If perseverence is the key to survival and success, the Lenape Indian’s culture will survive assimilation. by Rob Crimmins photographs by Steven Billups
Hundreds of generations before William Penn received his royal charter to most of the Delaware River Basin, Lenape (len-AH-pay) Indians occupied the area and the adjacent coastal regions, a land they called Lenapehocking. They were the first to greet, attack and be attacked by Europe’s earliest explorers and settlers. Today, descendants of Delaware’s early inhabitants are scattered across North America. Dennis Coker, Chief of the Lenape Tribe of Delaware organized a gathering of the descendants of the people who lived in the ancient homeland of the Lenape. The homecoming he arranged became a symposium supported by the Delaware Humanities Forum called “The Lenape: who we are and where we are going?” It may be the first time so many eastern and western Lenape tribes have formally come together. Attendees included members of the Lenape Tribe of Delaware, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape and the Ramapough Mountain Indians of New Jersey, the Piney Lenape Tribe from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, and tribes from Oklahoma and Canada. It was a mementous occasion, the end of an amazing
journey. While in Canada Chief Coker was told it would be the fulfillment of a legend wherein the Keepers of the Culture would reunite with the Keepers of the Land. For some Lenape, their displacement began when William Penn purchased Philadelphia in 1682 from a Lenape chief by the name of Tammamend. The natives called the new arrivals “salt water people” and as more came ashore conditions changed. Trade increased, lifestyles, alliances and land uses shifted, and for various reasons, extreme personal danger among them, many Lenape left Lenapehocking. Epidemics and warfare took a toll on them too. Between 1600 and 1700 the number of Lenape – or as the English called them, Delaware – in the region dropped from around 20,000 to 4,000. They followed what Curtis Zunigha, former chief of the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Bartlesville, Okla., calls “the treaty trail.” The perilous, centuries-long journey took his forebears from the East Coast to Pennsylvania, then to Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and Kansas then finally to Oklahoma. “In all of those places there is history of us signing treaties, moving there, establishing a temporary community, signing another treaty and continually moving westward.” Along the way there were conflicts and alliances with the French, British, Iroquois, Susquehanok, Dutch, Swedes, Spanish, George Washington, the Kickapoo, Tecumseh, Pontiac, the Shawnee, Pawnee, Sioux, Cherokee, and the Confederate States of America. In their interminable journey they were helped or killed by members of dozens of tribes and governments across North America.
But they survived. Two of the bands that ended up in Oklahoma have actually achieved exalted status as Federally recognized Tribes. Although many of the leaders at the symposium were openly hostile toward the federal government, federal recognition is something most tribes want. In the past, recognition by such a powerful enemy might easily have gotten an Indian killed, today it brings significant benefits and protections. The plight of those who stayed, “The Keepers of The Land”, was very different and nearly as difficult. The decision to stay or leave was often a personal choice or determined by the family. Like many Indian societies, the basis for Lenape government is the family – in fact community leaders are often grandmothers. Decisions are made in the context of fairly small, family units so it isn’t surprising that different families made different decisions regarding migration. Those who stayed, and their descendants, endured the prejudice and hostility all nonwhite Americans of the period suffered. Because they were treated poorly they stuck together and some of the most important aspects of their culture were preserved, including their language. There are fewer than 600 federally recognized tribes and a limited amount of money. When it comes to moneyed politics, Indian tribes – their claims of brotherhood aside – can be much like the rest of us. When a tribe seeks recognition, or for that matter when an individual wants to be accepted into a tribe, proof has to be offered and other Indians are the first to question that proof. There has been so much mixing of tribes, and to a lesser extent, races, over the years, it isn’t hard to raise doubts about claims
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of tribal origins in modern Indian communities. Further complicating the lives of modern Indians and their attempts at recognition, federal and otherwise, are rivalries between tribes and the motives of individuals. The two Delaware tribes in Oklahoma have bickered. Only only one came to the symposium, and there have been disagreements between the Nanticokes of Sussex County and the Lenape of Cheswold. (Nanticokes and Lenape are historically separate tribes with different cultures but similar languages. Today in Delaware and New Jersey the two are far less distinct.) The Indian communities in Cheswold and Millsboro, Delaware are not currently seeking federal recognition and since they don’t have a “treaty trail” or other records like their western cousins, they may never even try. Those are all facts of life for today’s Indians but they’re far from the most important facts. Modern Lenape and Nanticoke Indians are experiencing a sort of renaissance of self discovery and their self image is very strong. Their children are proof of that. At the social after the symposium Chief Zunigha taught everyone The Stomp Dance, The Bean Dance and The Go-Get-Em Dance. When a chief from New Jersey, coaxed his fourteen-year-old daughter onto the dance floor she rolled her eyes and objected like any adolescent girl would. She weakly and briefly pleaded with her father not to make her but he didn’t waver and within seconds she was laughing, her eyes thanking him. The very small children, fascinated by the drums and the singing were happy and well behaved, the products of attentive, affectionate parents. Family and community are
two sides of the same coin for the Lenape. In Chief Coker’s opening remarks he pointed out one of the dilemmas the Lenape face. He said their heritage “has survived all these years because the community was the protection. The community fed on itself and everyone sought refuge there. With integration and the breakdown of the racial barriers it’s becoming apparent to me that our people may no longer need our community and that saddens me because for all these years it was the community that has been what has enabled us to survive.” Deterioration of a successful community is certainly something to be concerned with. On the other hand, the fact that protection is no longer needed is good. Chief Coker touched on another, similarly mixed dilemma, the different goals of the The Civil Rights and Indian Movements. Recognition and identity are repeating themes among Indians. For them, maintaining identity is paramount so “separate but equal” is the doctrine of choice. “Assimilation is really a bad thing because you kinda forget who you are when you start to assimilate with other cultures and you want to be something that you are not.” Says Chief Mark Gould of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe and the father of the girl who didn’t want to dance. “I thought a lot of things that came out of my dad’s and my uncle’s mouths were bigoted but I see now they had to live that way to protect their children. “The things they talked about really bothered me because I was from the younger generation and I was out in a mixed world where you had to get along with everybody. There were very few of us left in the community. Now at sixty-years-old I really understand
because I have seven grandchildren, a fourteen-year-old daughter that I have to protect. I want to make sure that what she learns is what we want her to learn. Look around at all the Lenape people from different areas that are here together. That’s strength, strength that we haven’t had for two hundred years.” His observations, the goals of the Indian Movement and the success of Indian society before European contact and now that it is generally respected, shed a different light on the notion that diversity should necessarily be celebrated. The strength Chief Gould saw around him should be preserved. There’s probably little chance it won’t be. A site in Vernon Township New Jersey holds thousands of artifacts which prove the Lenape thrived in the area some four hundred generations before William Penn’s Holy Experiment. They’re far too tenacious a people and their outlook on life too close to the truth for their grasp to slip. Curtis Zunigha said, “The essence of our identity is our relationship with the creator and all those things the creator put around us, all that has a life and a spirit. The concept that we are related to all those things, it’s true. The Lenape have been known for centuries as the “ancient ones”, the “original people”, and the “grandfathers”, the ones others came to for spiritual guidance and to settle disputes. Today we are a far different people in the way we conduct ourselves but I think the essence of that spiritual nature and our spiritual identity and our ties to our ancestors, the continuous circle of the generations lives on. “We’re just trying to hold on to some of the old ways – language – and other things that give us our identity. When we get together for
social dancing we’re going to offer a little prayer, just to make things right. We’re going to call upon the spirit of the ancestors to come close to that circle, to give a little bit of blessing there. And when you call out to those ancestors, a lot of them don’t know that English language, so you have to call out to them in the language they understand. When they hear their own language they’ll come close to that fire, to that heart, that Lenape spirit that’s inside us. When we embrace the Lenape spirit, that is when we are carrying on. Then we have to find how to apply it everyday to life, this life where there is not a lot of room for that. It’s so fast pace, ‘I don’t have time to go over here in ceremony’. But you have to make it. I made time this morning to go outside and face the east and offer tobacco, burn cedar and pray. When you do that and you honor the ancestors and the gift of spirit and when you do so that way you keep it alive and strong.” Bruce Stonefish from Moravian of the Thames First Nation, Canada told his host, “It’s just an overwhelming feeling. I’d like to say thanks to the community here and to Dennis Coker, especially the community. One of the things that was talked about this morning was the people who stayed behind. I’d like to thank you personally. I read about where we were from, Ohio and Indiana, that was our migration from the East Coast and when I first came here it was something else to be home again . . . Thank you for saving a place for me to come home to.”
Writer Rob Crimmins produces video and multimedia productions.
71 www.delawaretoday.com September 2002