Teaching Lenape History: An Interview with Pilar Jefferson

Today on the blog, Coordinator Katie Uva speaks to Pilar Jefferson, Education Coordinator at the Museum of the City of New York, to discuss the museum’s recent efforts in interpreting New York’s indigenous history.

What was your journey to working on the interpretation of Lenape history at the museum?

I have a background in Native American studies and Art History from Vassar College where I helped curate an exhibition of Inuit prints and drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center in 2014, and wrote my thesis on the legacy of female Pueblo pottery artists at the Santa Fe Indian Market from 1920 to today. I joined the staff of the FAO Schwarz Education Center at the Museum of the City of New York in 2015. With my Native Studies background I was immediately excited by the opportunity to teach about local Native culture and I have spent the past three and a half years working closely with my colleagues to improve and deepen the Native American programming that we teach here at the Museum.

What content about Lenape culture and history does the Museum offer for K-12 audiences?

At the Museum of the City of New York we offer two field trips that cover some aspect of Lenape history. The classroom history lab program, Mannahatta, is an hour and fifteen minute long exploration of how and what we know about being a Lenape person living on the island of Mannahatta in the year 1608-1609, just before contact with Europeans. Students investigate different types of sources including oral histories, maps and pictures, culminating in a hands on activity using reproduction artifacts that emphasize the use of natural resources in Lenape technology of the day.

This same history is used as the introduction for the hour-long field trip in the Port City gallery, a part of the exhibition New York at its Core. The gallery covers New York history from 1609-1898. Students are introduced to using museum artifacts for visual inquiry in the first section of the gallery where the first artifact they see is a Lenape ceremonial club, prompting a discussion about the culture and land of the first people of New York. The section it’s in is entitled “Dutch Trading Colony” and covers 1609-1664 and tells the story of the Lenape and the conflicted development of Dutch New Amsterdam on the island of Mannahatta.

How have the Museum's offerings about indigenous peoples' history and New York's colonial era changed in recent years?

What we’ve been trying to do more of in our teaching at the Museum in general, not just with our Lenape programs, is to people them, meaning adding voices and stories from the community represented. This has the two-fold benefit of centering community knowledge over ourselves as an outside authority, and making history more relatable to students by emphasizing that people from the past were people with thoughts, feelings, and opinions just like us. I swear I say this sentence more than anything else when I teach--they’re people just like we’re people! Doing this type of centering is especially important with our Lenape programs because primary sources are few and far between due to histories of displacement and violence against Native people where their voices have been taken out of the predominant historical record.

Port City has been an incredible addition to our teaching because where we used to primarily use images and reproductions, now we can teach from objects that are made and used by the people from the time periods we’re talking about. In Port City we have one image, one name, and one quote from Lenape people in the 1600s. Being able to read a quote about war and displacement from a Lenape leader who lived during this period makes an incredible impact on students. Those three sources and the handful of objects in the gallery are invaluable for the stories they tell and have really changed the game in terms of making Lenape history more concrete in our teaching, but we’re always searching for more that we can use.

The other thing we’ve been trying to include more and more of in our programs is contemporary Native history. So often students are shocked when I say that the Lenape are alive today, because they’ve been taught by omission that Native people ceased to exist after colonization. Our Mannahatta program is based on an exhibition that was here at the Museum in 2009 and focuses mostly on Native lifeways (ecology and technology) at the very precise moment of 1609 and is centered around the research of Dr. Eric Sanderson, an ecologist who published a book of the same title. It is great to have the resources to do a deep dive into that particular moment but how do we do that without perpetuating the myth of Native primitivism and extinction? It’s also tough because often Native people are only in the school curriculum when talking about 17th-19th century colonization. Now when we teach Mannahatta we talk about how we have oral histories because there are Lenape people who have passed down their knowledge through generations to the Lenape groups that exist today in New Jersey, Delaware, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Canada and who are still sharing those stories.

We’ve also had the awesome opportunity to teach about contemporary Native people and culture in the Germ City reading room where the American Indian Community House loaned objects related to their community response to HIV/AIDS. I love using those objects to talk to students of all ages about how we all view healing through a particular cultural lens. There are also quotes from elders interspersed with the objects that I read and discuss with visitors, which goes back to the idea of having people tell their stories in their own words. Even though it’s in a temporary exhibition I think that those objects set a great precedent for expanding how we center and amplify Native voices across various types of exhibitions.

What techniques does the museum employ to help students think critically about the indigenous history of New York?

Interrogate your sources! At the beginning of the Mannahatta program I tell students that they are already learning words in the Lenape language of Munsee, but that Munsee was originally a language that was spoken and not written down so we have to use sources besides writing to learn about life in 1609. Then as a group we answer the question “How do we learn about history?” Often students will start by citing books or Google as their sources, which I honor as correct but then I offer as the follow up question, “How do books and Google get their information?” The answer of course is people, and people are flawed, so no source is 100% reliable which is why we use multiple sources to construct a fuller picture.

For example, an image we use as a part of our teaching is an illustration that was up on the wall as a part of the Mannahatta exhibition. It’s a 19th-century artist’s idea of what a Lenape village would look like--neat rows of wigwams in an open field by a stream. It’s a great way to visualize what we’ve been talking about up until that point in the lesson, centering people and how they’ve learned to use the environment around them. But in the background of the picture there’s a falsehood that always comes to light when we get to the conversation about what transportation the Lenape used. “Horses!” says a choir of eager students, who I’m sure are imagining whatever pop culture movies or shows they’ve seen of noble Native warriors riding across the plains towards majestic teepees in the distance. But of course horses were brought by Europeans so if we’re talking about the Lenape before European contact that horse should not be in the picture. So I explain to students that some parts of the image are helpful and some aren’t and that’s why it's important to know where your sources are from and double check them with other information, especially information directly from the community you’re talking about.

How do the museum's offerings support or challenge what students may be learning in class? How do the scope and sequence requirements affect the museum's programming?

We primarily see students for our Lenape focused programs in 2nd and 4th grade when early American history is a part of the curriculum. That isn’t to say that Native people don’t feature into other parts of the social studies curriculum; we just don’t have exhibitions that cover those parts of the story so we play to our strengths, so to speak, in order to provide the best content possible. At the Museum of the City of New York our goal is to tell a variety of stories about New York history and culture but we can’t tell all of those stories at the same time, nor do we claim that any of our exhibitions are telling the “whole story,” whatever that means. In the future we may have exhibitions that address other parts of Native history, like the Germ City exhibition, and I welcome those opportunities but typically we teach the content that we have and already have the background research on. We want to be able to support teachers as content experts so that they can give the best possible information to their students.

What are common misconceptions that students and other museumgoers have about the Lenape?

Ah, the famed $24 sale of Manhattan that haunts us to this day! Most of the misconceptions that we get when teaching are around the idea of money and historical systems of value for the Lenape. There has long been this story that Peter Minuit, the first Director of the company town of New Amsterdam, bought the island from the Lenape for $24. There is no physical record of that sale. However, there is a record of the sale of Staten Island, details of which are explained in this great article by Barnard professor Andrew Lipman. He and other scholars have noted that dollars as we know them didn’t exist in the 1600s so the sale would likely have been a trade of items like cloth, skins or tools; it’s a false equivalency to begin with. Also money as we understand it didn’t make sense in the Lenape conception of the world, and land wasn’t something that could be turned over indefinitely with one action which is where a lot of colonial conflict came from.

I get this stereotype less from students because they haven’t heard that story yet, and more from adults, but they might hear it eventually so I try to head off the misinformation by talking about items we know Lenape folks used and what they would have meant and still do mean. For example, we use wampum beads as one of our reproduction artifacts which students are often taught in school is Lenape “money.” I complicate that story by saying that exchanges of goods or significant objects like wampum beads were signs of friendship and accord used to signal agreements and partnerships between Native groups. The shells that are used to make wampum are saltwater mollusks but people like the Haudenosaunee way upstate also value them culturally so clearly there is a long history of exchange. I give examples of how they would use wampum to set up alliances, to end conflicts and to show cultural pride, so that students have the most up to date information and a way to back it up.

What are some ambiguities/debates when it comes to interpreting the history of New York's indigenous people? How does the museum present contested history?

I think names and languages are tricky. A lot of the names we use to talk about Native people are either retronyms that people have given them in the present to describe groups in the past, or are names that were given to groups of people by those outside of their group. This year I learned that Iroquois is a name that was given to the Haudenosaunee by their enemies and then corrupted when the French misunderstood it, and people have been using it to describe them for years even though that’s not their name. At the National Museum of the American Indian they talk about whether Native American or American Indian is correct. And they’re both helpful for some reasons and problematic for others which is true of so many of these names. The rule of thumb is to be as specific as possible and to use the name that the people choose for themselves. It’s a question of scale and knowledge that we’re always trying to balance. For example word Lenape is actually Munsee for "people." The same people have been called the Delaware, Lenni Lenape, Munsee, Manhattans. They also probably would have identified themselves by their regional or village name in the 1600s so if we’re talking about Lenapehoking, the land of the Lenape which centers on the greater New York City area, it wasn’t just the Lenape but the Canarsee and Hackensacks and Wiechquaeskecks. But can we say with certainty that the cultural practices we’re teaching about were done in each individual village? No, of course not. So we use Lenape to paint with broader strokes about what we do know, and we’re always updating what we teach based on new information we learn from community panels, outside scholars, and colleagues at other museums.

What sources/resources have been helpful in updating the museum's interpretation of indigenous history? Where should someone look if they want to learn more about the indigenous presence in New York City, historically or currently?

Many of these changes in our teaching have come out of the collaborative professional learning program for teachers we run every fall with the National Museum of the American Indian down at Bowling Green. The program is called Native New York and focuses on Dutch and Lenape trade and colonial culture. Because we’re teaching teachers about the complex history of Lenape people before and after colonization it gives us the opportunity to reflect on and refine our programs every year and learn from our peers at NMAI who are also doing this work. They have a great online resource on how to teach about Native people across disciplines called Native Knowledge 360. They’re also planning an exhibition focused on Lenape legacies which is set to open in the next couple of years. Each year we also bring in speakers to present at the program who are storytellers or scholars or tribal members (or a combination thereof) and I learn something new from them that I can use in my teaching. It’s been a really exciting opportunity and something that I always look forward to!

I’d also say that since we live in the 21st century most tribal groups have their own websites or museums and some of them have historical information for the public. I’d encourage people to learn their local history so they can also know whose land they’re on. I’m writing this from Lenape land and I’m always honored to be able to share that knowledge with others.