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Our Undying Past

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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Preserving Queen Esther's Town


The riverfront site, on the far shore, is going to be protected by the Archaeological Conservancy.

News flash: The important American Indian village site where the protagonist of my historical novel Visions of Teaoga once ruled is gaining the protection of the national Archaeological Conservancy.

The nonprofit conservancy identifies, acquires, and preserves significant archaeological sites around the country. It has preserved 465 sites thus far – and now is happily adding Queen Esther’s Town in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

After more than a decade of effort, the group said, it recently signed an option to purchase 92 acres of the riverfront site. That will make it the conservancy’s largest preserve in the Eastern U.S.

The archaeologists were exultant. According to the conservancy, the site “contains the heart of Queen Esther’s Town, a very significant sprawling series of contact period villages.” It said the floodplain where the Susquehanna and Chemung Rivers meet “has staggering research potential for future scholars” not only because of Esther’s 1700s native village but also the centuries of prior habitation there.

White settler accounts say Queen Esther’s Town – also known as Queen Esther’s Village or Esthertown – contained about seventy “rude houses.” 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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At last, a slavery museum

The Louisiana museum includes a number of tableau including this one of children.
America finally has a slavery museum. And it’s right in the belly of the beast, rural Louisiana.

But what took long? Our country was founded on two pillars of shame – the enslavement of black people and the dispossession of Native Americans – so why did it take us until 2015 to open a museum focusing on the enormity of what’s been called our “peculiar institution”?

Walter Johnson, a Harvard professor, has a theory about this societal avoidance. “Slavery gets understood as a kind of prehistory to freedom rather than what it really is: the foundation for a country where white supremacy was predicated upon African-American exploitation,” he says. “This is still, in many respects, the America of 2015.”

Johnson is among the people quoted by The New York Times in a Feb. 26 feature story about the new slavery museum. The article walks you through the museum grounds, located on the original Whitney Plantation west of New Orleans. Whitney is far different from other restored sugar plantations in a region where, the Times states, “mint juleps, manicured gardens and hoop skirts are emphasized over the fact that such grandeur was made possible by the enslavement of black human beings.”

At Whitney, the visitor finds not only slave cabins and exhibits Read More 
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Truth-Telling on White Terrorism

The Equal Justice Initiative's new report shows how lynchings were open spectacles at the time, but have been edged out of our public history.
One of the most outrageous – and suppressed – parts of our nation’s history is racial lynching. You probably knew that sadistic murders of African Americans happened across the South. Perhaps it was a paragraph in your history textbook about the Jim Crow era. Maybe you stared at one of the gruesome old photos of dangling corpses. But did you know lynching’s full scope, and just how openly and even gleefully it occurred, with impunity for the perpetrators and a bottomless grief and rage for the victims’ terrorized communities?

This month, an intrepid Alabama-based rights group called the Equal Justice Initiative issued a monumental report on lynching that’s designed to grab us all  Read More 
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Is the "R-Word" Ever OK?


Thousands of American Indians and other activists have protested the team name.

The Huffington Post has just run a hard-hitting piece that looks at the continuing distress over the Washington pro football team’s refusal to change its name and drop that controversial American Indian logo. You know what we’re referring to.

It seems officials of a civil rights group recently met with team reps and were rudely shouted down. That, according to the opinion piece, is in keeping with the NFL’s apparent “playbook” for stiff-arming criticism of the team’s recalcitrance. Here’s how the writer, clinical psychologist Michael Friedman, analyzed the strategy’s apparent components:

“Reframe a dictionary- and government-defined racial slur as a term of ‘honor.’ ” The Washington team has actually done that, stating to fans that the R-word is really a “badge of honor.”

“Disregard protests of Native Americans and civil rights leaders.” As Friedman notes, “almost every major American Indian organization” has denounced  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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Red, Black, and Sometimes White


This new group taps into many African Americans' newfound interest in their native roots.

New Year’s Day brought a fascinating article out of Atlanta about black Native Americans. It should be no surprise that the two groups mixed over the centuries. Both were marginalized and persecuted by Europeans, with many American Indians being enslaved along with Africans in the early decades of contact, and with blacks sometimes being enslaved by Native Americans.

In the 1970s I delved into this complicated phenomenon when researching a story about an organization called United American Indians of the Delaware Valley. The coalition, now defunct, was dominated by a North Carolina group known as the Haliwas. Many of its members were triracial – black, white and red. Haliwa is an invented name that refers to the two rural counties, Halifax and Warren, where the group was concentrated. For generations, the Haliwas were what anthropologists term “triracial isolates” – subsisting on a toehold of isolated land, until many of them departed on the Great Migration north Read More 
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Philadelphia's Indian Set-Aside


It's believed that the so-called Wampum Lot would have touched on the southern edge of Welcome Park and run toward Bookbinder's, as shown in this photo by Nathaniel Popkin.


The listener’s question last week stumped me. “Is it true,” she asked, “that William Penn set aside land in Philadelphia for the Indians’ permanent use?”

At author appearances for Visions of Teaoga, my historical novel about Indian-settler conflict, I’ve welcomed the various questions that have come: Why did I tackle this topic? How does one research it? What are the lessons for today?

But this query, about a possible Indian reservation right in Philadelphia, brought me up short. It came during a talk-back portion of my presentation at the Ethical Society on Philly’s Rittenhouse Square. I responded that it was news to me, though it was plausible given Penn’s early good will  Read More 
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