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Project Re-Education Lenape’s Griot Voices: Of Truth They Sing Part 1 of Three: “Purchase of Manhattan”, an Opera about Justice, Forgiveness, Healing, Returning Home and More”

Brent Michael Davids, composer, Purchase of Manhattan Opera.
Brent Michael Davids, composer, Purchase of Manhattan Opera.

By Bernice Elizabeth Green

The adage that “you can’t go home again” fails in the face of the stories behind the development and creation of the “Purchase of Manhattan.”
The much-anticipated opera concert has its world premiere on Thursday, November 20 at 7:00pm in the sanctuary of the historic Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. This production leaps many octaves through the centuries to 1626 and New York City’s ancestral first home inhabited in peace by the Lenape for more than 12,000 years before the arrival of European immigrants.
Sparse of stage decoration, pageantry and theatrics but rich with the voices of a Lenape Choir, a Dutch Choir, a chorus of Native Americans, three powerful soloists singing to the music of revered composer Brent Michael Davids and the libretto of award-winning writer Joseph Bruchac, the opera tells the story of America’s first land grab, the alleged sale of Manhattan island for $24 by the Lenape to Peter Minuit representing the Dutch West Indies Company.
“This opera explodes the myth of this purchase that never happened and is told from the perspective of Native American composers and musicians,” Rev. Robert Chase of Marble Collegiate told us in an interview last week. But the opera represents more. It is setting the stage for conversation around forgiveness, injustice and atonement, national soul-searching and historical analyses of this one incident that may have set off the chain reaction of shoddy real estate hustles centered around displacement, and patronizing attitudes that are ongoing to this day.
Mr. Davids, a Mohican said, “People coming to the New Netherlands {called Turtle Island by the Natives, then} were so deluded about owning and acquiring everything, they thought they had purchased Manhattan from the Indians. It’s impossible for it to have been a purchase as there is no land ownership in Native American culture. One of the foundations of (Native American’s) existence is living in a world of barter, of reciprocity, exchange and sharing power. The Lenape would not have ‘sold’ land.
“Western society functions the other way. If the Koch Brothers buy all the air, they own it. Then we must pay for it.”
Beyond Mr. Davids’ powerful message-in-the-music is another significant story: the involvement of Marble Collegiate Church — the original church of the Dutch West Indies and the oldest organized church in America – in the transaction back in the 17th century and its reaction to the deal now in the 21st century.
Collegiate — the very first corporation in America where Peter Minuit, the broker of the $24 “sale”, was an elder — may now enjoy status as the very first U.S. Corporation to apologize for its complicity in an unjust act of this kind. It was then a company of the Dutch West Indies and working with the outfit to “settle” the land. Collegiate has now moved without provocation to repair the wrongs of its first elders and administrators responsible for the faux transaction. But before that rite of passage some five years ago, there was a meaningful healing process the church and its friends, including Joe Baker, who is developing The Lenape Center for New York, went through.
At the time, in 2009, there was considerable hype around Henry Hudson’s 400th Anniversary sailing into what is now New York Harbor; and subsequently, there was talk about Dutch culture and contributions. But there was no significant conversation around, or celebratory events in tribute to, the Native American people who lived on the banks of what was then the Mahicantuck River, named before Henry even saw it.
“We, in Collegiate, felt it was unjust, inaccurate,” recalls Rev. Chase, “so we entered into a partnership with The Lenape Center and held a Day of Atonement outside Bowling Green in lower Manhattan around Thanksgiving time in November 2009. We made a public statement admitting our compliance in imposing an alien, unjust economy and judicial system onto the Lenape people.”
“What this opera does and what we did back then was reveal that we were complicit in the acquiring of this transaction that was really meaningless to the Lenape people and which subsequently led to forced migration, seizure of land, development of treaties that were prejudicial to the Lenape people,” said Rev. Chase. “The fact is, the Lenape had no concept of land ownership and that statement is part of the official records of the Collegiate Church.”
In a sense, “Purchase of Manhattan” is responding to Lenape ancestral calls for justice echoing through time – from the Marble congregation’s reaction to the price of the ticket at $24, which benefits the establishment of the “bricks and mortar” Lenape Cultural Center in Manhattan where, Mr. Baker says, “young Lenape people can come to their ancestral homeland. Such a point of reference does not exist now.
“Now, these many years later, we are back in contact again.
“As Lenape people, we look beyond boundaries as a way to envision and secure our relevance in a changing world. I have always felt we can best understand our present realities if we understand our history.” So from this production, a new Lenape village center will grow on Manhattan island.
“And that return to our ancestral island takes shape in the form of this platform, this center, for the Lenape today,” Baker said.
Intersections International, an arm of the Marble Collegiate Church founded by Rev. Chase, led the exploration of how this acknowledgment could be made public — by building on the relationships with more members of people of Lenape descent to understand the various complexities of the Lenape story.
The planners, which included Mr. Baker, Rev. Chase and Mr. Davids, wanted something expressed through the arts that would uplift Native Americans in New York City and, again, heal Turtle Island. This would not be “a onetime-only cumbaya moment.” So from the partners’ Day of Atonement in the fall of 2009, the idea for an opera was born. It had its first presentation in 2013.
“This project brings voice to Manhattan’s silent history and inspires future generations to better understand this complex history of the forced removal of the indigenous people along the Eastern seaboard to the movement into western regions of this country.”
This “moment” in history also gives dignity to an estimated 100 million Native Americans who vanished or were vanished, displaced or replaced over four centuries since 1492. As an illustration of the magnitude, U.S. combat deaths from the American Revolution of 1776 to the present War Against Terrorism numbers total less than a million casualties.
“And it is not just Indian history,” says Baker. “It is the history of the Diaspora, all humanity. If we bring this understanding – through the opera, through the center, we would be doing fine work, work of great value, moral character and beauty.”
But to express this through the opera musical form is unique, a singular path, with the added ingredient of an impactful response to history. Mr. Baker says everyone involved in the production, including Marble Collegiate Church and Intersections, “rode the wave of creativity”.
“Ideas spark, connections are made, energy is palatable, and you can feel it. You don’t know where you are headed, but the process is happening, and you let it be. The production itself is an example of the right people coming together with the right perspective. As people heard about the plans and learned of the intent, there was a great spirit of generosity. It was a true collective of talents from many different places.”

Recently, Mr. Davids read a news announcement of a Texas school board saying they plan to eliminate the early part of the history of the United States. “They don’t think it’s necessary so they’re considering wiping it out of textbooks. If you don’t know where you’re coming from, you won’t know where you’re going.”
The “Purchase of Manhattan” is the story of America,” said Davids. “If you go into the clouds and look down, New York City is a pinpoint. But there are New Yorks all across this country, and they are experiencing the same things as what is happening here. In every American city, there’s a story like the ‘Purchase of Manhattan’.
“Instead of Peter Stuyvesant and Minuit, you have other names, like Lewis & Clark. Every single spot in the country, 99.9% of the land, is stolen, nearly all of it. None of it was purchased. More than a history has been lost; it is a massive land theft and underlying that is genocide.
“Native American culture is still not understood. The stereotype is, the real Indians lived years ago, not now. So we’re still invisible. We’re still here, but we’re rendered invisible. The opera is designed to make people aware of who we are. My tribe, the Mohicans, the river Indians, the people of the waters that are never still, of the waters that are always moving, lived up the Hudson. You can see the tide rise on the river all the way up to Albany.”
The evening opens with a short introduction by Mr. Baker and then moves quickly to the music. Following the performance in the church sanctuary, there will be a “Question and Answer” session with Mr. Davids, Mr. Baker, Rev. Chase and others. Afterwards, there will be a reception at Intersections International next door. For more information, 212-686-2770 or visit www.purchaseofmanhattan.com.

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