Field Note: PlantXChange Discusses Native Species and Native Lands

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Field Notes is a section in Bluedot Living Brooklyn dedicated to amplifying organizations doing important work in Brooklyn and beyond. Field Notes are authored by the organizations and edited for clarity by Bluedot. If you would like to submit a Field Note, email [email protected]

Native species are critical to a thriving ecosystem. They are part of the success and evolution of an ecosystem, which is essential to survival. Life, such as birds, insects, and people, influence one another and are responsible for many contributions. In NYC, native plants such as mosses, ferns, grasses, and wildflowers stabilize the soil. Our native oaks play a significant role in water and air purification. Native forests disturbed by storms or industrialization result in the loss of different species supporting a life cycle. 

Everyone plays a critical role in caring for ecosystems. Bringing native species into local gardens supports the growth of a robust ecosystem that will benefit everyone. This process, known as landtending, dates back to the early centuries before the colonization of the Eastern Coast. The Lenape (translated as “the people”) are the native caretakers of Delaware, New Jersey, Eastern New York, New York City, and Eastern Pennsylvania. Canarsee of the Lenape tribe lived in what is now Brooklyn, and planted corn and tobacco while fishing in the rivers. 

Part of the Lenape livelihood included fishing, hunting, and gathering more than 150 different species of plants — with women playing a large role in sowing crops like maize, beans, and squash (a technique called the three sisters).  While reliant on their ecosystem for many products, the Lenape traded hand-made belts known as wampum with other tribes. The main networks of these trade trails have become what are now colonial roads, extending to modern streets like Jamaica Avenue, Flatbush Avenue, and Kings Highway. 

The Lenape did not share the same ideas of property ownership as the Europeans. They established loose boundaries with other groups and traveled seasonally. It's often told the Dutch purchased Manhattan from the Lenape in 1626. However, the transaction did not mean the Dutch were receiving sole ownership; the Lenape wanted to stay on the land. The Dutch eventually built a wall to keep the Lenape and British out; this is now Wall Street. Due to diseases and aggression, their numbers diminished from over 20,000 to 3,000. The Lenape culture adapted, and many ceremonies and beliefs remain firmly held.

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Eventually, reservations in Cherokee, Oklahoma, were purchased due to western expansion and broken treaties with the US government. Industrialization and agriculture then went to exhaust the land. Alien (or invasive) species were introduced to the US and NYC — including the London and Gingko trees. Invasive species like these harm native ecosystems due to their aggressive nature, killing most plants around them. The London trees are notorious for breaking pavement with their giant trunk and roots.    

This is only the tip of the iceberg in the history of the East Coast. The New York Public Library and Brooklyn Botanical Garden have various resources, including workshops teaching more about native species. Furthermore,  it’s essential to understand the violent history of NYC while recognizing the Lenape and their role in caring for the land. There may be limited numbers of Lenape descendants in NYC, but they live across the country in different groups advocating. 

Some organizations focusing on the empowerment of native people: 

  • The Manna-hatta Fund is “an invitation to all settlers and non-Native people who wish to acknowledge the legacy of theft and genocide that comprise the history of New York City and the United States.”
  • Indigenous Rising: “We are building solidarity from the Global South to the North to fulfill our sacred duties, listening to the teachings of our elders and the voices of our youth and women, to act wisely to carry out our responsibilities to enhance the health and respect the sacredness of Mother Earth, and to demand climate justice now.”
  • “Like all great movements, the Native environmental justice movement, and in essence IEN (Indigineous Environmental Network), was born of desire, need, and struggle. IEN’s desire springs from our love for Mother Earth and our connection to all of creation.” 
  • Lenape Center‘s “mission is to continue Lenapehoking, the Lenape homeland through community, culture, and the arts.” 

PlantXChange will spend time expanding on the importance of conservation, current flood zones, and pollution in the Gowanus in our next Field Note.

Upcoming PlantXChange events can be found on our website.


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