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New exhibit shines light on history, culture of Native nations, including Shinnecock and Unkechaug

A new long-term exhibit at The Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Manhattan is seeking to change conversations about the history of Native people in New York.

“Native New Yorker,” an exhibit developed with Native artists and communities from New York, including the Shinnecock and Unkechaug nations on Long Island, demonstrates how Native nations have played a role throughout the region’s history and examines the question: What makes New York a Native place?

“In New York City and in New York State, there was a tremendous need to be able to uplift and tell accurate and real stories of Native peoples, and there is not a great deal of information that is within the school system,” said co-curator Gabrielle Tayac. “So in order to build a new generations of learners who would understand what the history is, the true history is, of this state and of this city, it has to involve Native peoples.”

The exhibit, which emphasizes the continued presence of Native nations in New York, takes visitors through the history and culture of 12 significant sites throughout the state, including with Long Island — also identified as Poospatuck, a Native term meaning “where the waters meet.”

The exhibit notes that the Shinnecock and Unkechaug are the only Long Island Native nations to keep some of their land into the present day. Accompanying cases and signs feature traditional tools and art, including wampum and shell art made by Unkechaug artist Lydia Chavez.

A comic strip — inspired by Ms. Chavez, who owns the company Wampum Magic — outlines the wampum-making process in a modern workshop.

“It’s really important to me that we were represented because oftentimes we’re overlooked, as one of the smallest tribes in New York, and even though we’re probably the closest reservation to the city, people really don’t know that we exist unless it’s something negative in the news,” Ms. Chavez said. “It was really kind of refreshing to be included in that and in a positive light, so that our kids can go and check it out and have some positive feedback.”

Co-curator David Penney said many non-Native people in New York and on Long Island are not aware of local Native communities, or that they’ve been there longer than any European settlers.

“Most Americans, if they think about American Indians at all, they think about the Plains Indians or Indians of the West,” said Mr. Penney, who is also the museum’s associate director for museum scholarship, exhibitions and public engagement. “We’re very much identifying the struggle of [Native New York] communities for recognition, for recognition of their rights.”

The exhibit is meant to foster a broader understanding of how Native issues are “fundamental and foundational” to the United States, and how they both persist into the present and are rooted in the past, Mr. Penney said. Land controversies, threats to burial sites and other conflicts are still ongoing.

“When we visited the communities, we were told, over and over again, about this continuing struggle. This is not about something in the past, this is something that’s happening today, every day,” he said. “So we felt it was very important to make sure that the stories are told, that the relationship with the land is emphasized, that those communities will continue into the future and their rights will be recognized.”

Ms. Tayac emphasized that modern society has been strongly shaped by “histories that involved Native peoples,” and Native people in New York are still very involved with regional politics, economies and culture. 

“I think, especially as we’re all going through something like a global pandemic and the impact that it’s had in New York to understand that people have lived through, survived and made sense of these for centuries, and they’re still here,” she said.

The Shinnecock Nation gained federal recognition in 2010 and recently regained possession of Sugar Loaf Hill, an ancestral burial ground. This year, the tribe announced plans to build a casino and an $18 million partnership to launch a medical marijuana facility on its land. 

According to the exhibit, Shinnecock people have historically worked as fishing guides, wampum makers and whalers, among other things, and today work in “all sorts of jobs” while continuing to fish, clam, catch eels and farm in their territories. 

The Unkechaug Nation, located on the 50-acre Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic, was formally recognized by New York State in the 18th century. The exhibit notes the nation has historically asserted its rights to Long Island waterways to support its communities.

Harry Wallace, a former Unkechaug chief, co-founded the Algonquin Language Revitalization Project at Stony Brook University, where he has also taught courses.

Managing partner Jonathan Alger said design studio C&G Partners has worked on the project for at least four years. 

“There is a Native word for just about every place on Long Island,” he said. “The truth has been under our feet the entire time.”

The exhibit is accompanied by a dialogue toolkit to help educators teach about the exhibit’s content, as well as a new module in the Smithsonian’s educational program Native Knowledge 360. 

The module — called “Early Encounters in Native New York: Did Native People Really Sell Manhattan?” — includes Native perspectives, images, documents and other sources for fourth- and fifth-graders to understand the history leading up to the so-called sale of Manhattan in 1626.