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Our Undying Past

A momentous land sale

Chiefs treat with New Amsterdam's Dutch.

The online journal Slate provided a small-world moment for me the other day. It posted a compelling history article that combined the New Amsterdam Dutch (my very forebears), the Munsee Indians (major players in my historical novel), and even native condolence ceremonies (a powerful aspect of the book’s plot). Let me explain.

The article takes a close and fascinating look at the sale of Staten Island to Dutch and later English settlers in several transactions in the 1600s. Author Andrew Lipman, a Barnard College history professor, notes that the indigenous people who sold the island were known broadly as Munsee because of their common dialects.  Read More 

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A powwow with a purpose


Ron Williams at the Lenni-Lenape burial ground (Reading Eagle photo by Susan Keen).

History glows underfoot wherever we walk. Some people feel it, others not so much.

Ron Williams is the sort who does. He’s part Apache, an educator from the Southwestern U.S. who now lives in Pottstown, Pa., near Philadelphia. It seems a certain spot along the Schuylkill River in Pottstown has called out to him. It’s a small lot behind a factory—but sacred because of the Lenni-Lenape remains and artifacts found there in 1859.

Mr. Williams began visiting the burial ground, marked with a memorial boulder, to meditate, and “I made a promise to the souls laid to rest here that their place would be useful and remembered,” he Read More 
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Reclaiming the Wyalusing cliffs

The stunning, strategic, sacred site.

One of the most gorgeous spots in Pennsylvania is the Wyalusing Rocks overlook. Looming high above the upper Susquehanna River, it offers a breathtaking vista of the winding river and its broad alluvial plain. As a boy from that Northeastern Pennsylvania region, I remember going there with my parents and beholding the view in awe. Wouldn’t you know, in my historical novel Visions of Teaoga, my modern young protagonist and her dad pull over at Wyalusing to absorb the historical setting before them.

Go to Wyalusing today and, mixed among the roadside tourists, you may find Native Americans, there to pray and pay their respects. They know that this was far more than a lovely overlook. It was a strategically important sentry post, a site of tribal councils, and sacred ground. Fifteen years ago, the Eastern Delaware Nations coalition managed to buy 14 acres of the cliffs, and one of the group’s chiefs, John Taffe, tells me seekers of all ages go there to conduct traditional vision quests.

Wyalusing has been on my mind because I’ll be traveling Read More 

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'Indian-German Commonwealth'

An engraving of Moravian Indian converts being baptized in virginal white robes.
During the colonial era, the Christian group that historians say had the greatest success evangelizing to Native Americans was not the Baptists, nor the Presbyterians, nor the Quakers. It was a group that many people outside Pennsylvania are clueless about – the Moravians.

This German-speaking pacifist sect found refuge from persecution in William Penn’s new colony, establishing the lovely little city of Bethlehem, Pa., as its new base. It turns out I’ll be making an author appearance at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem this Saturday afternoon, March 21, and will happily highlight the Moravian history that runs through my book Visions of Teaoga.

And run through it, it certainly does.

The book’s real-life protagonist, the 18th-century Shawnee matriarch known as Queen Esther, was attracted to the Moravian missionaries and made numerous visits to their “prayer towns” on the Susquehanna River. The record shows that three of her children even converted to Christianity during Read More 
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Saving the Lenape Language

A sample of transliterations from the Swarthmore College linguistics project.
The game efforts to keep the Lenape (Delaware Indian) language alive has been on my checklist of good blog topics from day one. Other ideas kept crowding it out, however, so it stayed in later-soon status. But it’s time now, past time, to jump in.

What brought the issue back to mind is a language controversy currently embroiling the Navajo people in Arizona. Perhaps you read about it in this week’s New York Times. The Navajo Nation just installed new leaders – except for elected president Chris Deschene. It seems that fluency in the cherished Navajo (Dine) language is a requirement of leadership, and a court challenge over Deschene’s lack of proficiency led to his being disqualified from office. The future of the tribe’s leadership, and of the fluency requirement, sadly remains up in the air.

Back in Pennsylvania, the descendants of the region’s indigenous Lenape people  Read More 
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Dancing through dark times

If you haven’t experienced an Indian powwow yet, I recommend you seek one out. They’re colorful extravaganzas that occur East and West for much of the year. Every powwow I’ve attended has been welcoming and family-friendly. They tend to be multicultural and intertribal, meaning different styles of drumming and dancing are on display. Don’t be surprised by the rainbow coalition of complexions, too--evidence of the Indians’ complicated history of mixing and mingling with whites and blacks.

I experienced the Indians’ warm ways most recently when I attended a Nanticoke-Lenape powwow in southern New Jersey to sign and sell my new book, Visions of Teaoga, which delves into Eastern Woodlands history of the 1700s. The tribal organizers welcomed me, a white man (a yengwe in the parlance of Visions of Teaoga) to the event, promoted my book to the crowd, and even bought copies for themselves and their bookstore. To top that off, they invited me back to introduce the book to teachers at an educator showcase they held a few weeks later.

This particular group calls itself the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation. Headquartered in Bridgeton, N.J., the group traces its lineage Read More 
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‘Rising Nation River Journey’

The upper Delaware River grows thick with pleasure craft at this time of year—but the fun-lovers are about to be joined by an unusual, historic flotilla with a solemn purpose.

On Saturday, Aug. 2, American Indians representing the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania will set off downriver carrying a document they call the Treaty of Renewed Friendship. The delegation will stop along the way for a succession of public ceremonies at which various environmental groups, churches, historical societies and individuals will sign the treaty “to support the Lenape and to partner as caretakers of the traditional Lenape homeland and each other.”

It should be quite a journey—330 miles long, all the way from sylvan Hancock, N.Y., to the sandy flatlands of Cape May, N.J., where it will end on Sunday, Aug. 17.

The treaty-signing ceremonies are scheduled daily at 1 p.m. Each stop will also feature children’s activities and a powwow. We’re all invited to witness any of it, so if you’re in the region and up for a rare opportunity, check out the schedule at http://www.lenapenation.org. You could even join the flotilla or the campouts, but be sure to read about the arrangements.  Read More 
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