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Native American New Yorkers Grow in Number, Latest Census Shows

Jay Payne, a descendant of the Cherokee and Blackfeet people, at an Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration on Randall’s Island, Oct. 10, 2021.
Jay Payne, a descendant of the Cherokee and Blackfeet people, at an Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration on Randall’s Island, Oct. 10, 2021.
Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

In the city colonists built on Lenape land centuries ago, the number of Native Americans is on the rise, new census figures show as New York celebrates the first official Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

In the five boroughs of New York City, some 180,866 — or 2% — identify as “American Indian or Alaska Native” alone or in a combination of races in a city of 8.8 million, according to the 2020 Census. That’s up from 1.3% in 2010, when the decennial census tallied 111,749 of 8.1 million people.

Demographers warn that such small numbers are prone to errors, such as Americans with personal or family origins in India checking the box. Still, the numbers bolstered Native American New Yorkers who say they simply want others to know they exist.

“The native communities in New York City are here and they’re thriving, yet the lack of visibility has really...contributed to the lack of resources,” said Sutton King, co-founder and president of Urban Indigenous Collective, a nonprofit helping native communities.

Múkaro Borrero, a ​​chief of the Caribbean tribe Guainía Taíno, echoed the sentiment.

“We’ve long suffered invisibility, erasure, indifference to a myth, because a lot of the Columbus story is myth,” Borrero said.

‘Columbus is Not a Hero’

President Joe Biden’s recent proclamation of Monday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day coincides with Columbus Day, a long-established national holiday that commemorates Italian explorer Christopher Columbus’ “discovery” of America — he actually landed in what is now the Bahamas — on Oct. 12, 1492.

Reckoning with the legacy of colonization, many cities no longer celebrate the holiday. This year, New York City public schools are recognizing Italian Heritage Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead.

In pre-Columbian times, only Indigenous tribes inhabited the area that includes New York City, including the Lenape and subtribes such as the Canarsee — who gave name to the modern Brooklyn neighborhood Canarsie. Today, thousands of Indigenous peoples from various tribal nations from throughout the Americas call the city home.

As conversations on race and equity takes place across the country, Borrero said, it’s also time to widely acknowledge that “Columbus is not a hero,” but rather “the purveyor of genocide upon Indigenous peoples in the Americas.”

“In the same way that people are calling for the Confederate flag to be taken down because of its links to racism and slavery, how can we see Columbus any different?” he said.

Celebrating Many Nations

On Sunday, hundreds flocked to Randall’s Island for a pre-Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration. Among them was Michael Marino, who originates from a group of indigenous people called Purépecha, which occupied the Mexican state of Michoacan.

Múkaro Borrero, a ​​chief of the Caribbean tribe Guainía Taíno, at the Randall’s Island Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration.
Múkaro Borrero, a ​​chief of the Caribbean tribe Guainía Taíno, at the Randall’s Island Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration.
Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

“I just love coming here,” said Marino, who drove 90 minutes from his home in Poughkeepsie to attend the event. In previous years, he met Indigenous people from all over the world, including the Amazon, the Congo and Australia, he said.

“It’s important for people, especially from Hispanic countries, to start learning their roots again,” he said. “A lot of Americans think that we speak Spanish and that’s all we did.”

Jay Payne, a descendant of the Cherokee and Blackfeet people who donned yellow regalia with a feather atop his head and danced at the event, said people should educate themselves on “who we are, how long we’ve been here and what we stand for.”

“Acknowledge the genocide and the things that have happened to us,” he said. “And stand up and say, ‘This is not right, it’s injustice.’”

Chenae Bullock, a tribal citizen of the Shinnecock Nation, noted that the mayors of Boston and Philadelphia signed executive orders to establish Indigenous Peoples’ Day as a holiday in their cities.

“There’s a lot of things that New York can do,” said Bullock. “But the thing is, they have yet to sit down and have a conversation with the Indigenous people about how can we go about it.”

What the world should take away from Indigenous Peoples’ Day is that native people are woven into society, she said.

“We’re still here,” Bullock said. “We’re not a monolith. And even in some of the largest cities in this country — Boston, New York, Philadelphia, D.C. and Baltimore — the local Indigenous people that are actually from those lands are still actually here, too.”

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