Who are the real Native New Yorkers? Exploring the untold stories of the indigenous people

Read Time: 2 minutes

To honor the significance of Native American Heritage month, we are sharing projects focused on indigenous storytelling, celebrating the rich cultures and traditions, while raising awareness to seldom heard stories of indigenous people. 

Our first case study is about an exhibition that follows a 400-mile path across five centuries, helping us to understand “who” are the real Native New Yorkers. The exhibition Native New York at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian encompasses 12 places in present-day New York, spanning from Long Island and New York City up to Niagara Falls. C&G Partners collaborated with the Museum on exhibition, graphic, and media design for this permanent experience. The exhibit provides a deeper understanding to the region’s history starting at the pre-Revolutionary War and ranging to present day. 

Acting as lead designers alongside the museum’s own team of curators, historians, collections specialists, AV, and facilities staff, C&G Partners developed a storytelling experience as a walk-in graphic novel. The graphic novel design theme carries throughout, from individual interpretive panels to entire exhibit stations. This unique design strategy focuses on the educational curriculum for local students, while creating a welcoming environment for all visitors.

The storytelling is organized as a geographic trail with stops along the way sharing the history behind common myths, using interactive media to share Native objects and featuring custom illustrations commissioned by the museum from Native graphic novel creators.

“Working on ‘Native New York’ for the National Museum of the American Indian, we were reminded that inclusivity and innovation aren’t opposites. During the project, we learned that there was an Indigenous Comic Con. That inspired us to design the show as a walk-in graphic novel. Many of those graphics were created by Native artists. Inclusivity doesn’t thwart innovation – it generates it.”

— Jonathan Alger, Managing Partner, C&G Partners

The exhibition weaves together the stories of Native traditions and contributions together with modern-day themes. Did you know that the native Mohawk ‘Skywalkers’ are responsible for the steelwork in many of NYC’s most iconic buildings? Or that game of lacrosse, played throughout the world, originated as a significant cultural practice of the Iroquois in what is today’s New York State?

The overall exhibition design has a multi-level storytelling methodology to increase awareness, empathy and acknowledgement. Along the geographic path, the design team created a lenticular display for visitors to experience the dichotomy of two realities, a photographic moment of Van Cortlandt Park in modern-day Bronx and the tragic Stockbridge Indian Massacre as a hand-drawn scene at the same geographic location. 

Moving beyond the tactile elements for storytelling, the design collaborators created an immersive experience by harnessing unique media techniques in unexpected ways, from double-sided projections and architectural mapping onto sculptural picture frames, to gesture-activated digital experiences. Light shows become tools to share stories such as the seafaring traditions of the Shinnecock Nation, located in today’s Hamptons region of Long Island.

“Native New York” is free to the public and a permanent exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in New York.