History of Native New York
The American Indian Community House
Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library

History of Native New York

Situated between a romanticized past and the mistaken belief that most Indians live on reservations in the west is the New York City Native community. This community is and has been a viable and active populace long before mid-twentieth century relocation and termination policies forced Indians off their reservations and into the cities.  By the end of the nineteenth century most Americans believed Indians were a "vanishing race" and the predictions had come to fruition.  In 1911 Rodman Wanamaker's proposal to build a memorial dedicated to the memory of the American Indian in New York City's east harbor was approved by congress.

In 1910 census data reported 340 Indians living in Manhattan and Brooklyn a significant number considering the nationwide population had dwindled to little more than a quarter million.   However, contrary to wide held beliefs that Indians were a dying race and after moving into the cities would assimilate and "vanish" into mainstream society the nation's indigenous population began to increase. In New York City the population rose as well especially after World War I.  Indians, like immigrants from around the world were fascinated and curious about the world's most modern and cosmopolitan city.  More importantly, most came searching for a better life. Veterans of the Great War, Indians seeking a career in show business, former boarding school students and others came to New York looking for jobs unavailable on the reservation. After moving into the cities Native people like most immigrants searched for others like themselves forming their own enclaves.  Determined to retain their cultural identities Native communities created social, political and economic institutions that would enable them to remain distinctive.

In 1926 key leaders in New York City's Native community sought to unify, organize, and cope with the needs of their emergent populace by creating an Indian Club.  The club attracted the attention of the New York Times and was referred to it as “the first of its kind.”  As a result the participants in the club were able to draw attention to Indians living in the city who in turn could focus the public's attention on the political and economic issues confronting Indians living on and off the reservation.  This was crucial during era when Indians not only forgotten but promises made by the federal government in the nineteenth century were forgotten as well.  Indians were not vanishing they were becoming invisible especially in a city touted as America's foremost immigrant city.

Among the most prominent community activists were the literary, visual, and performance artists whose talent and creativity not only enhanced social and political projects but, drew attention. Multi-talented people such as Princess Atalie were instrumental in creating political, social, economic and cultural organizations that would sustain the Native community in an urban environment. 


Princess Red Wing (1883-1974) a.k.a. Lillian St. Cyr, and Winona Red Wing, Winnebago (Ho-Chunk), played Nat-U-Rich the fourth lead in Cecil B. DeMille's 1915 "The Squaw man," which was Hollywood's the first feature film and became Hollywood's first critically acclaimed feature film actress. Some people have been trying for years to obtain a star for Princess Red Wing on Hollywood's walk of fame. Once "talkies" became popular Princess Red Wing retired from the film industry and moved to Washington, D.C. then New York City to be with other members of her family who were active in building the Native community in the New York City.

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