On this Indigenous Peoples’ Day, let’s take a moment to honor the Native populations that still live in the five boroughs as well as those who established villages 400 years ago where many skyscrapers stand today. According to the latest census from 2021, 180,866 (about 2 percent) of New York City’s population identifies as either fully or partially “American Indian or Alaska Native.”
Today, many sites across the city take their name from Lenape words, such as Gowanus and Canarsie, but there are few markers of the Lenape’s history in New York. Organizations like the Redhawk Native American Arts Council and New York Indian Council work to preserve diverse Native American cultures in the city; however, most New Yorkers likely do not know about the significant indigenous peoples’ history that shaped the development of modern New York.
Here is our guide to the Native American heritage sites across the city, including museums and organizations devoted to documenting these stories and neighborhoods where Native Americans once lived before European settlement.
1. National Museum of the American Indian
The National Museum of the American Indian in New York, also called the George Gustav Heye Center, features exhibits by and about Native Americans. Heye was a collector of Native American artifacts who opened the museum in 1922 in a building at 155th Street and Broadway. Although the museum ultimately relocated to Washington, D.C., a branch of the museum moved to the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House on Bowling Green. The Beaux-Arts building now houses a permanent collection called “Infinity of Nations” with over 700 items. The museum features Tiffany woodwork in the Collector’s Office, an entranceway ceiling meant to resemble leather and a Guastavino rotunda with a 140-ton skylight.
Currently, the museum’s exhibitions include: “Why We Serve: Native Americans in the United States Armed Forces,” “Stretching the Canvas: Eight Decades of Native American Painting,” and the “Infinity of Nations” collection. The permanent collection features a Kayapó krok-krok-ti, a macaw-and-heron-feather ceremonial headdress; an Apsáalooke (Crow) robe illustrated with warriors’ exploits; a Mapuche kultrung, or hand drum, depicting the cosmos; and a Chumash basket decorated with a Spanish-coin motif. Over 30 painters have their works on display, including Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Kay WalkingStick, and Jeffrey Gibson. In 2022, the museum will showcase the art of Yanktonai Dakota artist Oscar Howe and Tlingit glass artist Preston Singletary.