Historic Preservation and Native Culture in New York City

By: Dominic Henry

Underpinned by a massive rectangular grid system of famous visual attractions like 5th Avenue, Central Park, Columbus Circle and finely crafted skyscrapers, it’s rather unimaginable to imagine Native American culture and a presence here. Well, don’t be so fast to judge…The purpose of this article is to expose the aboriginal presence and cultural history that is presently woven into this international bustling machine of NYC.

A night view of the Chrysler Building near Grand Central Terminal.
A night view of the Chrysler Building and Grand Central Terminal in New York. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry.
The interior of Grand Central Terminal-NYC. Historic Landmark and National Register of Historic Places site, Beaux-Architectural Style. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry.

Hundreds of years ago, existence in Manhattan was not reliant upon urban planning or by a means of access, like the best methods for getting from point A to points XYZ. The natural landscape was the grid system for life and physical features.

The native Lenape (Delaware) were the first people of Manhattan; the first city planners. However, the Lenape planners served more like steward planners, as human existence was rather adapted to the natural landscape and natural resources were highly respected. With the pressure of colonialism, the Lenape were legally driven off their homelands under the Indian Removal Policy. The Lenape were unwillingly relocated to Indian Territory in Oklahoma where many reside today, after removal to Indiana, Canada, Missouri, and Kansas. These Indian Removal policies of the 19th century also affected many other eastern tribes, forcing their Removal to other places, or a very difficult existence on their aboriginal lands where they had to fight difficult legal and social policy to maintain their Ancestral homelands. Embedded within the Indian Removal policies was Manifest Destiny, a policy that negated the existence and rights of Native Peoples. Manifest Destiny also contributed to the organization of political, state and city boundaries producing concrete grid systems over mother earth.

A view of historic buildings and Freedom Tower in Chinatown, NYC. Credit: Dominic Henry
Historic buildings and the newly constructed Freedom Tower-One World Trade Center in NYC. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry.

The intersection of 42nd street and Lexington might have been hunting grounds or an important pillar of village life. As mentioned earlier, New York City is still a Native place. Whether through sites, artifacts or spirituality, nothing will ever erase the lives of NYC’s original Native people.

Empire State Building
Built in 1931 in the Art-Deco Architectural Style the Empire State Building is located on 350 5th Avenue. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry.

Today, on the very street intersections of 42nd and Lexington, the iconic Chrysler building stands, enriched with Art-Deco exterior architectural trimmings. Built with an arrangement of concrete, masonry, marble, steel and stone, it’s a major site for New York and was added to the prestigious National Register of Historic Places in 1976. An important pillar of NYC life and local community symbolism, the average visitor might not know that Native Mohawk iron workers invested tireless labor building this towering skyscraper. It is quite amazing that Native workers contributed to an iconic structure that represented the “machine age” in the United States; an age founded on the basis that everything was machine made. In search for work to support their families and other expenses, Mohawks from Akwesasne (New York State, Ontario, Quebec) and Kahnawke (Montreal) took up construction work in NYC. These men immediately learned the skills and physical training to craft these buildings together. The six generations of Mohawk ironworkers continue to grow to this day as many still work in the construction industry. In Manhattan, I witnessed two slender skyscrapers being constructed, the metal frame and wiring still exposed, and wondered if any Native ironworkers were up there. Many believe that Mohawks are not afraid of heights. Instead, many have just quickly adapted to the trade and physical skills needed to get the job done effectively. In general, there is something deeply special about quickly adapting to something new as if it was always a part of your life.

The generation of Mohawk Ironworkers is so well established that recent generations aided in dismantling the World Trade Center 9/11 debris their forefathers helped construct. Besides the Chrysler Building and former World Trade Center, Mohawk iron workers also contributed to the Washington Bridge and Empire State Building. All of these buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and their physical states and architectural history will be protected for many years. Native Iron workers and their contributions to the city’s historic skyline will always be vital to NYC’s historic preservation heritage.

New York City is also home to the National Museum of the American Indian-George Gustave Heye Center Museum, located inside the historic Hamilton Alexander U.S. Custom House (www.nmai.si.edu). Built in the Beaux-Arts Architectural style, the Custom House was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972. The architecturally stunning interior is where the NMAI-NY offers world class exhibits on Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere. In an international city, this museum does a phenomenal job in showcasing native peoples with accuracy and deep intellectual interpretations. The bridge of the past and present are presented with elegance and strong design in the “Infinity of Nations” exhibition, where archaeological to present day contemporary collections tell stories, lifeway’s and cultural assimilation scenarios. This museum is an especially important component for an international audience in understanding and learning about Native peoples.

Navajo Chief Blanket at the NMAI-Gustave Heye Center in New York.
Dine’/Navajo Chief Blanket- Phase I, New Mexico-USA., ca. 1840-1850, on display in Infinity of Nations Exhibit at the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.
Kwakwaka’wakw (Kwakiutl)-Sea monster mask, circa. 1900. Cape Mudge; Comox-Strathcona Regional District; British Columbia; Canada. On view at NMAI-NYC in Infinity of Nations. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry..

The city is also a nexus for auction houses that invest in Native American cultural materials where they attract international private collectors. It’s important to note that sometimes the collecting history of such materials can be unknown; unfortunately, some cultural items sold in the past have been culturally significant to Native Nations. Some were taken from Massacre sites and, sometimes, funerary items were taken from Native graves. It should be a requirement for auction houses to consult with Native communities to determine significance before offering them to collectors. Despite auction houses being far away from most Native communities, situations involving cultural materials will always impact tribal communities. One must understand some items represent extremely sensitive situations or cultural practices and are not viewed as “art objects” by their representative communities, but deeply culturally significant. Because no such regulations exist to monitor auction houses, who knows how many important materials get sold behind closed doors and get sent around the world? Collectors should be cognizant of this issue and ask whether the Native Nation associated with the item they are purchasing has been consulted and ask for proof.

Overall, New York City has the largest Native American population, followed by L.A., Phoenix, Anchorage and Albuquerque. The American Indian Community House has been and still is instrumental in producing community and support for Native American New Yorkers. Other prestigious cultural agencies like the Association on American Indian Affairs, was started in 1922 in NYC to assist Pueblo people with lands protection. Its mission and duties have evolved over the years, (http://www.indian-affairs.org/). The early correspondence papers of AAIA are located in the NYC library archives and the AAIA archives are located at the Harvey Mudd Library at Princeton University, a short train ride from Penn Station. The city is a strong example of how Native culture thrives within a large urban hemisphere. New York also has populations of indigenous peoples from Latin and South America, Canada and the Pacific Islands.

In an exhibition on contemporary Native American life, there is no better quote that identifies Native peoples today “Anywhere in the Americas you could be walking with a 21st-century Native American.” -National Museum of the American Indian-Smithsonian Institution.

When in New York remember you are on Lenape-Delaware lands.

Dominic Henry-NYC subway snapshot. Photo Credit: Dominic Henry.

Area Tribal Nations:

Canada Mohawk First Nations

Akwesasne (Ontario and Quebec)

Kahnawke (Montreal)

Tribes of New York State

Removed/Exiled Lenape: Delaware Tribe of Oklahoma (removed to Indian Territory; now Oklahoma), Delaware Nation (removed to Indian Territory; now Oklahoma), Cherokee Nation (Delaware tribal members still citizens of Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma), Stockbridge Munsee Tribe (Wisconsin), Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians of New Jersey, Ramapough Lenape Nation, Munsee-Delaware Nation (Canada), Moravian of the Thames First Nation (Canada), Delaware of Six Nations (Canada).

Cayuga Nation of New York

Oneida Nation of New York

Onondaga Nation of New York

Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe

Seneca Nation of New York

Shinnecock Indian Nation

Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians of New York

Tuscarora Nation of New York


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