In 2002, the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum was preparing to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the signing of a treaty on June 27, 1654, by Thomas Pell, his associates, and Lenape sachems. This treaty signified the transfer of land, which included what today is known as the Bronx and parts of Westchester, from the Lenape to Mr. Pell. And the place where the treaty was signed was believed to be very close to the main building, south of the driveway.
Pat Ernest, who was then Director of Education at the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, knew that few Europeans at that time were aware of the culture of the Lenape, even though they had lived on this land for thousands of years. After a great deal of research, she created a program for visiting school groups entitled “The Original Bronx Natives,” the centerpiece of which would be a wigwam constructed near the place where the treaty was thought to have been signed.
The wigwam served as home for a Lenape family. It is shaped like an upside-down bowl on which layers of large pieces of tree bark are placed over a framework of bent saplings and secured on the outside by vines and branches. There is an entrance but no window openings, and a hole in the roof allows the smoke from a fire inside the wigwam to escape. The Bartow-Pell wigwam was constructed according to this traditional format and placed in a wooded area, which added to its authenticity.
Pat sent out notices to schools and visited many classrooms to describe this new program, which became very popular and won the 2004 Historical Services Award for Excellence from the Lower Hudson Conference. The program continues today.
The students are first introduced to the Lenape people and their rich history. Part of that introduction is learning to greet each other in the Lenape language. As they walk toward the wigwam, they are asked to look for deer tracks in order to reinforce the idea that they are entering a new environment. On occasion, an actual deer will scamper through the woods or a wild turkey will make an appearance, much to the delight of the students.
When the students arrive at the wigwam, they are photographed standing in front of it. Then they sit down on tree stumps, which reinforces the experience, as the educator describes Lenape family life. Many artifacts from our collection are passed around for the students to touch and examine. One of these objects is a deer skeleton, which the Bartow-Pell gardener found at the bottom of a pit in the woods nearby and which I cleaned and dried for our collection.
In the cooking area outside the wigwam, students learn about the foods used by the Lenape, including seafood, meat, and the Three Sisters (corn, squash, and beans). A separate area in the Bartow-Pell children’s garden nearby is planted with the Three Sisters so that students can see how these plants grow and support each other. The cooking area also includes a drying rack, which helps preserve food for use during the cold winter months and a small version of a Lenape cooking pot. Nearby is a shell midden, a pile of discarded clam and oyster shells modeled after ancient middens found throughout Pelham Bay Park.
A short walk from the wigwam is a tall fence surrounding a tree that is thought to have been the location of the treaty signing in 1654. Bartow-Pell has on display an enlarged copy of the actual treaty, so that the students can see the signatures of Thomas Pell and his associates and the marks made by the Lenape, who did not have a written language. After each class, a copy of the treaty is given to the teacher to take back to the classroom.
After visiting the so-called Treaty Oak (which is now an elm), the students walk back up the path to sit at tables, where they learn to make rattles and are taught that music and dancing were an important part of the Lenape culture. Then they walk to the meadow, form a large circle, and move rhythmically while listening to authentic Lenape music, occasionally demonstrating their own “moves.” Then they are bid farewell in the Lenape language.
A new option in the basic program is “Drawing a Wigwam,” in which each student is given a piece of paper on a clipboard and a pencil. Following simple step-by-step instructions from the educator, they manage to create drawings of a wigwam. In addition to instilling a sense of accomplishment, this activity enhances their understanding of the original structure.
According to education guidelines, a school program should meet certain criteria, which include being informative, engaging, enjoyable, and flexible enough to meet the needs of the students. Judging by its popularity, it is clear that the Bartow-Pell Native American program meets all these objectives.
Linda Sacewicz, Museum Educator