05 Jun Naming
Indigenous peoples represent 5 percent of the world’s population and 90 percent of the world’s cultural diversity; they have traditional territories that span from 20 to 30 percent of the earth’s land surface, which in turn is home to 80 percent of the planet’s biodiversity. Yet Indigenous peoples are all too rarely included in plans for conservation.
Nevertheless, their presence persists in language, mostly in place names, notably but certainly not in any way exclusively, in New York itself. The philosopher Susanne K. Langer wrote, “The notion of giving something a name is the vastest generative idea that ever was conceived.” Yet absorption — appropriation, cannibalization in fact — is something quite else. A recent piece by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro in The New Yorker got me thinking. He wrote that between 1492 and the American revolution in 1776, this continent’s Indigenous population declined from an estimated 10 million to one 10th of that–and one of the genocide’s lesser known effects was linguistic. Preoccupied as I am with words, I’ve said and written this before: as many as a quarter of the earth’s languages in the 15th century, according to linguists, were American —and those millions of words were lost.
Yet the so-called “settlers” were certainly willing if not eager to poach those words. In New York, the first such word to be adopted by Europeans became the most famous. In the fall of 1609, some weeks after Henry Hudson began exploring a grand river that would later be named for him, one of Hudson’s seamen wrote in his log that the river’s wooded east bank was known to the area’s Natives as “Manna-hata.” These people, who spoke an Algonquian tongue called Munsee, had beat Hudson there by around a thousand years. Their forebears had left the Eurasian landmass millennia earlier, via the Bering land bridge, and had gradually moved across the continent to reach its fertile eastern edge. They’d made their home in deer-filled woods surrounding a natural bay whose depths teemed with fish and whose shallows breathed, at the start of the colonial era, with a billion oysters. In ensuing years, these people — along with their southerly cousins who spoke a related but distinct Algonquian tongue called Unami — came to be known as Delawares, named for an Englishman (another story entirely).
Today, the descendants of those “Delawares” refer to themselves by their ancestors’ shared word for “human being,” Lenape. The fact that we don’t know why the Lenape that Hudson encountered called the river’s eastern shore Manna-hata is because Hudson claimed their home for the Dutch East India Company, and within three centuries of his arrival, most of the Lenape were either dead or dispersed toward reservations in Ontario and Oklahoma, where many of their descendants remain.
In the Lenape’s absence, it was left to non-Native philologists to offer theories about the etymology of “Manhattan.” In recent decades, fresh research by linguists, activists, and the Lenape themselves has yielded further theories. The most widely credited one comes from Albert Anthony, a fluent Munsee speaker and scholar in Canada, who suggested that Man-a-ha-tonh meant “place where we gather timber for bows and arrows.”
The sheer force of numbers and contagious disease succeeded in pushing all but a few Lenape (along with the Esopus and Wappingers and Mahicans, tribes in the Hudson Valley) from their ancestral homes. But, before they left, more than a few of their words came to grace the area. Some of those names belonged to sachems who left their mark on colonial deeds (Katonah, Kensico). Others use Munsee words whose origins as place-names remain obscure. (Armonk means “place of dogs”; Ho-Ho-Kus could mean “little bottle gourd.”) The Munsee word for “round foot” referred to members of their Wolf Clan. Ossining, in Westchester County, may now recall John Cheever’s fictions or Sing Sing prison; once, it was a Munsee word for “stony place.” On Long Island, several town names are borrowed from local bands of Lenape (Massapequa, Matinecock) or the Pequot-speaking peoples, farther east (Manhasset, Montauket). One Algonquian-speaking tribe, the Shinnecock, won federal recognition in 2010. Now they’ve finally got their own piece of the Hamptons, and a permanent reservation there.
In the old Lenape homeland by the Hudson, near the marshes-and-malls landscape of what’s now the Meadowlands, not a few Native place-words were also bands of people: Passaic (“river flowing through a valley”); Hackensack, or “stream that discharges itself into another on the level ground”); and Raritan (“point in a tidal river”). Raritan still names New Jersey’s longest river, and also the bay that it drains into.
Walt Whitman was a great lover of Indian names. One example: “Mississippi!—the word winds with chutes—it rolls a stream three thousand miles long.” (Whitman didn’t note that the phrase “Mississippi River” is redundant: combining the Anishinaabe Algonquian term for “Great River” and the English generic, it means “Great River River.”) That’s not all he didn’t note. Over the span of Whitman’s life, years that included the forced removal of the East’s last tribes along the Trail of Tears, he wrote frequently on the subject of Native peoples and their languages, but worshipfully consigned them to a ghostly presence, using the racist trope of the vanishing Indian. In fact, by the end of Whitman’s life, Americans had a pantheon of martyred Native chiefs whose courage in defending their people was apparently easier to admire in defeat. Many of those leaders’ names — Pontiac, Tecumseh, Seattle — became towns and cities.
In America’s biggest city, a push to commemorate the vanquished went so far as to see Congress furnish land in 1911 to built a National Native American Monument (which fortunately never got built). Picking up on Whitman’s trail, what made the idea of that monument most offensive was the way it was predicated on commemorating what was dubbed a “vanishing race”— placing America’s first people wholly in the nation’s past. This is an insult to all their descendants, who haven’t vanished at all, but instead live modern lives shadowed by past violence.
Nowadays, in New York alone, their presence is hailed loudly in powwows that bring Mohawk drummers and Abenaki elders to Inwood Hill Park each June, and to Randall’s Island in the East River each October, to sing songs and eat fry bread. But their imprint also has to do with the ways in which Native Americans have shaped today’s New York. Many of the city’s skyscrapers were built by the famous “Mohawks in High Steel,” who, starting in the 1920s, travelled to the city from reservations upstate, bringing a collective immunity to vertigo that made them the ideal workers on the tallest buildings. Those fearless Mohawks literally created the city. (Later, they would forge an enclave in Gowanus.)
In recent years, vital roles in the city’s economy have been filled by arrivals from still-indigenous sectors of the hemisphere: speakers of Aymara and Quechua, from the Andes; of Mixtec and Mayan, from Mexico; of Tzotzil and K’iche’, from Guatemala. And no less key has been the return to visibility of New York’s own first people.
Since 2008, the Lenape Center of Manhattan has maintained an active office, under the aegis of the New York Foundation for the Arts, in the heart of what its directors call Lenapehoking: the Lenape homeland. In 2016, the son of a wealthy artist in Greenwich Village — actually the West Village (the part of Manhattan that the Lenape called Sapokanikan, or “tobacco field”)–deeded a four-million-dollar town house to the tribe.
New York City may not be a place that most people associate with Amerindians, but it includes more of them — more than a hundred thousand, as of the last census — than any other U.S. city. Which makes me, yet again, one proud New Yorker!