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“Whose Land Do You Live On?” Reminds Americans Colonization Happened in Their Backyards

First Peoples populated America long before Europeans arrived to stake their claim. We have largely forgotten this legacy. A mapping tool is looking to change that.

Scientific American

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As Christopher Columbus falls farther out of favor, the discourse has shifted to emphasize the voices that his story has silenced. This is particularly important as the United States grapples with defining what it means to be American. This identity is being wielded as a weapon within immigration politics. There are countless stories of widespread harassment in public spaces of people viewed as non-Native born Americans. On the edges of this, First Peoples have presented reminders that the Americas were populated prior to the arrival of Europeans and if anyone has a claim to being “American,” it is them. To this end, several instances of a reminder to know whose Native land you currently reside on was circulated on social media on Indigenous People’s Day—and a crowd-influenced mapping tool exists to help with this assessment, and prompt awareness and self-reflection.

Every day I travel into Lenape territory. I doubt they would recognize it today. In 1609 when Henry Hudson sailed into New York harbor, the island of Manhattan was a thriving natural ecosystem. Hudson documented chestnut, oak, and hickory trees as well as salt marshes populated by turkey, elk, black bears, and beavers. The Collect Pond, which was covered over at the present-day Foley Square, provided fresh water to Lenape villagers before the Dutch and English assumed control and eventually polluted the pond beyond use by building a tannery on its shores. Times Square was a red maple swamp and beaver pond. And Marcus Garvey Park overlooked what was likely a managed grassy plain.

Following Hudson’s report of his findings both the Dutch and the English set their sights on the new world. The Dutch returned almost immediately and established New Netherlands which ranged from Delaware to Albany. The settlement of New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan was strategically placed to defend their fur interests higher on the Hudson River. It is alleged that the Governor-Director Peter Minuit traded for the island of Manhattan with the Lenape but no bill of sale has ever been found. And as the National Museum of the American Indian points out, there were likely multiple groups of First Peoples living in the area so could a land transaction have happened for land that did not belong to a particular group? One version of this legend maintains Minuit made the purchase from the Canarsie, but they resided in Queens, the western-most end of Long Island. There are also questions about the definition of the sale and whether the Dutch abused a land-use agreement—which would explain some of the subsequent tensions that arose as a result of wandering livestock.

Nonetheless, New Amsterdam was established and began to grow. At one point 1500 of the 2000 residents of New Netherlands would reside there. However in the 1630s New Netherland began to feel pressure from all sides from the French, British, and the Swedish. Then Governor-Director Willem Kieft took direct and ruthless action to secure his borders which included a series of deals with the Lenape people to acquire what would become the outer boroughs on New York City. But the relationship was a strained one. The Lenape were suffering from European diseases to which they had no immunity. They were also constantly forced to defend the boundaries they thought they had established from livestock encroachment. Kieft did nothing to make this relationship better: he tried to levy a tax against the Lenape to raise revenue and would not deal European firearms to them, which put them at a disadvantage when their enemies were able to obtain guns from Dutch sailors.

These tensions reached a peak with a planned slaughter of the Lenape at the hands of Dutch soldiers at two metropolitan locations, one of which is the site of Bowling Green. On February 25, 1643 two groups of Lenape sought refuge from the Mahicans. Kieft personally led a raid that killed 80 Lenape in what is now Pavonia, New Jersey. His soldiers killed another 30 at Bowling Green. The killings were savage and are graphically described in the annals of history. Kieft brought the wrath of the Algonquin nation down on New Amsterdam, and placed the settlers on the edges of the young colony in the path of a two year war that would have destroyed New Amsterdam permanently if the Algonquin had attacked the fort directly. Instead life came to standstill while they raided the peripheral settlements.

We know how the story ends. The Dutch local citizen advisory board had been specifically opposed to the initial raid. Kieft was fired by the Dutch West India company, and New Amsterdam grew into metropolitan New York City. There are few traces of the colony that was or the landscape as Hudson knew it.

Every day I travel back through the lands once occupied by the Canarsie and the Rockaways to the land the Merrick and Massapequas called home. I visit the Shinnecock annually and the land of the Montauk frequently. Many of these groups are gone. Some were systematically pushed out as is evidenced by a 1768 edict from Smithtown, NY that stated "no Squaw Mustee or Mulatto female shall, after the first of May next have any house or cellar, or wigwam, standing in the bounds of said Smithtown.” Some were eradicated by disease and still others like the Montauk have had their numbers decimated and are scattered. The Montauk are in the process of petitioning for recognition and obtaining a land base, as the Shinnecock have done.

Recognition is part of the battle. In today’s maps while the names of some of these communities do live on, in many cases they’re anglicized. The boroughs of New York City bear names relating to the Europeans who settled there (Bronx, Queens, Staten Island) or places in Europe (Brooklyn). Only Manhattan bears a resemblance to the original name of the space. The maps that were drawn of Long Island rewrote and assumed the names of the Peoples who lived there and were drawn to serve the land claims of the settlers. This is an erasure we tend to overlook but it may not be one that we can continue to ignore if the public discourse makes room for the acknowledgment.

So whose land do you reside on?

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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This post originally appeared on Scientific American and was published October 10, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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