Nanticoke and Lenape Acquire Land in Delaware, No Progress Yet in PA

WHYY recently reported that tribes have acquired land in Delaware near Millsboro and Dover with support of non-profits. Money was an obstacle to land purchases for the tribe, but the state, the Mt. Cuba Center and The Conservation Fund came together to provide a path to restoring land to the tribes and ensuring they remain undeveloped.

But three entities whose mission is preserving land — the state of Delaware’s Open Space Program, the northern Delaware-based Mt. Cuba Center, and The Conservation Fund in Arlington, Virginia — have joined forces financially and logistically to restore the properties to the tribes and restrict them from residential development.

The first deal provides 30 acres in the Millsboro area of Sussex County to the Nanticoke tribe. The state approved a $325,000 payment in June to create the conservation easement on the land that protects it from development. The Mt. Cuba Center and Conservation Fund did not disclose what they spent on either deal, but Mt. Cuba Center executive director Jeff Downing said the previous owner had listed the property at more than $1 million.

The second deal secures 11 acres in the Dover area of Kent County for the Lenape tribe. The state spent $238,000 to remediate soil contamination on the land that previously was home to the state police shooting range. The conservation easement was approved Wednesday by the state’s Open Space Program and the purchase will be finalized in the coming months.

This continues steady work in the state of Delaware. In 2016, Gov. Markell signed HB 1 and HB 345 recognizing the Nanticoke and Lenape Indian Tribes.

“I’m just very happy,” Chief Dennis J. Coker told Delaware State News. “This is a major, major milestone for us as a community, so our people can stand up and be very proud of who they are and their ancestry and not have to worry about the naysayers who may argue otherwise.”

Neither group is recognized by the federal government. The Nanticoke Indian Association was one of the first to file a petition with the Bureau of Indian Affairs but it has been on hold since 1989, according to a 2013 document from the agency’s Office of Federal Acknowledgment.

Even without federal recognition, this state recognition paved the way for the return of lands to the tribe this year. This is a major step forward for the tribes. As has been noted previously, however, there are no recognized tribes in the state of Pennyslvania.

There is one notable exclusion. Despite being a major hub for the Lenape people, Pennsylvania has no federally recognized tribes. In fact, Pennsylvania is one of only a few Eastern states that doesn’t recognize any native tribes — and that’s not because the Lenape have vanished entirely from the area.

New Jersey recognizes three tribes – the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, the Ramapough and the Powhatan Renape. Both New York and Maryland also recognize tribes in their states. Pennsylvania is the outlier here. Recently Philly Mag wrote a long piece about the current situation of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania. The efforts here are complicated because in order to remain on their ancestral lands, the Lenape had to blend in.

“If you stayed, you disowned every aspect of your Lenape heritage publicly,” says Adam Waterbear DePaul, a member of the LNPA’s tribal council and the organization’s story keeper. “We couldn’t speak the language, hold ceremonies. We couldn’t dress traditionally. We dressed like colonists; we spoke like colonists.” As the nation grew, Lenape in the Delaware Valley, like so many other Indigenous people across the county, were often mistakenly or intentionally miscategorized as other races and encouraged to culturally assimilate into white society. And while there are established Lenape tribes in New Jersey, Delaware and the Midwest, there has never been a state or federally recognized tribe — Lenape or otherwise — in Pennsylvania.

The article covers this year’s pow wow at Mauch Chunk. And while I’m no expert on the tribe’s claims to legitimacy, what I saw was clearly a community. And they’re actively expanding awareness of the Lenape people through their activities. Before the Lenape language class that Swarthmore College advertised, I knew little about the tribes in Oklahoma (Bartlesville and Anadarko) or the Walking Purchase. But there are some that oppose any recognition for the Lenape that remained in the east.

Donna Fann-Boyle, a Pennsylvania-based activist of Cherokee descent, accepts the LNPA’s claim that there are people in the state descended from the Lenape who stayed in the region. But because the organization didn’t retain a tribal identity or act as a continuous political entity in the years following the displacement of the rest of the Lenape, it shouldn’t get the same recognition as the tribes that have endured for centuries, she says.

This is a problematic quote, because the history between the Cherokee and Lenape people is complicated. For decades the Delaware Tribe (Delaware is another name for the Lenape) in Bartlesville, OK was under the authority of the Cherokee, and it required lengthy legal wrangling for them to establish themselves as an independent tribe. It also seems wrong to claim the tribe should be punished for not maintaining a tribal identity since that was what was required for tribal members to remain in Pennsylvania. As Adam says in the quote above, blending in was what allowed them to remain in Pennsylvania at all. Its only within the last 50 years that this has changed – within living memory of the tribal elders.

Defining what is a tribe is clearly a hard task though. Tying tribal recognition to direct lineage has been problematic for a number of reasons – see the one drop rule and blood quantum laws for some of the complicated history of such rules. In the time before the United States existed, membership in tribes was flexible, with Scandinavian, Dutch and Germanic settlers moving in and out of tribal communities (since living conditions among the Lenape were often better than in the struggling early colonies). It was only after the United States formed that tribal lines began to harden for the Lenape and became a formality.

It is great to see the tribes in Delaware making so much progress. Its time for Pennsylvania to start to make the same effort. In the list cited earlier, Pennsylvania and New Hampshire are the only of the thirteen original colonies without a state or federally recognized tribe today.

Despite the assertion in one of the articles cited above that there are no remaining speakers of the Unami dialect, here’s another practice story in the Unami dialect that I read in class recently. Again, I am still a first year student of the language, you can find recorded native speakers on the Lenape Talking Dictionary.

Temakwe ahi katupu. Beaver is very hungry.
E osi ne sipu. He goes over the river.
Temike ne tekene. He enters the woods.
Moxkamena hitkuk ok kotutamena. He finds trees and wants to eat them.
Yukwe pwentamen ahpikon ok wishasu. Now he hears a flute and is scared.
Xuniti ashewil ok machi. Soon he swims and goes home.

Categories: Lenape