The National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center is the New York branch of the Smithsonian museum in Washington D.C. It collects and exhibits historic and contemporary Indigenous culture of the Americas and the Caribbean. It produces excellent exhibitions that are often bilingual with teaching materials.
National Museum of the American Indian Tickets
The museum is free.
National Museum of the American Indian Heye Center
1 Bowling Green
(facing Bowling Green at the beginning of Broadway)
Financial District, Manhattan
(4)(5) to Bowling Green
(1) to South Ferry
FINANCIAL DISTRICT, NYC | Sat-Sun, May 18-19, 2019 | Children’s festival | Taíno arts and crafts, dancing and storytelling for the family
July 28, 2018 – Nov 12, 2019
FINANCIAL DISTRICT, NYC ~ This art exhibition examines the renaissance of Indigenous Taíno identity in Caribbean communities. FREE
April 18, 2015 – May 20, 2018
National Museum of the American Indian
Financial District, Manhattan
Central American heritage
The Pre-Contact Americas Were Full of People
A typical U.S. education gives children a sense of “our Indians” and “their Indians,” but that is a false lesson. National borders are a construct of European colonizers. Borders make no sense to the people who actually live there.
The Americas stretch from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of Chile and Argentina. There was a continuum of Indigenous peoples in every geographical and ecological niche.
In fact, the latest archeological research shows that the very first Americans crossed the Bering Strait from Siberia into what is now Alaska, and very quickly traveled all the way to Tierra del Fuego.
The First Nations are still here, up and down the Americas, except in the Eastern United States which were depopulated by the U.S. Government’s genocidal practices leading to the Trail of Tears death march of 1838-39.
The point is that the National Museum of the American Indian has a lot of material to work with.
Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House
The National Museum of the American Indian is in the former Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House. The Beaux-Arts building from 1907 was designed by Cass Gilbert.
The Customs House collected customs duties (shipping taxes) for the U.S. Treasury which Alexander Hamilton founded. It was important because customs duties were the primary form of government revenue until income taxes were created to finance the U.S. Civil War (1860-1865).
The Customs Service moved to the then new World Trade Center in the 1970s. The Collector’s Room is the most ornate room in the building. Some of the woodwork was done by the studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
The second floor rotunda is beautiful architecture. It feels like you are in a European palace. The oval dome is filled with paintings that show an industrial and maritime New York City that is long gone now.
The four limestone statues in front of the building represent the continents of Asia, North America, Europe and Africa. They were designed by Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), who also designed the Lincoln Memorial.
The statues’ colonial point of the view is a Big Lie because they represent Whites as masters with everyone else as slaves or servants. For example America rests a foot on the head of Aztec god Quetzalcoatl. Foot gestures like throwing a shoe (chancleta) or pointing with the feet are cultural insults in Latin America and Asia. Africa is represented by a woman in submission with her head down. She is also bare-breasted because colonizers used African woman as sexual objects.
As sickening as they are, please don’t hurt the statues. Let them stand in eternal shame, as symbols of the pathological narcissism of the systemic White supremacy that people of color, beginning with the First Nations, have had to deal with since European contact.
The museum’s work today counters the colonial narrative. They really do good work.
The Lenape Trading Post
Before it became the U.S. Custom House, this was the site of the Lenape trading post. It’s the perfect location with good access to New York Bay, the Hudson River upstate and the East River to Long Island Sound.
Broadway was the Lenape road up to the main Lenape town in Inwood in Upper Manhattan, and further up the Hudson River to what are now Albany and Canada. Traditional cultures use great trees as meeting places. The Council Elm was where Bowling Green Park is now in front of the building.
This was also the site where New York City’s first immigrant Juan (Jan) Rodríguez set up shop in 1613. He was Portuguese African from Santo Domingo in what is now the Dominican Republic. He arrived as a translator on a Dutch ship and stayed because he didn’t want to go to Europe. He quickly learned to speak Algonquin and married into the community.
After the Indigenous Lenape, Rodríguez was New York’s first immigrant, first Latino, first Dominican and first trader.