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Exhibition on New Amsterdam from an Indigenous perspective 

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Amsterdam Museum collaborates with the Museum of the City of New York and native New Yorkers

Four hundred years ago, the first Dutch settlers arrived in the area that is now New York. Their mission from the Dutch West India Company (WIC) was to establish the colony New Netherland, with its capital New Amsterdam, at the southern tip of present-day Manhattan. The Amsterdam Museum, together with the Museum of the City of New York and representatives of the Lenape - original inhabitants of this area of the United States - are creating an exhibition about this shared history.

The exhibition Manahahtáanung or New Amsterdam? The Indigenous story behind New York is on display at the Amsterdam Museum aan de Amstel from 16 May to 10 November 2024. This exhibition looks from an Indigenous perspective at the decades-long period of Dutch colonisation of the area, its impact on the Indigenous inhabitants and their struggles. A sequel to the exhibition will be on show at the Museum of the City of New York in autumn 2025. 

Imara Limon, curator, Amsterdam Museum: ''Colonialism in Suriname, the Caribbean and Asia is receiving increasing attention in the Netherlands and also at the Amsterdam Museum. But Amsterdam also left deep traces in North America through colonial activities. I was surprised how little most Amsterdamers and New Yorkers know about New Amsterdam and the Lenape. All the while, the name Amsterdam was used to make the area their own. We are honoured to work with representatives from the Lenape and the Museum of the City of New York to showcase this underexposed part of Dutch colonial history.''

The reason for the collaboration and exhibition is that 2024 will mark four hundred years since the Dutch arrived in America at the mouth of the Hudson River to establish a colony. After that colony was conquered by the English from the Dutch in 1664, the settlement grew into the city of New York in the centuries that followed. The Dutch invasion and decades of colonisation had a major impact on the Indigenous people who lived in the area and on the island they Manahahtáanung called. They lost their lands and fell victim to brought diseases, wars and loss of livelihood ways. Settlers deliberately made it impossible for Indigenous peoples to maintain their own way of life and culture. At the same time, there has always been resistance from Indigenous communities, even to this day. 

What is there to see?

At the beginning of the exhibition Manahahtáanung or New Amsterdam? at the Amsterdam Museum, Chief Urie Ridgeway, leader of the Nanticoke Lenape Nation, welcomes visitors in a video. He tells what he knows from lore about the colonisation that involved violence, exploitation and cultural erasure of his people. He also names the ongoing resistance to it and the way of life, spirituality and culture that the Lenape nevertheless managed to maintain. A gripping story that for many visitors will be a first introduction to (this look at) the colonial history of the Netherlands in the United States.

The introduction is followed by a presentation on who the Lenape are and how they lived in the area before the Dutch colonised it. The room includes music and maps. In a video, Brent Stonefish, spiritual leader of the Delaware Nation, tells the origin story of the Lenape, the 'woman who fell from heaven'.

Most Indigenous knowledge has been handed down through oral traditions. That is why the museum also presents the stories spoken in the exhibition. Artist Myles Jackson Lynch, of the Delaware Nation, depicts with his pastel drawing The Place Where the Hickories Will Grow (2022, reproduction) the hope that hickories (walnut trees) ever return to the area. The walnut tree is an important tree species for the Lenape and, according to Lenape, should grow lushly in the area, a great contrast to built-up areas and asphalt roads.

Finally, this space reflects on the rise of the lucrative trade in beaver skins. This trade can be seen as the trigger for the Dutch invasion and colonisation of the area. The next room features objects from Dutch museum collections. The presentation of these prints, documents and a ship model shows how heritage preserved in the Netherlands always shows one, European, perspective on the arrival of the Dutch in Manhattan. Colonial seafaring is symbolised by the ship model of De Halve Maan, the ship with which Henry Hudson sailed into the bay off New York.

The European view of a stranger is shown in the form of a 17th-century print entitled Portrait of a man from Tsenacommacah (Virginia) at age 23  (1645) by Wenseclaus Hollar. It is a print of an Indigenous person in the Netherlands (probably Lenape) showing wonderment. Violence, such as the murder of many Indigenous people, the looting of resources and expulsion of Lenape from their land, is not visible in the heritage. An underexposed part of Dutch history.

In audio and video fragments, Lenape reflects on this Dutch heritage and adds perspectives to the dominant narrative. In the fragments, questions are raised by Lenape for further research ahead of the exhibition in New York in 2025. For example, in response to the print mentioned. Is there any information to be found about Lenape who were in Amsterdam centuries ago? How did they end up here? After this historical introduction, there will be space in the exhibition to reflect on healing.

In a special room, Lenape show how they experience the museum and the collaboration spiritually. Among the items on display is a special object: an unfinished wampum belt, with beads made from shells. Wampum was used as a means of payment and often ratifies an agreement or negotiation. For the exhibition, in traditional Indigenous fashion of consulting the Lenape involved nations and leaders sought permission to continue this collaboration.

The Lenape will therefore add wampum to the belt in the coming months-after the opening of the exhibition and when an agreement is reached to work on a follow-up exhibition in 2025. The wampum belt symbolises the beginning of a unique collaboration between the Lenape and the Amsterdam and New York city museums.

The purchase and exchange of Manahahtáanung

Also in the next room, which is about how Manahahtáanung came into the possession of the Dutch and was called New Amsterdam, the Lenape's perspective takes centre stage. How do they view the so-called purchase of Manahahtáanung? After all, according to Lenape, territory has no owner. And how do they look at the shift in power when the English took possession of the territory in 1664? This event eventually led to the exchange of Manhattan for Suriname and the Moluccan island of Run, among others. The English gave the area the name New England (with the capital New York), a naming after the Duke of York.

Insight into New Amsterdam

The exhibition then offers visitors an insight into New Amsterdam. What did the settlement look like, and who lived and worked there? What power relations were there? The Dutch introduced transatlantic slavery there: as early as 1627, the first enslaved people from the African continent were brought to the colony. Owned by the WIC, they worked the land, made roads, including Broadway, built Fort Amsterdam and the wall where Wall Street is now, among others. They also fought in wars against the Lenape.

Self-reflection

The Amsterdam Museum also takes a critical look at itself in the exhibition. The Amsterdam Museum was founded in 1926 as the Amsterdam Historical Museum, with the aim of telling the history of the city through its collection. The story was long limited to what happened within the city from a white, almost always male perspective.

After the museum opened in 1975 in the former Citizens' Orphanage, more attention came to other views of that past. For example, from migrants, Amsterdam's activities in the colonies, poverty and women. In 1983, for instance, there was also an exhibition on New Amsterdam, From New Amsterdam to New York, 1624 - 1664. Made in collaboration with the Amsterdam City Archives and the New York Historical Society. At the time, the focus was on what Amsterdammers (and the West India Company) were doing in that area: trading and laying the foundations of later New York City. Indigenous people were mentioned almost exclusively as trading partners. The diseases, wars and loss of land and livelihood that colonisation entailed for them were not a topic.

The commemoration of four hundred years of colonisation of New Amsterdam provides a good occasion to re-examine this history, now including Indigenous perspectives and focusing on contemporary Indigenous struggles against the negative knock-on effects of Dutch colonialism in this area.

Contemporary art

In the run-up to the exhibition, makers, largely from Lenape nations, received commissions for new work or showing recent works. This does not only include visual art forms, such as Myles Jackson Lynch's pastel drawing. Art in this context is also closely related to craft and spirituality, such as the wampum belt, and other objects that Lenape artists will contribute. For example, a decorated knife holder by artist Stephen Conaway of the Nanticoke Lenape Nation, and a carved gourd by Denise Dunkley, master craftswoman and educator of the Nanticoke Lenape Nation. The Amsterdam Museum is displaying 12 of these objects together in one space. Twelve is a meaningful number for the Lenape.

In addition, two Dutch artists will be commissioned. patricia kaersenhout will create a new installation consisting of mixed media with artist Leonard Harmon of the Delaware Nation and the Nanticoke Lenape Nation. A Phantasmagorical Story of Manhatta Island (working title) on the one hand shows a world as it could have been and on the other offers an option to acknowledge this violent history. With her new installation Quechua Demonstration (working title) and the art project Indigenous Dreams (2022), Chihiro Geuzebroek links the exhibition's narrative to the challenge of modern forms of cultural appropriation of indigenous peoples' identities by corporations. And with the longing for a collective existence, cultural memory and revitalisation as Indigenous diaspora in the Netherlands and worldwide.

Unique and challenging collaboration

For this exhibition, the Amsterdam Museum is collaborating with the Museum of the City of New York and representatives of the Lenape. The collaboration with the Lenape, represented by individuals from various nations, makes this exhibition special and requires flexibility from all parties with a new way of working. The leaders of the four Lenape nations-the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation, the Ramapough Lenape Indian Nation, the Munsee-Delaware Nation and Eelunaapeewi-Lahkeewiit (the Delaware Nation)-have selected a number of individuals who have different nations represent and create the exhibitions with the two museums.

These representatives are Chief Urie Ridgeway, leader of the Nanticoke Lenape Nation, Cory Ridgeway of the Nanticoke Lenape, Brent Stonefish of the Delaware Nation, George Stonefish of the Delaware Nation, Lesley Snake of the Delaware Nation, Sherry Huff of the Delaware Nation, Denise Dunkley of the Nanticoke Lenape Nation and Steven D. Smith, representative of the Ramapough Nation.

The Lenape use an Indigenous system of governance for such things as mutual decision-making and hierarchy. This involves consultation within the community and coordination with ancestors and community leaders.

Imara Limon: ''Cooperation between the parties is really probing. With such a fraught history full of violence and with ongoing consequences for the Lenape, it is not surprising that institutional partners need to slowly gain trust. I respect the Lenape who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences with us. The extensive decision-making process takes getting used to. For instance, we will spiritually cleanse and dedicate the exhibition rooms at the Amsterdam Museum for the first time." 

A follow-up exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York in autumn 2025 will showcase the results of the ongoing collaboration and research into this shared history. In addition to the underrepresented history of the Lenape, the New York exhibition will focus on contemporary initiatives by the Lenape to redefine their culture and homeland. The Museum of the City of New York will host a kick-off weekend on 4 and 5 May 2024 to celebrate Lenape culture, including lectures and cultural activities.

The exhibition Manahahtáanung or New Amsterdam? The Indigenous story behind New York can be seen from 16 May to 10 November 2024 at the Amsterdam Museum aan de Amstel. The exhibition has been made possible by the Mondriaan Fund, DutchCultureUSA and the Dutch Consulate-General New York. The exhibition will be on show in New-York in 2025. The Amsterdam Museum is structurally supported by the City of Amsterdam, the Friends Lottery and the ELJA Foundation.

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