I fell into this story. It was like pulling on the thread of a fraying jacket and not being able to stop myself even as the fabric started to come undone. In my memory, the morning everything started it was snowing and I was about to log onto a Zoom class when my husband came home and told me about the teepee. He’d run into the woman who tended it and asked her why it had been destroyed. I got it into my head that I had to figure out who kept knocking down the teepee and why.
Then everything started unraveling on its own.
The teepee was a mystical thing. A tall, triangular structure with a round base that sat on a clearing in the valley of the forest, right beneath a rock formation that’s been around since a glacier retreated during the last ice age, and just south of the caves where the Lenape, the Native Americans who originally lived on this land, are said to have made their seasonal camps. That was centuries before the land came to be known as Inwood Hill Park.
I remember the teepee from childhood, when my parents and I first moved to New York from Moscow in the early ’90s and settled into a rundown three-bedroom apartment with roaches in the kitchen and brown dusty carpeting in the living room. I was nine years-old and Inwood, a little-known neighborhood on the northern tip of Manhattan, reminded me of my grandmother’s bedroom community in Moscow — quiet streets lined with five- to six-story apartment buildings and lots of trees.
Inwood Hill Park was the neighborhood’s best feature. It was filled with rocks and hills and winding trails. We walked there almost every day, thinking of it as ours because we were almost always alone. At the time, crime in Inwood, like much of New York City, was soaring — according to public city data, murders in Inwood in 1990 were nearly ten times higher than even during the current pandemic crime wave — and Inwood Hill Park was considered dangerous. A place where car thieves took their goods to strip them for parts. Blissfully unaware, we spent hours in the woods, eating wild raspberries from the bushes by the overgrown meadow overlooking the Hudson River. Picnicking. Having water gun fights.
I remember seeing the teepee in the park, in a clearing not far past Shorakkopoch rock — one of the only places in all of New York City where the Lenape are publicly acknowledged. Yet even this commemoration, dedicated to a tulip tree said to be our “last living link” to the “Indians” who lived there, is inaccurate, as it describes the legend of the “sale” of Manhattan — one that scholars of Native American studies have long dismissed as a fabrication.
Back then, I knew little about Native Americans and their histories. But the timing of our move to Inwood coincided with that chapter of my elementary school history curriculum — whitewashed and inaccurate, but fuel for my active imagination. In Inwood Hill Park, I felt the presence of the people who’d lived there so long before us. The teepee played a big role in that feeling.
My family left the neighborhood for another part of the city when I was fourteen, but I never forgot it. Even when I lived in Brooklyn in my twenties and early 30s, I would sometimes trek up there to walk or run in Inwood Hill Park, Manhattan’s only natural forest. I always saw myself moving back once I had a family. In 2019, when my son was five months-old, I did.
Right away I gravitated toward the forest. I was happy to see the teepee still in its place, looking even more beautiful than I remembered — rose and daffodil petals scattered inside of it, and a medicine wheel adorned with seashells, evergreen branches and flower petals inside a circle of logs.
It was during the start of the pandemic that I first started noticing the woman who took care of it. As the world shut down and my husband and I took shifts taking care of our son while each of us worked, I was in the forest constantly. I’d notice her there in the afternoons — two long braids, dangling feather earrings — talking on the phone, usually in Spanish, or smoking tobacco in her multi-colored woven hammock.
I figured she had some agreement with the Department of Parks and Recreation to maintain the site and was always curious to talk to her about it. But I never wanted to bother her, so I’d smile and walk by, or stand around awkwardly as my son jumped over the neatly placed circle of logs and examined her medicine wheel and the driftwood surrounding the shrine she had built along the periphery of the circle.
Then, last summer, a storm knocked down trees all over the park. I noticed that the teepee was razed, too, and I contemplated calling 311. But by what seemed like the next day, it was standing again. I was surprised by how quickly they had fixed it, given that it often took weeks to clear fallen trees. I figured it was because of the spiritual significance of the space. I was relieved to see it back in its place.
When my husband first told me about the teepee, it was winter and I was reading a lot of detective novels. The cheesy, formulaic kind with little psychological development and a lot of action that could distract me from the riot on the U.S. Capitol and the uncertainties surrounding the upcoming transition of power. Maybe it was the tenuous atmosphere, the novels, and the cold, gray, uncharacteristically snowy winter that made me want to delve into the mystery of the teepee. After my husband ran into the woman who maintained it, I knew I wanted to talk to her.
Given how frequently I had seen her the summer before, I figured I’d soon see her refreshing the flower petals on the shrine or placing seashells around the periphery of the medicine wheel. But each time I passed through the woods, the teepee stood alone, with only the errant bird watcher stopping by the circle of logs to photograph the cardinals that often landed there during winter.
Each time I went to the teepee I brought my clunky Nikon camera and a voice recorder. On some days, I’d spend what felt like hours circling the structure from various angles, trying to photograph it in new light, recording voice memos about my surroundings, with the sounds of the dried leaves and packed snow crackling under my winter boots.
One day, after I crossed the soccer field by the salt marsh and walked past Shorakkopoch Rock to enter the woods, I saw someone from the Parks department gathering dried branches into a pile in a clearing off the main path. I asked her if she knew anything about the woman who maintained the teepee, and why it kept getting taken down. She didn’t know much, but she did say that people had been living in the woods during the pandemic and starting fires. The teepee, she said, was seen as a fire hazard, an invitation to burn.
Just as she and I started talking, a man — tall build, dark hair, sporty pants and shoes — walked by with his dog. He waved and stopped to chat. The conversation drifted back to the teepee and I noticed that he seemed to know a lot about the woman who took care of it.
She was an academic, he said, who had strong opinions, and who used to be friends with a local octogenarian land artist who made ephemeral circles in the dirt using tree branches and leaves. People in the neighborhood loved his art, but the Parks department didn’t. They told him to stop, which, surmised the man with the dog, may have led to the artist’s subsequent illness and death.
As he began to walk away, I asked him if he could connect me with the woman who took care of the teepee, or at least give me her name. At this, his face dropped a little and he raised his arms, communicating that he would prefer not to get involved. I watched him disappear into the trees, his footsteps echoing, and the dog trotting ahead.
Inwood feels like a village. It’s cut off from the rest of Manhattan by cliffs and parks, with Broadway as the only through street. Up here, the land stops in its tracks, dead ending at the Harlem Ship Canal that carved Manhattan into an island back in 1895, dividing it from the Bronx and connecting the Hudson and East Rivers so cargo could sail through.
The park and its surroundings don’t feel like the city. Not with the tall, flowering reeds that sprout up in the warmer seasons — cordgrass, juncus, sedges. Not with the pedestrian bridge straddling an inlet that looks like a Monet painting in the spring because of the salad green leaves obscuring its concrete walkway and metal railings. And certainly not with the Metro North train that speeds alongside the water on the Bronx side, disappearing behind a jagged cliff painted with a giant blue and white “C” (for Columbia) and reemerging on the other side, screeching to a stop at the coastal platform station. Wailing through the neighborhood day and night.
Perched above the tracks on the cliff, sprawling behemoth apartment buildings with bunker windows and dreary concrete walls — beige and the sort of blue you would find on the walls of a public-school cafeteria — loom over the water. I’d always found it amusing that we left Russia only to end up in a part of the city with the most Soviet-looking buildings. Buildings I hated as a child because they reminded me of the drab landscape we’d left behind, but which I love now for the same reason. Buildings that stared at me one morning last summer when, while jogging up to the long wooden dock at the edge of the island, I was shooed away by police officers because of a crime scene — but not before spotting a pair of feet peeking out of a garbage bag on the metal slats by the water.
A longtime resident told me that bodies from all over the city wash up here because of how the current flows.
Every afternoon, the Circle Line sightseeing cruise glides through the canal, turning southward on the Hudson River to complete its circle around the island. Otherwise, tourists rarely make it up here, and most New Yorkers haven’t even heard about Inwood. If you’re out in the neighborhood enough, you end up recognizing not just the people but their dogs too. Even still, it took me weeks to find the woman who tended the teepee. She wasn’t on the Inwood Community Facebook group. And, no matter how often I visited the ceremonial site, I only saw hints of her presence: fresh rose petals on the shrine, a new wreath hanging above the entrance.
I have a childhood memory of an elementary school class trip to Inwood Hill Park a couple of years after we immigrated. It was an exciting day — few of my classmates had ever been to Inwood, yet there we were, trailing a park ranger around my daily haunts. At one point we entered the forest and walked up to the teepee. The park ranger instructed us to sit on the circle of logs, and gave a history lesson on Native Americans.
I’ve held on to this memory, probably because it was the only time in those first post-immigration years when my friends from my “American” world had entered the “Russian” world I inhabited with my parents. The only time when I got to share the forest that, in my mind, belonged only to us. I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back, the forest was one of the places that took us away from the realities of immigration — cleaning houses for income, wondering whether or not we could survive in the United States, scrounging cash just so we could walk down the aisles of the huge Pathmark on 207th Street and 10th Avenue and scour the coupon booklet for deals we could afford. Back then, our diet consisted of tater tots and canned fish my father mixed with mayonnaise and chunks of onion and stored in a huge plastic Neapolitan ice cream container.
Back then, my mother spent a lot of time crying and longing for her world at the center of Moscow. For the friends knocking on our first-floor windows at all hours to see if we were home. Stopping by to drink tea and smoke cigarettes, discuss politics, literature, and psychology in our kitchen, with its yellow linoleum floor and huge windows looking out over our narrow, dimly-lit street.
We came to New York because of her, on a whim just a few months before the Soviet Union dissolved. In the years leading up to our departure my mother, who was part of a group of pioneering psychologists at Moscow State University, had been swept up in the excitement of Perestroika — her whole life she’d been confined within Soviet borders, and suddenly, as Gorbachev opened up the country, the world had expanded. More and more foreigners started visiting Moscow and my mother, an extroverted and curious creature, invited them — sometimes people she’d met on the streets — to our house, practicing the English she’d learned in school, learning everything she could about their exotic seeming lives. There was Guy, a laconic traveler from New Zealand who ended up taking over my bedroom for weeks; Meg and Mabs, two American psychologists who took us out to our very first restaurant, a supper club called Peking in the center of Moscow that they had to sneak me into because children weren’t allowed; Susyn and Dan, a couple from New York who recorded everything on their camcorder, from the never-ending bread lines and empty grocery store shelves to our endless wait on the snaking line for Moscow’s first-ever McDonald’s and my amazement when I first tried milkshakes and French fries.
The excitement led to trips abroad for various psychology conferences — a month in the U.K. and another in the U.S. — after which my mother brought me back presents: a Walkman, Barbie dolls, Toblerone chocolates. And, eventually, to my mother’s decision to apply to a drama therapy program at NYU. We were only supposed to go for a couple of years. First, a month in London to see friends, and then, New York, which my mother said was unparalleled in its energy. Before we left Moscow, I went with my mother to my elementary school, watching her cast a vote for Yeltsin in Russia’s first-ever democratic election.
A month later, we rode to the airport in a taxi through the rain, my mother crying in the backseat next to my dad, while I looked at the Soviet people hiding under their black and gray umbrellas and sang in my head: “I’m going to London and America and you’re not!” My mother and I went alone. A month later, tanks rolled toward the Soviet Parliament in an attempted coup by Soviet hardliners. We sat in our friend’s house in New York, glued to the TV screen. In Moscow, my dad was amidst the protesters building barricades, protecting the right to democracy.
The hardliners failed. And my father finally joined us in March of 1992. That’s when we settled in Inwood. By then, the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, and, after recurring nightmares that we were trapped back in Russia, we had decided to stay in the U.S. permanently. My mother, who had talked her way into studying at NYU for free, had decided to quit the drama therapy program and my parents were in full survival mode — my father taking the A train down to Brooklyn every morning to auction himself off for manual jobs, and my mother cleaning offices and houses. I would come along with her to help clean. But the more cleaning jobs we amassed the more agitated she became, throwing the vacuum handle to the floor, slamming the toilet seat, crying that she wanted to go back to Moscow. Meanwhile, I was too young to mind, spinning around whatever space we were cleaning creating imaginary worlds and consoling my mother, reminding her that my grandmother Baba Alisa had told us never to give up.
My family was lucky — my parents spoke English and had higher degrees — and we managed to get on our feet relatively quickly. My mother eventually got a law degree, and my dad entered the world of business technology. Recently my mother told me that those years living in Inwood are a blur for her now; she’d felt like she was grasping from moment to moment just to stay afloat, and our walks in Inwood Hill Park had felt like a respite from it all. Hiking up the winding trails through the woods, the magic of the leaves shielding us from the chaos of the city.
The park, I would learn, had also been a savior for Isabel Amarante, the woman who tended the teepee and prayer circle. When I finally got a hold of her, she told me that my childhood memory of the class trip and the forest ranger talking to us by the teepee had never happened. The structure, she said, had not existed until she built it, about ten years ago.
Everyone remembers something different about the teepee — when it first appeared, whether or not it had ever been dismantled before this year. My parents, for instance, told me they also remember it from the 1990s. And so do Burt and Cheryl Fleming, a couple I always see in the park walking their identical white poodles. They’ve lived in Inwood since before my parents and I did, and say that there had always been some sort of structure in the barren area where the teepee stood. That it’s been taken down and then rebuilt. But other parkgoers say they only started noticing it in recent years. That the barren area used to be fertile until a storm cleared it no more than a decade back.
Isabel Amarante told me about the storm, too. And even though she insisted that my childhood memory about the teepee was incorrect, she had conflicting feelings about her insistence. Logically, she told me, she knows that she built the teepee after the storm. But, in her heart, she feels like the structure has always been there in some way. Like me, she cannot remember the forest without it.
I’d tracked down Amarante after a local potter named Luke Kelly responded to my post on a neighborhood Facebook group and passed along her email. I wrote her right away, and felt giddy when her name finally appeared in my inbox a few days later. It was early March 2021, exactly a year after the pandemic hit New York. She said she would be happy to talk. That afternoon, I sat in our bedroom waiting, fiddling with my recording app to prepare. When she called, Amarante was warm, talkative, and we stayed on the phone for almost an hour — it would have been longer if I hadn’t had an appointment to get to. But she told me she didn’t want me to record. She preferred to meet in person for that. We would convene in the forest, by the teepee, after the spring equinox.
When we finally got together, on an afternoon so warm and sunny we didn’t even need jackets, it felt like talking to an old friend.
She told me that she’d lived in or near Inwood since 1987, when she was a teenager. That she had grown up in the city of Santiago De Los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic, but felt removed from city life at her grandmother’s modest sea-blue house. She lived there with her sister while her mother worked in a pasta-packing factory in Puerto Rico to support them. She remembers spending most of her time reading in a hammock in the backyard surrounded by flowers, herbs, and all sorts of fruit-bearing trees — coconut, cherry, guanabana, tamarind, almond, gum, avocado, mango. The house was just a half hour from the countryside her mother had grown up in. Every month, her mother’s sister would deliver fresh beans, rice, squash, cacao, and corn from her farm. Amarante’s family had little money, but she said she felt like she lived in paradise. Thinking back to those days of drinking fresh coconut water and admiring the lush, fertile hills around her, it still boggles Amarante’s mind that she now lives in a city where she has to pay for mangoes instead of plucking them from a tree.
Amarante learned she would be moving to New York when she was 15, after her mother returned from a stretch in Puerto Rico and started selling their belongings. Her mother said they were going to find a better life. She wanted to give her daughters an opportunity to go to college. But Amarante didn’t want to go. She said she saw the United States as an oppressive colonizer and hated the idea of living in a huge city with little access to nature.
When they arrived and settled in Washington Heights in northern Manhattan, Amarante was horrified by the smells and oppressive concrete. One day, she found her way to Inwood Hill Park and started hugging the trees. It was the first place that made her feel like she could live in New York. She said it saved her life.
I’ve met many people in Northern Manhattan who would not feel comfortable living in New York City if it weren’t for Inwood Hill Park. Katie Duiven, who is 29 and who’d moved to Washington Heights from Nashville during the pandemic, told me she was on a hunt for green spaces when she stumbled upon the teepee with a friend. The structure was in disarray and Duiven remembers seeing Amarante picking up sticks. She was intrigued by the space, imagining it was some sort of nature classroom where kids gathered to sit around on the logs and learn about their environment. She wondered, “What is this thing and who is this woman building it?”
So, she asked.
Amarante told her that someone had destroyed the teepee the day before, on January 6, 2021, the same day that a group of militias, white supremacists, and other Trump supporters had stormed the U.S. Capitol. That she was rebuilding the teepee for the second time in six months. The first time, Amarante told her, had taken place on July 4. She told Duiven she was convinced that whoever had done it was motivated by white supremacy.
Duiven and her friend decided to help Amarante rebuild the teepee. They spent hours there and other passersby joined in. Duiven remembers a magical afternoon — sitting down to snack after the teepee was finally rebuilt, joking. There are photos of them from that day — Amarante sitting on the log at the entrance, beaming with a large stick in her hand, the sunlight shining on her face and her bright blue hat. The teepee stands adorned by evergreens and the rocks comprising the medicine wheel adorned by oyster shells found at the midden down the road.
Duiven and Amarante became friends that afternoon. They’d meet in the park, sit by the teepee or take walks through the forest to stave off the cold. Duiven recalls a woman passing by the teepee and asking about it. Duiven says the woman looked upset after Amarante told her it had been there for more than ten years.
“She said, ‘No it hasn’t,’” Duiven recalled. “‘I’ve lived here and it hasn’t been here.’”
Hilary Hinzmann, a tall, angular man who edits books for a living and takes daily walks in the forest, often with Burt and Cheryl Fleming, has lived in Inwood since the early 1980s. To help me figure out whether or not my childhood memory of the teepee was real, he shared a link to a folder of photographs labeled “The Clove circa 2010-2012.” The Clove is the official Parks Department name for the area where the teepee and the ceremonial site have stood. In the photographs, there is no teepee or prayer circle. Only the haunting artworks of Young Jee, the elderly artist the man with the dog had told me about.
In one photograph, Burt and Cheryl Fleming’s white poodles stand taut, their slender bodies angled in opposing directions. Behind them, hundreds, if not thousands, of little sticks, cut carefully into two-to-six-inch cylinders — some thick and others slender and sharp — are arranged in swirls and circles, making waves on the compacted brown dirt, the lush greenery of the forest closing in on them.
Amarante refers to the ceremonial site as “the Circle.” She told me it was Young Jee who encouraged her to build there so she could connect with her Indigenous ancestors. At first, she said she felt timid. She started out with just a small altar, and only bit by bit, she said, did she find the courage to execute her vision. For a long time, she said she held off on “spiritually activating” the space, and it went on that way for a couple of years. Then, the Parks Department told Jee to stop building his structures. And not long after, Jee was dead. Amarante was devastated. But she said she felt ready to activate the Circle. She held a ceremony and invited members of the Indigenous community. She thought a lot about Young Jee.
“Sometimes, when I’m here, I can feel his spirit,” she told me. “It’s very strong. Especially when the Downy woodpeckers come.”
The day we first met, Amarante and I talked for hours. When I got up to go, she told me about the third time the teepee was destroyed. She said it happened on Robert E. Lee’s birthday, January 19, the day before President Biden’s inauguration. That she’d walked up to hear screams and to see a big green truck ramming into the logs. That’s when she said she found out it was the Parks Department destroying the Circle. She said one of the employees there, a person of color, told her they didn’t want to destroy it; that they were carrying out orders because a disgruntled white man had called 311.
“In the same way that the Karens use the police to enact their power over the people of color,” Amarante said. “That man is using his power in the system to call Parks and then Parks is doing the dirty work for him.”
We were both standing at that point, the teepee to our right, the sun slowly making its way toward the hill. The Parks Department was being used as “a weapon of war,” said Amarante. A weapon “against an Indigenous woman.”
Amarante, who was raised Catholic, did not always see herself as Indigenous. She grew up learning that the Taíno, the Indigenous people of the Caribbean, had died out. When she made friends with Dominicans in New York who identified as Taíno, she said she felt sorry for them because they seemed lost.
Then a friend gave Amarante a book that changed her life. It was Jose Barreiro’s novel, Indian Chronicles, a fictional account of the encounter between the Taíno people and Christopher Columbus. When she finished reading it, she felt transformed. “I raised my head and I could see myself in the mirror in the medicine cabinet. And then, there it was, I saw the Indian in me,” she said, pausing as tears came to her eyes.
When she built the Circle about ten years ago, Amarante said she never asked the Parks Department for permission. But she said Parks never seemed to care, “We coexisted peacefully all these years.”
The idea that the destruction of the teepee could somehow be connected to white supremacy disturbed me. I scoured the city’s 311 data for Inwood Hill Park, but there were only two 311 incidents in the logs having anything to do with the removal of a structure from the Clove. One is from 2019 and the other, 2010. Patch, a local publication that published a news story about the removal of Amarante’s Circle, reported two 311 complaints about outdoor structures in Inwood Hill Park from June 30, 2020, but when I tried to confirm their reporting, I found that both complaints were about locations in a different area of the park.
In mid-April, I reached out to the Parks Department asking for an interview about why they were taking down the Circle, but they only sent a written reply from their Press Officer Megan Moriarty, saying that Parks had removed “the unauthorized structure from the nature preserve after receiving reports of fires at this location.” Moriarty wrote that they “respected the spirit of the site” but that “park goers are not allowed to build anything on parkland without permission. With concern for repeated fires in this forested area of Inwood Hill Park, we cannot allow structures of any kind — permitted or unpermitted — to be erected here.”
Yet in the two months after I met Amarante the teepee stood untouched.
Then, just as the spring leaves started to emerge, and the Circle looked more beautiful than I had ever seen it — pine branches draped over the teepee like a plush cape, yellow and red flower petals and seashells adorning the medicine wheel inside the log circle — the Parks Department put up a black metal fence in front of the Circle. On it hung three rectangular green-and-white signs: Please do not erect structures. They are in violation of park rules and are hurting the forest.
In late April, another resident reached out to Parks about the Circle and got a response from Jennifer Hoppa, the Northern Manhattan Parks Administrator. The resident posted Hoppa’s response on Facebook:
“The “hoop circle” in Inwood Hill Park with its brick patio and log circle, is causing soil compaction, removing the helpful leaf layer from the forest floor that bugs and birds depend on, and has the unfortunate consequence of attracting open flames and graffiti after hours.”
The day after the fence went up, I watched as passersby paused to examine the signs. Many were puzzled. They had grown used to seeing children sitting on the logs. A local couple had exchanged wedding vows there. Even Park rangers were said to use it as an educational space. Others were ambivalent — they felt that the teepee neither added nor detracted from their enjoyment of the forest. And a few felt relieved.
In 1992, the forested area of Inwood Hill Park had been renamed the Shorakapok Nature Preserve to honor the Lenape and designated a permanent wild site by the city.[i] Some visitors felt it wasn’t natural to have something human made, even if all the materials used to construct the Circle had been found in the forest. The branches, these visitors said, really were a fire hazard. And all the foot traffic the teepee attracted was compacting the soil, making the land around it barren.
I hadn’t heard any complaints about the foot traffic from the hordes of birders, though, congregating daily on a nearby hill with their cameras and binoculars so as to catch a glimpse of the screech owl that had taken residence in the tree hollows by the Lenape caves that winter.
Inwood today is in the midst of a rezoning conflict. The city plans to develop the industrial side of the neighborhood to the east of Broadway. High rises, which will include affordable housing units, are being built on the east side of Inwood with one large complex on the Harlem River — in spite of the inevitable flooding that will come with climate change.
Critics say the rezoning — the sixth such project in New York City — will have the same effects in Inwood that it is having elsewhere: rents and property values will rise and the neighborhood’s predominantly Hispanic residents will be displaced.
When I first met Amarante, the rezoning was one of the first things she mentioned. She told me that after living in Inwood for decades, she had to move to nearby Kingsbridge in the Bronx a few years before because she couldn’t afford the rent anymore. She thinks the rezoning will further displace people and that it will be the end of the forest. The pandemic has increased foot traffic to Inwood Hill Park and rezoning will bring even more people, she said. “It’s already more than the forest can bear.”
I stood in front of the fence for a long time that day. Passersby young and old told me their stories and memories. Edwin Martinez and Andrea Thome, a couple who have lived in Inwood since 2008, said that the spot had always felt special. “It’s very still, and the birds gather,” Thome said, “and it feels holy.”
Nick Baisley stopped by. He’s a ranger with the Parks Department and he seemed nearly as surprised by the fence as the rest of us. He confirmed that the teepee had been up for at least ten years without particular hassle. And that recently, as the park got more foot traffic from the pandemic, some people high in the Department’s administration had started worrying about the compacted earth, the potential fire hazard. I asked if it was because of 311 calls. He shrugged and said, “We always tell people that’s the best way to make changes in the park.”
I wondered about the fires. He confirmed that there had been campfires all around the park, but he didn’t know of any in the vicinity of the teepee.
Most people I spoke with were disturbed by the fence and the signs, especially when other issues in the park seemed more pressing — graffiti, trash accumulation, motorcyclists and dirt bikers who’d been racing through the trails with abandon during the pandemic, and a nearby marsh conservation site where someone had been cutting down native tree species for nearly a year without punishment.
Eddie Lim, a 24-year-old who’s lived in Inwood for two-years, read the sign in front of the Circle and shook his head. “If they could provide information about how it’s hurting the forest,” he said, “I think the community would be a lot happier.”
Later that week, I called Elizabeth Lorris Ritter, the liaison to the Parks Department for Community Board 12, which represents Inwood and Washington Heights. I’d interviewed her for other stories, and she’d always been frank with me about her thoughts on what was going on in the neighborhood. I wanted to know her take. “I don’t really think it’s about the teepee,” she said. “I think this is a proxy that may have more to do with a perception of what is the public’s role in public space and what is the government’s role in the stewardship of public space.”
Lorris Ritter said that many have come out of the past four years feeling alienated and abandoned by the government, and the teepee had become a sort of symbol. “It’s a beautiful park, a wonderful place to commune in nature,” she said, “and not everyone’s ideal of communing in nature is the same.”
A Facebook user named Paul Romaine expressed his feelings about Amarate’s Circle on the Inwood Community Facebook Group on April 23, 2021 (sic):
While I understand Amarante gets personal and spiritual solace from constructing them, and that she claims indigenous ancestry for validation, I’m bothered by the activity. On the one hand, one person is appropriating public space for a project, which seems at-odds with NYC Parks’s policy of restoration for Inwood; on the other, an indigenous-Dominican-American has tried to right the scales of unjust appropriation by direct action and to make a space that she and others have found solace in. And I could be wrong in suspecting that teepees constructed from fallen wood and stripped fir trees are appropriate for Shorakapok, and clearing the earth for sacred circles. But I ask, why not work collaboratively? If this is about representation for indigenous people, why not seek out descendants of the original inhabitants of Lenapehoking (the wider Lenape homeland)? Why not work with the parks department, and why not seek something achieved by a *group* rather than a single person, albeit a well-meaning and sympathetic person, and come up with a solution that might be more sympathetic and a source of solace as well as an education about the Lenape?
In late April, Amarante, who told me she normally preferred to stay away from social media, felt she had to participate in order to stop the Circle from being destroyed, started a Facebook page and a Change.org petition to save it. The petition garnered over 1,000 signatures. But a week after putting up the fence, the Parks Department demolished the Circle anyway. Only traces remained: a pile of sticks where the teepee used to be; pine branches, flower petals, and dried yellow leaves strewn on the ground like confetti after a party.
The next morning, a young girl stood next to the area in tears. Her mother tried to calm her down. “Don’t worry, she will rebuild it,” she said. “She always does.”
Later that morning, a Parks employee drilled holes in the ground with an auger. One hole, two holes, three holes, until there were thirty, forming patterns on the ground where the logs and medicine wheels used to be.
Amarante did not have the chance to rebuild. The next day, a group of volunteers gathered to plant trees. I walked by with my husband and son, watching the group — in sweatshirts, flannels, work pants, baseball caps — take little saplings out of black plastic pots and put them into the holes. My son asked what happened, where the teepee and Circle had gone.
One of the volunteers, a middle-aged woman, walked over and squatted next to him. In a saccharine voice that adults often use with children, she told him they were saving the forest. Then she walked him over to one of the holes and asked him to put some dirt over a sapling’s roots, which he did obligingly.
A couple of security officers stood to the side by their parked car.
I spotted Adam Martinek, a horticulturist and private equity consultant who runs a nonprofit called Inwood Hill Parks Conservancy. He’d grown up in Inwood. Part of the reason he founded the Conservancy was to engage more people of color in forest restoration, he told me. Inwood is predominantly Hispanic, but, he said, the majority of people who regularly use and work on the forest are white.
As for the dispute over the teepee, Martinek said he wasn’t taking sides. He told me he was in contact with Amarante (she had told me this too). He said he’d advised her to negotiate with the Parks Department, but she hadn’t, and now it was too late.
Martinek, who is a designated Inwood Hill Park “super steward,” saw it as his duty to participate in the tree planting effort. He takes part in all tree plantings in the park, and to him, this wasn’t any different: He was asked to help, and he came. Amarante’s ceremonial site, said Martinek, happens to sit in a valley that contains the largest concentration of old growth forest in the entire nature preserve. That means the land can accommodate longer-lasting, healthier trees. He told me that Parks had been planning to plant in the area for some time — he remembers hearing about it when he interned in city government back in 2012. The decision, he told me, was not a casual one. And he’s convinced it wasn’t motivated by white supremacy.
Martinek mentioned a number of unauthorized structures that Parks had taken down over the years — Young Jee’s circles, large stick structures made during the pandemic (these were the creations of Luke Kelly, the potter who’d first connected me to Amarante. Kelly told me that Parks usually took them down pretty quickly, sometimes as soon as the next day).
“Institutional racism is a real thing,” said Martinek, who is Black. But he doesn’t believe it has anything to do with the removal of the ceremonial site. “They [Parks] have torn down quite a few structures while that one has been left standing.”
But many Inwood residents are disturbed by how the Parks Department dealt with the Circle, dismantling a spot commemorating Indigenous culture without community input. Kelly, the potter, is one of them. He had wanted the Circle to become a formal part of the park, with a sign explaining the area’s Indigenous history and importance.
When the Circle was destroyed before the tree planting, I walked through and photographed the rubble. Grant Fleming, Burt and Cheryl’s 28-year-old son, stopped by with the poodles.
“They actually did it…” he said as we stood there looking sadly at the rubble. He’d grown up in the area, and the Circle had been a place for the community to congregate for as long as he could remember. “Why would they get rid of it now?” he kept asking. “Why not focus on the other problems in the park?”
I called Amarante as I walked home. She said she hadn’t gotten out of bed all day. The next morning, after I watched the Parks employee with the auger, I sent her a text asking what she thought about the holes in the ground. “Can I have a few days?” she wrote back. “I’m still processing and recovering.”
Not long after, Amarante rebuilt the prayer circle and shrines around the saplings. She and I exchanged a few texts, but we didn’t meet up. She was busy, I was busy, she was angry with Parks, and I wondered whether my journalistic intent to remain as neutral as possible would peg me, from her perspective, as their co-conspirator.
One morning in late July, I was running alone on the park trails when something inexplicable compelled me to turn around and head home. The next day, I learned that three women had been sexually assaulted in the forest and surrounding area within an hour, right around when I’d been running. The news shook me, and the community too. On Facebook many recalled Sarah Fox, the young Julliard student who was killed while jogging there in 2004 — a murder that, to this day, remains unsolved.
The assailant, who had gotten out of prison in Texas just a couple of months before, was caught quickly, but a shadow hung over the neighborhood for weeks. Many women stopped going into the forest alone.
Around that time, I saw Amarante again. She was walking along Seaman Avenue in a long, green summer dress, two long braids trailing down her shoulders. She told me that she was debating whether or not it was safe to go into the park. At the time of the assaults, some of the saplings had been ripped out and the circle she’d rebuilt, desecrated.
Neither Martinek nor a Parks employee I ran into in the forest knew who had ripped out the saplings or why. Martinek and Amarante both told me that since they had been planted, there had been vandalism from both sides: supporters of Amarante and the Circle, as well as those who felt she was hurting the forest.
Martinek put up erosion barriers to protect the saplings — four logs in a square that would help the young trees take root. To an untrained eye, mine included, the barriers looked like something Amarante might have made. I wasn’t the only one who’d made that mistake, he said; some of the park stewards would take them down after he built them because they assumed the barriers had come from Amarante.
Martinek told me that Amarante had taken offense to the squares; that she told him they represent colonialism and war. This annoyed Martinek because circular barriers can’t support trees in the same way.
“Squares are just the easiest shapes to make,” he told me. “They squeeze together and lock in. Whereas a circle is really hard to reinforce in nature. [Squares] They’re not military structures, they’re just there because it’s the easiest structure to build soundly.”
A few days after his conversation with Amrante about the barriers, someone turned the squares into circles, said Martinek. He told me that when he confronted Amarante about it, she told him it hadn’t been her. I asked her about it later, on a freezing January day nine months after the final destruction of the teepee. Inwood Hill Park was covered in snow and Amarante, bundled in a red jacket and tan from a recent trip to the Dominican Republic, said that she had never touched the barriers. That someone else had done it and she isn’t sure who.
As the scandal about the Circle grew more intense, it became harder and harder to understand who was doing what in the area — destroying the Circle; messing with the shrines; destroying the erosion barriers; dumping garbage on the premises; ripping out even more saplings. And Martinek said that it became difficult for his organization to focus on areas of the park that needed more attention.
No one I’ve spoken to seems to have any idea who ripped out the saplings. Whoever it was, I noticed when I walked up to the area shortly after it happened, seemed to have focused mostly on ones inside the circle. The saplings that, once they grew into big trees, would make it nearly impossible for the Circle to survive.
When I asked Amarante about it, as we sat on logs at the Circle, bundled in our winter clothing, facing each other, she told me that, in spite of how it looked, she hadn’t been the one to do it. “I would have never attacked the trees, I respect life,” she said, “and to me, the trees became a part of the Circle.” She also said that she wasn’t feeling so despondent about what happened anymore. Activity in the area had calmed down — no one had touched the Circle in a while — and she felt okay with things the way they were; she wasn’t planning to rebuild the teepee. Instead, she said she wanted to focus her efforts on pressuring officials to change the inaccurate plaque on the rock by the entrance to the park, to make it a true commemoration of the Lenape.
Many people are angry about what happened at the Circle, and Amarante thinks that maybe it was one of them who had ripped out the saplings. One day, she said, she had come to the Circle to see the words “Taino land” spelled out in sticks. I had seen it too, peeking out from between the saplings the day after the volunteers had planted them in May 2021. I had, of course, assumed that Amarante had done it. But she maintains that she hadn’t.
“I just want my peace back,” she said. “I want this energy gone, so I’m not going to do anything to attract more attention.”
As for the saplings, she had one more theory about who may have harmed them: maybe it was that man who had assaulted the women in the park back in July. The two events, she said, had occurred on the same day.
She had told me this theory before. Back when I’d run into her on the street in August after the sexual assaults.
It was a full moon the day it happened, she’d said. And full moons make people do crazy things.
[i] The spelling was updated from Sharokkopoch (as written on the plaque on the rock) in a more accurate transliteration of the native language
Masha Udensiva-Brenner is a writer, journalist, and audio producer. She hosts and produces Voices of Ukraine and edits Harriman Magazine at Columbia University’s Harriman Institute. Her work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered, and in Guernica, New Republic, the Awl and other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia Journalism School where she received the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship and the Joan Konner Award for broadcast journalism. Read select work at mashaudensivabrenner.com.