During the first weekend of November, New Yorkers can go back in time to the 16th century by canoeing down the Bronx River and immersing themselves in a recreated indigenous village—complete with wigwams, wampum, and fire-cooked foods.
November is Native American Heritage Month, and the experience is organized by two descendants of the Eastern Algonquin people, Chenae Bullock who is Shinnecock/Montauk, and Rodrick Bell who is Powhatan-Renapoak/Neusiok.
It all started during the Queens Farm Pow Wow—or actually just before it. “Chenae and I just sort of ran into each other,” said Bell. He had been getting cash from an ATM near the Queens County Farm when Bullock noticed him.
“She saw some of the jewelry and tribal designs I was wearing. And she's just like, 'Hey, are you going to the pow wow? Which nation are you from?' We talked for a bit and she offered me a ride to the pow wow. In the car I noticed she had a paddle in the back seat. And I was like, 'Do you canoe? Wow, this is crazy I help run a canoe program out of the Bronx,’” he said. “We just clicked, our friendship just flourished from there.”
Bell is the Recreation Coordinator for the Bronx River Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting, restoring, and rehabilitating the Bronx River, which is New York City's only fresh water river that runs 25 miles from the Kensico Reservoir out to the Long Island Sound/ East River.
The group runs an annual Fall canoe ride out of the Botanical Gardens but this year Bell chose to do something different. “I was doing my best to make sure that our program explored new heights and that we created hands-on experiences. I wanted people to actually take something away from this outdoor experience. I wanted to create a space to help my community redevelop a love and respect for our natural resources,” explained Bell.
Bullock started her own indigenous owned and operated business Moskehtu Consulting, which helps people understand the importance of cultural and heritage preservation by running traditional events and workshops.
Together, the two came up with the idea to create an immersive experience for people to understand native history. “What we're essentially trying to do is recreate a living village,” said Bullock. “This is an opportunity for people to come in and ask questions they've never been able to ask. There's a diaspora of native people. But in the backyard of your house, what people lived there and what did they do? Maybe there's something that those people still know that can help with today's problems. And that's something to take away from because we're all in this together. The river affects us all.”
In the event, Reflections of the 16th Century: A Paddle and Living Outdoor Experience, visitors can set off on a 20-30 minute canoe paddle down the Bronx River and back. Canoes will dock where the living village will be set up. There, Bullock and her relatives will be cooking traditional meals over a fire, cornmeal porridge and sassafras tea for example, to welcome visitors. Talks about medicinal plants in the woodlands, wampum interpretation, discussions on traditional housing, and song and dance are also part of the program.
“I don't want this program to be almost like we are on display, like a zoo. That's not what this is at all. This is a historical interpretation," Bell said. "This is a space that's open to the community for intellectual conversations about culture and traditions. Learning about our ancient lifeways and how we can come together to continue to protect our natural resources."
This area of the Bronx River is originally where the Lenape people lived, something that many don't realize. “It’s easy for a city to bury this history. I definitely honor my Lenape relatives, because we're very closely related,” Bullock said.
The Lenape people were displaced due to overharvesting of the river and woodlands during the Dutch colonization of “New Amsterdam” or New York City. The settler Jonas Bronck (hence Bronx) arrived in 1639 and was leased 500 acres of land by the Lenape. “Bronck took really good care of the land,” said Bell. “He had a really good relationship with the indigenous communities along the river. But then you had others who were overharvesting natural resources like beavers, oysters and different animals until the point that the river could no longer sustain itself,” Bell said.
The Lenape still live in the greater New York area, though they were primarily displaced to Oklahoma, and their traditional customs can still be found among East Coast tribes. “We never put borders between, New York City, New Jersey and Pennsylvania,” Bullock pointed out. “Rivers are ancestral highways. We all shared space many times for different ceremonies."
The very act of being on the water before stepping foot on land is part of coastal indigenous history. “Before coming onto land, [visitors] had to ask permission. So we greeted them in the water and then we would bring them into our homeland,” said Bullock, who has led several canoe journeys, including a 4-day trip from the Long Island Sound to the Mystic River in the longest 12-person canoe mishoon made in modern times.
“I lead canoe, I am butterfly woman,” said Bullock on the meaning of her indigenous name. "You have to learn how to work together. Canoeing teaches you about how to humble yourself. It's a vessel to communicate with our ancestors, with the water, with the land and to see from a different perspective."
According to Bell, decades of community cleanups in the Bronx River have led to tremendous restoration. “The river is really thriving. We even have alewife herring and eel that are returning to the fresh water sections of the river. What's interesting is alewife herring were actually used as fertilizer for indigenous communities,” said Bell.
With the help of the NYC Parks Department, local community groups and dedicated volunteers, the Bronx River Alliance continues to do daily cleanups and water quality monitoring. “People forgot how sacred this natural resource was. It's important that we give it to the generation after us in better condition than we received it,” Bell emphasized.
Ultimately, the goal is to share knowledge and break through stereotypes.
“I was always taught in order to know where you're going, you have to know where you come from,” continued Bell. “I think it's great that we can have a space where people are no longer assuming who we are and how we lived. Now you actually get to experience our traditions up close.”
On November 2 and 3, visitors can enter the 16th century living village where they will meet native peoples from the eastern coastline and have the option to paddle through a small section of the Bronx River. Canoes will launch every hour on both days from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. A dream catcher workshop will be provided by the Bronx Drew Gardens and indigenous plants that are found along the river will be on display. The village entrance point is at the Mitsubishi Riverwalk, at Bronx River Parkway Road and Boston Road (more details here).
Clarisa Diaz is a designer and reporter for Gothamist / WNYC. You can follow her on Twitter @Clarii_D.