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Our Undying Past

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 to the native bands that inhabited New Jersey, Delaware, southern New York and eastern Pennsylvania at the time of “first contact” with the Europeans. The group’s primary base -- South Jersey and Delaware – was peopled by two of the three Lenape (also called Delaware) clans, the Unami and the Unalachtigo. The third clan, the mountaineer Munsee situated farther to the north, is the only Lenape group to figure in the Visions of Teaoga history. That was good enough for the powwow folks, who were happy to have me feature their northern Munsee cousins.

The Nanticoke-Lenape history follows a familiar, painful course across time. In the 1600s, their tidewater homeland was claimed for a colony by Swedish settlers. The Swedish records refer to the Indians they encountered in settled communities as being peaceable, friendly and open to trading. Difficulties set in farther south, however, when the Nanticokes tried to resist colonial intrusion but gradually moved north and united with the Lenapes.

According to the descendant group, the first treaty the U.S. government signed after the Declaration of Independence was with the Lenni-Lenape in 1778. Here’s how the group’s website explains the situation: “The revolutionary government promised that if the ‘Delawares’ helped their fight against the British, they would be given statehood in the future... a promise that was not kept. Because of continuing conflict with European settlers encroaching upon Tribal lands, many of the Tribe's members were killed or removed from their homelands. Some were able to continue to live in the homeland; however, they lived in constant fear. Those who remained survived through attempting to adapt to the dominant culture, becoming farmers and tradesmen.”

What a familiar story. Readers of Visions of Teaoga learn about so-called “remnant bands” of Indians scattered across northern Pennsylvania and New York who had to coalesce and adapt to endure during a desperate era of dispossession. There to the south, in the Delmarva peninsula and South Jersey, the same dystopic pattern was playing out.

For more about the Nanticoke-Lenape story, and to tune in to the group’s powwow schedule, go to nanticoke-lenapetribalnation.org.
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