Decolonizing New York

Through virtual reality installations, a historic symposium, an artist residency, and more, NYU's Asian/Pacific/American Institute is challenging New Yorkers to engage in "Indigenous vision training."
screenshot from virtual reality project of Manhattan now and pre-1609
A screenshot from Manahatta VR, a virtual reality experience that brings together the pre-colonial past and present of one Broadway block.

You may have heard this story before: On a misty morning in 1609, Henry Hudson, explorer and representative of the Dutch East India Company, sailed his ship, the Half Moon, from the Atlantic coast up the river that would one day bear his name. On the way north to look for a passage to Asia, he and his crew passed the island we now know as Manhattan. They never found a way through, but their exploration led to Dutch colonization of the area—which is often taught as the very first chapter in the history of New York City.

More than 400 years later, this past June, another boat filled with explorers arrived in New York Harbor. Docking in the long shadow of One World Trade, Hōkūleʻa—a performance-accurate replica of the kind of double-hulled canoe that Polynesian and Micronesian voyagers used to travel the Pacific thousands of years ago—docked alongside modern luxury yachts in lower Manhattan’s North Cove Marina. Its crew, who in 2013 began circumnavigating the globe using ancient wayfinding methods, were greeted with a traditional welcome ceremony by representatives of Native American nations from the area—including the Ramapough Lenape Nation, Moraviantown Delaware Nation, Shinnecock, Unkechaug, Mohegan, and the Haudenosaunee Confederacy. The scene made for a dramatic juxtaposition, even in a city famous for such striking contrasts (think high-end boutiques in the storefronts of former tenements, penthouses mere blocks from projects, or the tranquility of Central Park amid the cacophony of midtown). It raised questions, too: What are the invisible ties that bind this island to those on the other side of the globe? What counts as progress in a city facing the existential threat of rising seas? And what valuable knowledge do we forfeit when we set 1609 as Year Zero in our educational histories?

model of Hokulea canoe with fabric print in background

"The Wayfinding Project," 2016, Beatrice Glow, installation detail at the A/P/A Institute at NYU

These are some of the ideas that NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute is exploring in a yearlong effort to engage with the culture and history of the Lenape, the Indigenous people who lived in present-day New York City prior to colonization. Through virtual reality window art, installations reimagining territory, academic gatherings, walking tours, and more, the Village is playing host—perhaps for the first time ever—to a series of unconventional and sometimes painful conversations about its original inhabitants.

When Europeans arrived in the Americas, the Lenape homeland—known as Lenapehoking—encompassed the upper and lower Delaware and Hudson river valleys and included all of present-day New Jersey, New York State’s Rockland, Orange, Westchester, Putnam, and Nassau counties, and the five boroughs of present-day New York City. “Manhattan” derives from the Lenape word Manaháhtaan. “There were at least 10,000 years of history prior to 1609,” A/P/A artist-in-residence Beatrice Glow explains, “But there’s been so much displacement and dispersal—even people being trafficked—over the past 500 years that so much has been erased. Given that this was a first site of the shock of colonization, and that this city has been rebuilt over and over again, there’s a lot that we don’t know.”

But that doesn’t mean that we can’t—and shouldn’t—be trying to discover more, even if that means confronting loss and uncertainty. On October 29, A/P/A with the NYU Native Studies Forum and the Lenape Center will host the first-ever Manaháhtaan Symposium, featuring Jim Rementer, director of the Lenape Language Project, among other scholars and Indigenous community leaders from around North America. And since March, Glow has been working with A/P/A director Jack Tchen on The Wayfinding Project, an evolving multimedia installation that—inspired in part by the worldwide voyage of the Hōkūleʻa—explores Lenape knowledge of the environment and questions how Indigenous cultures have been portrayed in colonial histories.   

Take maps, for example. “They’re a part of how we come to understand the world,” Glow says. “But so many that are a part of our foundational education are really based off of only one perspective.” For the installation, she painted on mylar to add additional layers—additional perspectives—to three Dutch and English colonial maps, tracing the old Lenapehoking borders onto a map of the New Amsterdam colony, reimagining the Western hemisphere amid melting glaciers, and redrawing a color-coded map of British holdings so that the Pacific—not Europe—is at the center. Breaking out of the colonial worldview, she says, is a matter of looking at such documents and asking: “What do we remember? What do we forget? What do we want to carry forward?”

map of "Lenapehoking"

"Lenapehoking." 2016, Beatrice Glow, Acrylic on mylar overlay on computer printouts, 48 in. x 36 in., Currently on view at "The Wayfinding Project"

Glow’s interest in these issues stems in part from her own family heritage: “My parents are from Taiwan, which has its own very rich history of Indigenous people and several different waves of colonization—Japanese, Portuguese, Dutch, English, Chinese, all wanting the island’s resources,” she explains. “So working with A/P/A allows me to reeducate myself, to explore my own broken connection with lands and waters.” The Hōkūleʻa, fabric prints of which are part of the installation, is another muse: Built by the Polynesian Voyaging Society under the guidance of Micronesian master navigator Mau Pialug, the boat made its most famous voyage from Hawaii to Tahiti in 1976 to demonstrate the sophisticated methods—relying on knowledge of the ocean, the sky, and the stars—that explorers from Taiwan may have used to navigate and settle the 1,000 islands of Oceania millennia ago. At 61 feet long, the two-masted boat, which is steered by paddle, can carry 11,000 pounds and sail at speeds of up to 29 mph in trade winds. “The canoe connects this huge watery continent that is all linked underwater, really challenging our ideas about cultural and geographic borders,” Glow says. And the image of the Hōkūleʻa’s 14-member crew sharing resources as they navigate together is “a big metaphor for island Earth,” she adds. “They’re living out this story of sharing, survival, and community as a huge advocate for sustainability.”

Glow graduated from NYU with a studio art degree in 2008, and much of her work since then has highlighted colonial connections between Asia and the Americas. One recent installation, Rhunhattan, made reference to a 1667 land swap in which the Dutch, eager to monopolize the spice trade, traded Manhattan to the British in exchange for the tiny island of Rhun in what is now Indonesia. “I’m interested in the precolonial history of the two islands and how they transformed the world,” says Glow, who’s begun to think of the islands as a pair of portals linked in a story about human consumption and our relationship to the Earth.

Beatrice Glob standing next to tables with teacups and nutmegs

Beatrice Glow with her installation Rhunhattan Teaset. Photo by Julian Chams.

Drawing on scholarship by the Bronx Zoo's Wildlife Conservation Society ecologist Eric Sanderson on the flora and fauna of Manhattan before Europeans arrived—when there were estuaries where there are now skyscrapers, and the island boasted more more microclimates and biodiversity zones than present-day Yellowstone National Park—Glow’s work with The Wayfinding Project also invites visitors to consider what deep knowledge of land and water would mean in the context of present-day Manhattan. By slipping on a Samsung GearVR headset, viewers experience Mannahatta VR, an alternate version of Herald Square in which contemporary Manhattan and Lenape Manaháhtaan are visible simultaneously. The island’s original hilly topography is accurately reproduced, and plants, trees, and animals—the ones that the Lenape cultivated hundreds of years ago—flourish alongside today’s buildings. The point is neither to disregard all that’s happened since 1609, Glow says, nor to romanticize Indigenous cultures, but rather to learn to view the city through a different historical lens. “It’s almost like Indigenous vision training,” Glow says. “You get a feeling of what haunts us, what’s still lingering, what hasn’t gone away and what we can’t shut out.”  

Both she and Tchen, not being of Lenape descent themselves, are careful not to position themselves as experts or spokespersons—which is why collaborations with Indigenous historians through efforts like the October 29 symposium is so important. “This really isnʻt about privileging any particular group,” Glow says, “but rather about caring about Mother Earth and the revitalization of Indigenous culture and knowledge for environmental stewardship.” In the absence of an Indigenous Studies program at NYU, Tchen has also invited students to join in the project through a collaborative seminar called “Indigenous Futures: Decolonizing NYC—Documenting the Lenape Trail.”

The trail in the course title refers to the thoroughfare we now know as Broadway—originally a system of Lenape trails that connected Manaháhtaan to the Great Lakes and the broader Northeast region. Long before Wall Street became the financial capital of the modern world, Glow explains, “this area was already a political and economic stronghold. The chieftains of many different cultures traveled here to trade, negotiate and share. It was a crossroads of many cultures.”

A rendering of the "Lenapeway" window installation at 715 Broadway

A rendering of the "Lenapeway" window installation at 715 Broadway.

To connect that history to today’s streetscape, Glow and her Wayfinding Project collaborators have developed a window installation that will open at 715 Broadway and Washington Place beginning on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 10. In the window, two life-sized images of tulip trees—which the Lenape used to make the canoes in which they traveled the coastal waters—will flank screen playing a short video trailer for a new Mannahatta VR display developed in partnership with Alexandre Girardeau of Highway 101, ETC. (Visitors can try out the full experience with Glow demonstrating at the site on November 14 and December 12.) Images of a condor and an eagle will soar at the top of the window—a reference, Glow explains, to an Incan prophecy that holds that when those two birds fly side by side, the world, having reached the point of near extinction, will come back into balance. On October 18, Glow and NYU head gardener George Reis will meet at the window to lead a walking tour of NYU’s own tulip trees and other native plants along portions of the Lenape trail.

The window installation’s name, “Lenapeway,” like the experience itself, is meant to begin to bridge the gaps between past and present. “We can’t forget about where we’ve arrived,” Glow says, “but we need to recognize the history, the land, as a way to move forward.”

From our own precarious position in time—between a period of genocidal erasure and a future era of climate-induced suffering—that’s easier said than done, of course. “But that’s where I think art is very powerful,” Glow says. “It’s like water, or a snake. It slithers between the cracks. Art can be a buffer zone that allows us to start to ask more questions in more provocative ways.”


Learn more at these upcoming A/P/A events: