In 2009, New York City celebrated the 400th anniversary of its "discovery" by English explorer Henry Hudson. What many chose not to remember was the cost of this discovery for the Native Americans already living there for which they were paid approximately $24 worth of beads.
While some dispute the exact price, a new opera entitled "Purchase of Manhattan" explores this little-known history, hitting the stage for one night on November 20 at New York's Marble Collegiate Church.
Presented by the Lenape Center, the Collegiate Church of New York, and Collegiate’s global peacemaking initiative, Intersections International, the opera aims to heal a centuries-old divide between the Lenape and the European-influenced American culture. The hubbub surrounding New York's 400th anniversary in 2009 demonstrated the need for such reparation, Intersections director Rev. Robert Chase told The Huffington Post.
"There was a lot of emphasis given to the Dutch culture that is present here in the city but nothing given to the Native American heritage of the people who were here when Hudson arrived," Chase said. "We thought that was unjust and inaccurate."
To make up for the shortage of attention paid to indigenous culture, Collegiate Church hosted an event called "Healing Turtle Island," the name of which played off a common way Native Americans refer to North America.
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During the event, Collegiate Church, which traces its roots back to 1628 and is the oldest continuous Protestant congregation in North America, offered a public apology to the Lenape people for the role it played as the "company church" of the Dutch West Indies Company in their oppression over the years. With the anniversary of Hudson's arrival, the church saw an opportunity to make amends.
"We decided at that time that we wouldn't have a one-off event," Chase told HuffPost, "but rather we would try to model a new way of partnership that was not reflective of the past 400 years, and that the Collegiate Church would be in solidarity with the Native American community here in New York."
Inspiration for the opera came from Mohican composer Brent Michael Davids who was present during a meeting between the Lenape Center and the Collegiate Church. Joe Baker, co-founder and Executive Director of the Lenape Center, said he recognized an important role the opera could play in promoting and perpetuating Lenape culture through the arts.
"I feel so strongly that the appropriate platform for the telling of this complicated and at times conflicted history [of the Lenape people] is the arts," Baker told HuffPost. "When we had the opportunity to work with Brent Michael Davids to create an original work that spoke to this moment in history [...] we felt that we were fulfilling our mission."
Baker said he hoped the performance would have a "redemptive quality" that would help the now widely dispersed Lenape people chart a course for the future. He emphasized that many people wrongly interpret Native American culture as being a frozen in time, but that it continues growing and evolving.
"By embracing contemporary forms of art we can realize and express our true selves and our culture," Baker said. "I hope [the opera] inspires others to join with us in this effort to begin to celebrate our diverse histories within the city in new ways."
Rev. Robert Chase confirms the possibilities of the performance:
"This opera is an artistic way of expressing to the city and beyond what we're all missing if we don't listen to the voices of the Native American folks among us."