We applaud the Museum of Natural History in New York City for creating a public dialogue about the colonization of indigenous people and retelling their stories from contact to the present. The Museum includes a 1939 exhibit about Native American Lenape people and Dutch settlers and Lenape soldiers based on clichés, stereotypes and inaccuracies about Native American people. The Museum is inviting visitors to reconsider the scene, instead of removing the exhibit or erasing the errors.
Labels at the exhibit “say, for instance, that if the scene had been historically accurate, the Lenape would have been dressed for the occasion in fur robes and adornments that signified leadership positions. Canoes would have been seen in the water next to the European ships. These were vital to colonial trade, providing access to items found further inland, where the larger ships could not navigate. The women did not wear impractical skirts. Further, some are likely to have been part of the negotiations, as women in Lenape societies (past and present) typically hold leadership roles. While only [Dutch governor Peter] Stuyvesant was originally identified, the new labels also take note of Oratamin, a respected leader of the Hackensack, a Munsee branch of the Lenape. The list goes on, but it is not complete; there’s only so much room on the glass.
‘One thread that runs through this work is understanding who gets to tell the story in museums.’