are more Native Americans living in Queens than any other borough in the
City, but you wouldn’t know it by walking down the street.
Americans in Queens — as in the rest of the City — live scattered,
independent lives, with no single neighborhood to call their own and very
few organizations dedicated to serving them.
pow wow season in full swing, though, Natives and Native-watchers in Queens
stand a better chance than ever to connect with each other and learn about a
society that despite its trendiness is slowly assimilating and dying.
The 2000 Census reports that there are over 11,000 Native Americans living in Queens, and over 27,000 people here who are at least partially Native.
City Planning Department likes to shrink those numbers in its own
calculations, and every Queens Native American you come across will likely
African American and Hispanic circles, many will even triple Census figures,
citing intermarriage with slaves and South America’s native population.
Lonnie Harrington Moonfire, a Seminole, Cherokee and Choctaw from St. Albans
who’s publishing a book called “Both Sides of the Water: Essayson
African and Native American Inter Actions,” said Natives are “grossly
undercounted” in the Census and estimates up to 30,000 in Southeast Queens
Anna Moonray Ferguson, a Cherokee and Blackfoot Native who lives in Corona
Heights, estimates that “Eighty percent of African Americans have Native
American blood whether they know it or not.”
In Queens, according to the Census, the highest concentrations of Native Americans today are in the southern half of the borough, in Community Districts 9 (Woodhaven and Richmond Hill), 10 (Ozone Park, South Ozone Park and Howard Beach) and 12 (Jamaica, South Jamaica, Hollis and St. Albans).
accounts of the borough argue that people lived all over, from north to
Bayside and Flushing were the Matinecocks; the tribe still meets regularly
in a Flushing church under the leadership of Chief Little Fox.
The tribe also has a very vocal advocate in Bayside community board
member and Native advocate Mandingo Tshaka.
the rest of what is now Queens was considered the Land of the Rockaway, or
Rockaweg as some texts refer to it.
Just to their west, in what is now Brooklyn, were the Canarsie.
Rockaway people set up communities all across what’s now South and
Southeast Queens, where the estuaries leading to Jamaica Bay formed.
Many of their sites in Woodhaven and Ozone Park were woodland
villages, while sites in Jamaica, South Jamaica and Springfield Gardens were
often set up for fishing and oystering.
the most commonly experienced part of the first Americans’ legacy is the
borough’s grid of major avenues and boulevards; many of them, according to
historians, follow the paths of the first Native roads hundreds of years
Months of observation and interviews in and about the southern half of the borough, where the federal government thinks most of New York City’s Native Americans are, have led to one common thread: this is one scattered and highly invisible population.
of Queens’ top historians, as well as the Central Library’s
authoritative research collection, the Long Island Division, couldn’t
produce any specific information about Native Americans currently living in
the southern half of the borough. Information about the Matinecock tribe and
the Northern Queens’ Native legacy was easy to get, but there was little
awareness of current doings in the community.
same was true at the Manhattan-based American Indian Community House (AICH),
the biggest service and cultural organization dedicated to Native Americans
in the entire city.
group’s director, Rosemarie Richmond, said she wasn’t aware of any
Native groups in South or Southeast Queens.
Tribune got the same response from Leota Lone Dog, curator of an exhibit
at the AICH called “Native New Yorkers,” which chronicled Native
Americans in New York City through photographs and documents.
There wasn’t a single reference to Queens in the entire exhibit.
Osceola Townsend, a retired federal agent of African and Matinecock ancestry
who splits his time between homes in the Rockaways and Florida, blames the
federal government on keeping Native Americans scattered and disjointed,
noting that so many Native tribes aren’t officially recognized and have no
land of their own.
Lack of media coverage also hurts Natives,
country doesn’t give a damn about the Native Americans,” Townsend said.
not all Native Americans think alike on the topic.
Singing, a Springfield Gardens resident who has Tainos and Carib blood and
is Crow by adoption, said that even though the Native population is
scattered, Native Americans tend to find each other.
“I can just talk to anyone in the supermarket and they’ll ask me, ‘Are you Native American? My mother is Native American!’ Or ‘My uncle is Native American!’” Bird Singing said.
one Native organization that’s publicly engaged in the southern half of
the borough — the Hollis-based Northeastern Native American Association (NENAA).
group, which says it has over 400 members, about half from South and
Southeast Queens, seems to surface publicly about once a year, for its
annual summer pow wow.
held its 13th annual pow wow at Ozone Park’s Cedar Lane Stables, home of
the Federation of Black Cowboys, on July 19 and 20.
The event had always been held at Roy Wilkins Park in St. Albans, but
city budget cuts forced it onto other land.
group was born when St. Albans’ Chief Winter Flower, of Ramapo and Lanape
descent, was walking down 150th Street in Jamaica in 1990 and came across
Chief Little Fox’s Native products store, now defunct.
two immediately hit it off, and with some other local Native Americans
started the NENAA.
Today, Chief Winter Flower runs the group.
group currently meets monthly at Chief Winter Flower’s home; lately
discussions have been about last week’s pow wow.
Besides its annual pow wow, the NENAA has held mini-pow wows, prison
visits to incarcerated Native Americans, library visits and school visits.
group is also looking for funding for a permanent space for itself, so it
can start a collection of documents and films and have a regular meeting and
the seemingly unanimous opinion among Natives otherwise, Chief Winter Flower
denies that there’s no collective sense of community among South and
Southeast Queens’ Native Americans.
she does acknowledge that the population is not as connected as it should
be, and cites assimilation into contemporary American society as the reason.
“A lot of people won’t own up to their Native heritage,” said the chief, who was interested in Native culture since she was a young child. “[And] a lot of people don’t know; they ask for genealogies.”
a charismatic, articulate man with old-school aviator sunglasses who is the
NENAA’s in-house historian and pow wow MC, cites the oral tradition as
still one of the most effective ways for Native Americans to stay connected.
gets around by the Moccasin Grapevine, or the Moccasin Telegraph,”
grapevine grows thickest at pow wows, those summer festivals of fry bread,
spiritual dances and handmade jewelry for sale that most people take in as
Mini Paw, a Springfield Gardens resident who was selling her crafts and
clothing at the NENAA’s recent pow wow, said the gatherings serve Native
Americans more than they do the culture-hungry public.
Pow wows are like annual family reunions and places to meet other
Native Americans – maybe even distant relatives – for the first time,
Paw said her Native heritage was never discussed when she was young, as it
was “looked down on years ago.”
whole thing was to just blend — to not appear different,” Mini Paw said.
Paw started researching her Native heritage about 15 or 20 years ago, she
said, but by then, most of her relatives were dead.
Her mother started telling her about her family’s past just last
year, but the effects of Alzheimer’s diesease is making that endeavor
was at a pow wow last year that Mini Paw made some real progress.
stranger at the festival told her she looked familiar; it turned out that
the man is Mini Paw’s stepmother’s cousin.
The two now stay in touch.
“That’s the point of these things,” Mini Paw said. “They’re a chance to connect people.”
next pow wow in Queens will be the 25th annual Thunderbird Mid-Summer Pow
Wow, from July 25 to 27 at the Queens County Farm Museum in Floral Park.
more information about the pow wow, visit www.queensfarm.org
or call (718) 347-3276.