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A New Exhibit at Ellis Island Tells the Story of the Lenape, the People Who Were There First


This NPS photo shows some artifacts included in the Lenape exhibit now on display at the Ellis Island Museum.

A new exhibit at Ellis Island National Monument draws attention to a seldom-noted fact. When Henry Hudson discovered New York Harbor 400 years ago last September 11, Native Americans were already there. They were the Lenape, aka Lenni Lenape (“the true people”). The Lenape homeland included not only the area now occupied by New York City, but also a large territory that extended between the Delaware and lower Hudson Rivers and included all of New Jersey as well as parts of New York, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

The Lenape (pronounced Leh-NAH-pay) fared well for a while after European contact, profiting from the fur trade, but the ensuing centuries saw their fortunes take a bad turn. Crowded out by settlers and ravaged by infectious diseases, the depredations of hostile tribes, and other calamities, the Lenape saw their numbers dwindle and their once-large territory whittled to tatters by treaties. Finally, most of the remaining Lenape were gathered up and removed to the Oklahoma Territory in the late 1860s. Today, most Lenape descendants live in Oklahoma, but there are also scattered populations in Wisconsin, Kansas, Ontario, and in the Middle Atlantic states where the traditional homeland lay.

“Lenape: Ellis Island’s First Inhabitants” is the title of the new exhibit telling the story of “the Lenape people’s experiences from their earliest known presence in the area, through their fateful encounter with Henry Hudson, past their removal from their ancestral homeland to their present-day communities in Oklahoma and Wisconsin.”

The exhibit integrates a variety of materials, including prehistoric artifacts, antique books, maps, archival photographs, traditional Lenape clothing and crafts, ceremonial objects, illustrations, paintings and dioramas, bronze sculptures, and documentary films, that create a historical narrative. These materials are combined with quotations on a wide variety of subjects by traditional Lenape.

The museum staff at Ellis Island worked tirelessly with exhibit curator David M. Oestreicher, Ph.D, using the content generated by him to design and develop the exhibit. Their contributions in this area also included the graphic design for the exhibition as well as editing of the text provided for length and accessibility and incorporating suggestions from one of the Delaware tribes, the Stockbridge-Munsee Community.

They also worked with Oestreicher and curatorial consultant Karen Frederic to reorganize the exhibition to fit within the galleries and have a coherent thematic structure. Museum staffers assisted in the selection of artifacts, developed two interactive computer kiosks that will enable visitors to access supplemental content, located additional images to illustrate text, and installed the exhibit.

“Lenape: Ellis Island’s First Inhabitants” can be viewed through January 10 in the third floor galleries of the Ellis Island Museum, which is located in the refurbished Main Building.


Most unfortunatly the Circle of all Nations is composed and organised mainly by non native people and not a good start to focus on the Wampum belts and the origin of the Leni Lenape . The Circle of all Nations is a borowed concept from the First Nations Confederacies using Aboriginal cultural teachings . Most unfortunatly the Circle does have a religious hidden agenda in mind to deal with multi culturalism in Canada and in the Ottawa area.

Unfortunalty the organiser of this Circle have now totally isolated William Commanda from the Conferacies and from the people of his own nation who are in great need of the belts to perform their traditional ceremonies .

Most unfortunate the wampum belts are mainly located in Canadian and American museum basement collecting dust. We had succeded for the last 20 years to retreive somes pictures or to be in contanct with some. The elders has told us to make new ones and continue to empowered ourselves with the knowledge of their contents to continue the teaching and to use them in our ceremonies. Most important is is not the material these bets are made with but the holographic design that are part of the knowledge they are holding. Most antropologists had given the wampum belts a political interpretations when in fact they are the bases of intricate universal spiritual science still known by few of our people.

We statrted a project 20 years ago called he WAMPUMPAEG Project to help locate the Wampum belts in North America and around the world and we are always looking for people helping us locate them.

I have in my possession the Treaty box of the Great peace of Montreal that took place in 1701 at the same time Detroit was created. We do have many treaty medals such as one of the royal proclamation of 1763. these medals commémorate contemporary treaties. I do have a pictures of My Great Grand father posed in is regalia and with is wampum belts They never were in museum as they stay with the families. I do have pictures of this treaty box but do not know how to put it on this email .

I do have also picture of the Wawate holding the belts now under the responsibility of William Commanda. If you are interestesed to see all these pictures send me your email and It will be a pleasure for me to send them to you or to help me post them on this site to provide Bob with a larger gift. my email is : [email protected]

Our true history is written on the Wampum belts collecting dust in non Aboriginal Museum. The question is how can we retreive them to retreive the information ? They are the microcrochips full or scientific information using a binary system of energy the same way the contemporary computer works. I have been at it for the last 20 years to attemps making an inventory of them and of course using them constantly. We need Scientist to work with us on the science of the wampum belts. We need antroplogists working in museums to help us locate them.

Claude Aubin

Thank you for your comment, Mr. Paine, but Leni Lenape does not mean "pure, abiding with pure." It means "Ordinary People". While there are many Lenape Christians today, historically, we were never Christians! We pre-date Christianity by 13,000 years! Many Lenape & their descendants do not support the Bering Strait theory, believing our Creation Stories that we have always been here in the east. The link you site is erroneously skewed. to support their own theories. If you would like correct research regarding my People, I recommend the late Dr. Herb Kraft, & Dr. David M. Oeistreicher. We are aware there are many published and Internet sites with incorrect information. I, and others, have been working for many years regarding this, but if one refuses to correct their mis-information, there is not much we can do. I am Lenape, of Six Nations Reserve, Ohswekan, Ontario Canada, & a Lenape Historian, Consultant, Artist, Educator & Storyteller.

I have attended this wonderful exhibit & am happily acquainted with Dr. Oestriecher. I was honored to recently be able to welcome Lenape descendants from OK. & KS. and guide them through this exhibit. I highly recommend viewing it before it is replaced by another. Dr. Oestreicher is working on obtaining a permanent home for this exciting & accurate exhibit, and I hope it will be soon.

Thank you for providing additional interesting perspective on the true meaning of Leni Lenape, Cathy. I'm sure we'll hear from others in due course. Meanwhile, it's exciting to think that this remarkable exhibit may find a permanent home. Do you think there's any chance that it might go on display in the National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall? With 350,000 square feet of floor space housing the world’s greatest collection of Native American artifacts, you'd think this prestigious museum could find room for it somewhere.

Welcome to the discussion, Cathy. A good discussion results in better understanding for all.
I am interested to know who your authorities were, what evidence they had, and the logic they used to convince you that Leni Lenape means “original people.”
My primary authority is Reider T. Sherwin. He grew up on an inland off the coast of Norway. The Island people spoke Old Norse. When he came to America, he was surprised that he could understand the Indian place names on the road and tourist signs.
For evidence he collected data from 18 translators, who had compiled word lists from 25 Algonquin speaking tribes.
His logic was that if he could find words from at least two tribes that sounded the same and had similar meanings, then he would try to compare them with an Old Norse phrase. During over 18 years of study, he found over 15,000 comparisons, which he compiled into eight volumes of the Viking and the Red Man. In Volume IV he wrote “the Algonquin Indian Language is Old Norse.”
When I use Sherwin’s comparisons, I can decipher over 85% of the Algonquin witten words I find, both ancient text and attempts by modern Leni Lenape, who spell phonetically on the Internet.
In my second comment in this blog I explained how I used Sherwin to discover that Leni Lenape meant the “pure, abiding with the pure” and how their fore fathers were the “Noosh”
Bob, the moderator, has electronic copies of the pages. I request that he send copies of those pages to you.
Until someone provides me with evidence that 8000 of Sherwin’s comparisons are not valid, I will continue to believe that the Leni Lenape means “pure, abiding with the pure,” where the “pure” is in the same sense as the Puritans were “pure.”
When I give my speeches to audiences I use this patter:
“The Leni Lenape sold land to William Penn, so the Quakers would have a place to live.
“The two peoples lived together for 40 years without a major violent incident.
“The Puritans hung Mary Dwyer and many other Quakers.
“The Leni Lenape was more pure than the Puritans.
“SOMEBODY should tell that STORY!

Myron, if I receive requests from individuals, I will be happy to send copies of the referenced documents. I'm sorry, but I will not send them to people who have not requested them.

Hello Bob & Myron. Thank you for your welcome. It can also be traslated as "True People." My sources for the meaning of"Lenape" are My People...My Language...My Culture...My Way Of Life. No smugness, nor disrespect intended. It is what it is. There can be no absolutes when it comes to translating many indigenous words to another language. We simply did not have these same words or way of thinking. I can give no other explanation, nor do we feel one is needed.

Bob... a permanant home for this exhibit will come. I am sorry, but I am not at liberty to say anything more. We must all be patient and trust that Creator has a perfect plan. We have waited so long, surely we can wait a little longer to be sure things will go as they should. I, especially, will be most happy to see this collection in a permanant home, having used many of these items in my own Lenape presentations over the years. I have a feeling the collection will be expanded upon. Dr David Oestreicher is certainly a hero & friend to my family & I. Wawulamallessil! **

[** I'm not certain, but I believe that Wawulamallessil means something along the lines of "may you always live well." Ed.]

Cathy, be sure to let us know when that collection finds a permanent home. I'd also be interested to know about the additions.

Grandfather Commanda also holds a primstave of Norse origin...

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