Debunking the Myth of the Manhattan Purchase
NEW YORK—If you are a native New Yorker or even if you’re not, you have probably read or heard the story of how the island of Manhattan was bought by a shrewd Dutch man back in 1626 from the unassuming Lenape (original people) for a mere $24.
No one can change the course of history, and once it’s written, we tend to be kind of stuck with it. This story has stood the test of time—so much so, that the man who is credited for securing this sweet land deal, Peter Minuit, now has a plaza named after him in Battery Park, New York.
Many people believe that since that sale happened more than 400 years ago, the Lenape or “the Indians” as they were mistakenly called by European explorers, should be over it by now. After all, time heals all wounds, as the saying goes.
But, even President John F. Kennedy’s mother, Rose Kennedy, didn’t agree.
Commenting on the old adage, Rose Kennedy once said, “The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.”
Descendants of the Lenape who were ultimately harmed by this purchase don’t agree that a transaction actually occurred in 1626, as there was no concept of land sale that the Lenape understood.
So, although history can’t be rewritten, it can be retold.
On Nov. 20, the Lenape Center—a nonprofit dedicated to continuing the cultural presence of Manhattan’s first inhabitants—will sponsor a concert opera at the historic Marble Collegiate Church (formerly the Reformed Dutch Church in America), which tells the story of that historic purchase from a Native American perspective.
Healing Turtle Island
The Collegiate Church and the Lenape community saw the need to right the wrong that had occurred some 400 years before.
The church represents the oldest surviving institution of New Amsterdam, or what we know today as Manhattan.
The Rev. Robert Chase, 66, the founding director of Intersections, a multicultural, multifaith global initiative and a ministry of the Collegiate Church, said the church “was very instrumental in terms of the powers that be,” back in the mid 1600s, and that Peter Minuit was an elder in the church.
So it was only fitting in the church’s mind that it should acknowledge its “complicity” in the heartache of the Lenape.
“It was incumbent upon us to assume our rightful place in this story. And unfortunately that rightful place includes this acknowledgement of our complicity in imposing an alien financial and judicial system on the Lenape people,” said the towering and distinguished Chase, with much enthusiasm and commitment.
The statement of acknowledgement was placed in the church’s official minutes, an act that was incredibly significant, according to Chase.
On Nov. 27, 2009, the Collegiate Church and representatives of the Lenape community held a healing ceremony, marking the first observance of Native American Heritage Day, signed into law by President Barack Obama in June 2009.
The ceremony was titled Healing Turtle Island in recognition of Native people’s reference to the land that European settlers called the New World. According to the Intersections website, the ceremony was a “reconciliation between Collegiate Church and the Lenape, the result of two years of work and trust-building by Intersections.”
A formal acknowledgement was read and a Lenape boy and a Dutch girl performed a symbolic exchange to mark a new beginning.
Purchase of Manhattan
In furtherance of this grand gesture, the Collegiate Church has been involved in several Native American initiatives throughout Manhattan, one of which is the presentation of the Native American opera, “Purchase of Manhattan.”
The composer and writer of this concert opera, Brent Michael Davids, sees his creation as a kickoff event to introduce the center.
Davids, 55, a member of the Stockbridge Munsee Band of the Mohican Nation in Wisconsin, started writing music during high school and expanded his musical knowledge at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Ill., and Graceland University in Iowa, where he did chamber classical music composition.
Thereafter, Davids went on to establish national recognition through his compositional works for National Symphony, New Mexico Symphony, South Dakota Symphony, the Joffrey Ballet, and Kronos (string) Quartet, among others.
When Davids was invited to the Lenape Center in 2010, little did he expect that what started out as a joke he made would soon become a groundbreaking endeavor.
“My original idea was to write a piece called ‘Purchase of Manhattan’ to entice people to come see it,” said Davids in a telephone interview, “but then they would realize the island was never sold; it is all a myth.”
Davids believes the only record that something occurred is a letter written home by a sailor named Peter Skaggen, indicating that the “island was purchased for 60 guilders and a list of other things.”
The concert opera is a hybrid between Broadway and opera, according to Davids. Although there will not be any set and costume changes, the opera will tell a story in English, accented with classical Native American melodies and singing.
Davids summed up the performance as an “opera with movie score sensibility and rich orchestral sound.”
One of the co-founders and directors of the center, Hadrien Coumans, 40, modestly spoke about the mission of the Lenape Center, which as of yet does not have a place to call home.
“We really intentionally wanted to focus on programs before focusing on the bricks and mortar because part of what we need to do is educate New York City, the public, about the history,” Coumans said.
“There has been such a void through the centuries due to the history that once occurred here that we want to support initiatives and programs that allow for people themselves to tell their stories,” he added.
Coumans is hopeful that these initiatives will expand beyond New York City, even internationally. He sees the city as a unique opportunity for the Lenape presence to expand because “the cultural values that are Lenape I think are very important with the current state of affairs in the world regarding conflict, climate change. These are all of the areas that we really need to come together and work on, and heal from.”
Creating a Better World
The concert opera is the first step in the Lenape Center’s goal toward “creating a better world for generations to come.” A common understanding for Native Americans is to take actions that will benefit their people for seven generations to come, emphasizing long-term goals that will ultimately benefit their grandchildren.
The Collegiate Church welcomes the opportunity to bridge the gaps between people of different backgrounds and sees supporting the Lenape Center as one of the ways to work toward a better world.
“It’s showing a new way of being, a new way of projecting of how people can live together by acknowledging past sins … to create something new and fresh,” said Chase.
Coumans acknowledged the influential efforts of those who came before him, paving the way for his own ideas.
He fondly recalled one of his mentors, James “Lone Bear” Revey, a prominent Lenape Indian from New Jersey who made it his life’s mission to educate society on the Lenape culture through participation in language symposiums, workshops, and opening dialogue between the Oklahoma, New Jersey, and New York communities.
“I think our efforts are part of this progression that really are the result of a lot of people through the years in doing this type of work,” Coumans said.
“Purchase of Manhattan” will be presented for one show only on Thursday, Nov. 20 at the Marble Collegiate Church, Fifth Avenue and 29th Street, New York City. For tickets: www.purchaseofmanhattan.com