Manahahtáanung or Manhattan? Tribal representatives call for apology for Dutch settlement of New York City

<span>The Collectiecentrum Amsterdam Museum on 30 October 2023. </span><span>Photograph: Courtesy of Amsterdam Museum</span>
The Collectiecentrum Amsterdam Museum on 30 October 2023. Photograph: Courtesy of Amsterdam Museum

Representatives for some of the Lenape people have called for an apology and reparations for the 17th-century Dutch “settling” of New Amsterdam, the place that is now New York.

Precisely four centuries after the Dutch established a colony at the mouth of the Hudson River, some descendants of Indigenous Americans believe it is time for a fuller story of the wars on their people, slavery, exploitation and dispersal.

Their call for recognition comes at the opening of the first exhibition in Amsterdam exploring the colonisation of North America from the perspective of the Lenape – four nations that once fished, hunted beavers and lived on that land.

“Our overall collective eventually will want to see an apology to the Lenape people,” said Brent Stonefish, 48, from the Eelūnaapéewi Lahkéewiit (Delaware Nation) community in Ontario, Canada, at a press opening at the Amsterdam Museum.

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“We have already set precedents with an apology for the African and Caribbean slave trade. In an ideal world, an apology is to all the Lenape across Turtle Island [America] and reparation from Dutch government – because we’ve lost a lot. We’ve lost culture, we’ve lost language, we’ve lost connection to our homelands … We were massacred all the way up to Ontario.”

He said that the Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, and King Willem-Alexander’s recent apologies for slavery set a precedent, claiming there is evidence that Native Americans were also trafficked and enslaved.

Stonefish is one of a number of representatives of four Lenape nations who have contributed to the exhibition at Amsterdam Museum: Manahahtáanung or New Amsterdam? The Indigenous Story Behind New York.

The show, which runs from 16 May until 10 November, includes historic and contemporary art, artefacts and videos of Lenape people recounting oral histories. It also reveals extraordinary archival material from the Netherlands such as a contract justifying the public display of one apparently enslaved Lenape man, although slavery in the Netherlands was illegal.

It questions the validity of a “treaty” by which the Dutch claimed to have taken Manhattan (Manahahtáanung, meaning “place of the hickories”) for 60 guilders referenced in a 1626 letter by merchant Pieter Schaghen. Initially drawn by the lucrative trade in beaver skins, merchants under the orders of the Dutch West India Company established a settlement in 1624.

Two periods of war with the Lenape eventually led to the establishment of Dutch-settled New Amsterdam, which was taken over by the English in 1667 and renamed New York. According to the exhibition, that first property transfer was a “myth”, since the Lenape people did not see nature as something that could be owned.

Cory Ridgeway, of the Nanticoke Lenape Nation, said that although her people are now dispersed in 10 communities, and a fraction of the original population, there is hope in sharing their stories, culture and language.

One object on display is a wampum belt made from shell beads and symbolising a future cooperation between the Lenape people, the Amsterdam Museum and the Museum of the City of New York, where the exhibition will travel in 2025. “As much dark as there is, there should be as much light,” Ridgeway said.

“We have reversed the perspective,” said Judikje Kiers, managing director of the Amsterdam Museum. “They are telling the story.”