific words that could be used, though they are rather obscure. It seems like Lenape would be the anti-colonialist word of choice to use in place of Delaware, which comes from the name of an English colonial ruler, but when used by non-Natives it’s mostly just confusing.

On to another piece of misinformation, which is the etymology of “Manhattan.” The book says it comes from a Lenape word “mannahatta” and means “island of many hills.” That’s a lot of meaning to pack into four syllables, especially for a language from that island and those hills. Wikipedia derives Manhattan from another purported word, “manahataan,” and translates it as “place where we gather wood to make bows.” Both derivations, if true, involve speculation on root words and exceptions to Munsee grammar rules. It’s more likely that the Dutch mangled some other word, which may or may not have been Munsee. What I have heard from Munsee speakers is that the name Manhattan comes from the (verifiably real) Munsee word “munahan,” which means “island.” So the Munsee might have called Manhattan a hilly island, and European speakers may have truncated the place name and mispronounced it. But Manhattan does not mean “island of many hills.”

On to the sixty guilder question: how did the Dutch acquire “Manhattan”? At least the book equivocates “As the story goes” before repeating that the Dutch West India Company “bought the island from the Lenape in 1626 for approximately $24 worth of wampum beads and trinkets. For Native people, the idea of owning the land was as crazy as owning the land we breathe. More likely, the Lenape only thought they were agreeing to share the island with the Dutch.”

It was all a misunderstanding! Those Indians, too naïve or too spiritually enlightened, take your pick, just didn’t know what they were doing.

Think for a moment. If I were to buy a block of present-day Manhattan, I would not be able to call it the Manhattan Republic of Hearth and live completely by my own laws. I would still be subject to the laws (and taxes!) of New York City, not to mention New York State and The United States. If any of these governments decided they wanted the land for some purpose, they could purchase it from me (no matter who I bought it from) at a price they decided was fair. In virtually every country on earth, the land ultimately belongs to the nation that governs it. The Dutch West India Company was a private company doing business on foreign soil. The sale of land was an acknowledgement of that relationship. To me, this doesn’t sound like naivete or enlightenment; it sounds like business. It certainly was not a relinquishment of sovereignty, and the subsequent establishment of a European government on that land was not misunderstanding, it was theft.

As for the amount of money that changed hands, in present day dollars it was much more than $24, and Manhattan real estate has gone through the roof, but the price of the land is not a material point. The Munsee, like many Natives, wanted to trade with the Dutch, so if they wanted to give the Dutch West India Company a sweetheart deal to facilitate trade, that was their calculation. A poor calculation, as things turned out, but not an unreasonable one based on information available to both parties at the time.

This is a long complicated explanation for a children’s book, but the whole thing can be explained in simple words:

The people who originally lived on Manhattan are known as Munsee-Lenape. They are still around, though most of them live in other places. They left because the Dutch and the English stole the land. The name Manhattan might come from a Munsee word meaning “island,” but we don’t know.

And leave out the part about how many wampum beads. It really doesn’t matter, does it?

Getting ready for 2021

November 27, 2020

Here’s a picture I made this week for a 2021 calendar. This is for the Strawberry Moon (June). It depicts a Delaware Indian story about a turtle and a hummingbird. The two agree to race, but Turtle tricks Hummingbird by sending a look-alike friend to wait near the finish line.

The Woodpecker Laughs

May 6, 2016

Mississippian bird effigy pot. Probably Pileated or Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Photo: Herb Roe.
Mississippian bird effigy pot, circa 1000 CE. Probably Pileated or Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. Photo: Herb Roe.

 

North American aboriginal lore is rich in story and folklore about the woodpecker. This wisdom is usually absent in Native animal-spirit books targeted to a mass audience, a testament to the lack of interest most English speaking people have in this bird. In a Lenape (mid-Atlantic) tale Rabbit is invited to dine with the twelve Woodpecker Girls and is impressed with the gourmet meal of grubs they offer him. He is envious and determined to outdo them. Rabbit is very talented – he molded the clan animals from the animals who died during the Great Flood – but unfortunately his pride in this instance is greater than his own greatness. He invites the Woodpecker Girls to dine with him and attempts to re-create the grub delicacies with disastrous results. The Woodpecker Girls laugh at him. This is why Woodpecker laughs at everything, even Creator.

In a myth attributed to the Hasinai-Caddo (Texas), people become woodpeckers after abusing a mescaline producing plant (like peyote). Elders warn that only those initiated in medicine ways should touch the plant, but most people ignore the warnings and spend their days caught up in visions. They forget about their children and one day notice that the children are missing. Creator hears the distraught cries of the parents and changes them into woodpeckers so they can hunt for their children. This is why woodpeckers tap at trees and poke into holes: they are looking for their children.