I was warned by the desk attendant that there would be children, hordes of them. She was not exaggerating. May is field trip season at the Museum of the American Revolution. Docents crisscrossed the rooms trailed by inchoate streams of uniformed middle schoolers and teachers nudging them into line like border collies.
I entered the Oneida room on a wave of navy blue polo shirts and beige khakis, where I stood face-to-face with half a dozen life-size replicas of Oneida men and women. A video playing on a loop backlit the eerily realistic-looking sculptures (they were cast from living members of the Wisconsin-based tribe). Transfixed, the students settled down to watch the show. The video dramatized, through reenactments and voiceovers, how the Oneida alone among the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (known to the British as the Six Nations) came to throw in their lot with the Americans.
As for the other five nations that sided with the British or tried to remain neutral, General George Washington ordered “the total destruction and devastation of their settlements and the capture of as many prisoners of every age and sex as possible,” a detail not recorded anywhere in the museum.
The video ended with a rousing tribute to Oneida patriotism. Photos of Oneida soldiers who fought in every subsequent U.S. war flashed in time to a thudding beat. The multimedia experience was designed to stir strong feelings, and it did.
I wasn’t surprised that the military contributions of the Oneida Nation would be honored here, but I wondered what the museum had to say about the Lenape, on whose ancestral lands the museum sits. Along the opposite wall a map with accompanying text explained that by the time of the conflict “most Lenape had been forced westward by expanded colonial settlements.” Lenape fought on both sides of the war. Many viewed the land-hungry separatists as a greater existential threat than the distant Crown. “Those who tried to remain neutral,” the text concluded, “were often viewed with suspicion by both sides.”
That was putting it mildly. A year before the war’s end a Pennsylvania militia methodically slaughtered 90 Christianized Lenape men, women, and children who had been living among neutral Moravian missionaries in eastern Ohio. They died singing hymns. This bloodbath, perhaps the worst war crime of the entire conflict, didn’t make it into the exhibit either.
The only other nod to the region’s original inhabitants in the Oneida Room was a portrait of Lapowinsa, a Lenape chief whom William Penn’s sons and James Logan conned into selling off nearly a million acres of tribal lands along the Delaware River in a notorious swindle known as the Walking Purchase. In the painting Lapowinsa has a weary expression. The caption blandly indicates that Lapowinsa “signed a treaty transferring native lands to Pennsylvania in the 1730s,” fait accompli. It seemed that whoever had authored these texts hadn’t consulted any Lenape historians.
I left the museum and walked a block to Welcome Park, a plaza I’d passed dozens of times on my way to the Ritz East, but had never stopped to investigate. A hot wind blew trash around as I took in the story of William Penn and the founding of Pennsylvania. A timeline wrapping around the perimeter walls ticks off a series of sites Penn purchased from the Delaware (the English name for the Lenape), neglecting to note how radically Indigenous concepts of land tenure differed from that of the colonists. The park celebrates Penn’s benevolence, as exemplified by the treaty of friendship he brokered with “the Indians” in 1682.
The statue of Lenape Chief Tamanend, which hovers over the entrance to 95 South on an exhaust fume-scented stretch of Front Street, also commemorates the 1682 treaty. Its inscription, however, gives more historical background to the treaty, and puts tribal leaders on equal footing with their English counterparts. Tamanend stands on a turtle and is flanked by an eagle–Lenape symbols of Mother Earth and the Great Spirit, respectively.
I walked on to Penn Treaty Park, the assumed site of the 1682 treaty, known to the Lenape as Shackamaxon. The historical marker, and plaques are focused exclusively on William Penn’s nobility of character. A sign at the park entrance is particularly vague and one-sided. It reads: “Traditional site of a treaty between William Penn and the Indians, this park is maintained by the City of Philadelphia in commemoration of the Proprietor’s peaceful relations with the Indians.”
Looking around at monuments and historical markers in Philadelphia, one could be excused for thinking that the English and the Lenape really had lived in peace, as the Shackamaxon treaty signers vowed, for “as long as the waters run in the rivers and creeks and as long as the stars and moon endure.” Or, judging by the information on hand at the Museum of the American Revolution, that the Lenape left their homeland in the Delaware Valley for good in the 1730s.
Even esteemed Indigenous scholars have made this mistake. In Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s otherwise myth-busting book, “All the Real Indians Died Off”: And 20 Other Myths About Native Americans, they give 1737 as the year when “The Lenape (Delaware) people, who are indigenous to what is now New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and southern New York, [were] forcibly removed from Pennsylvania.”
Of course I knew this wasn’t the case. My friend Travis is Lenape on his mother’s side. We grew up together in Upper Darby, a quasi-suburban bardo between gritty Cobbs Creek and the more affluent suburbs further west. Though we’d never talked much about his Lenape background–we bonded in high school over Cowboy Beebop and Nietzsche–I was certain he’d gotten a different version of Indigenous history at home than the fairy tales we’d learned at school. He told me that “while there were certainly a bunch of Native Americans in my orbit as a child, they weren’t the standard bearers of native culture.”
I wanted to know what the standard bearers, those who’d kept the traditions going through centuries of dispossessions, persecution, and forced assimilation thought about the city’s romantic view of itself, its willfully naive emphasis on the purity of William Penn’s founding vision. My old friend wasn’t eager to opine on what I perceived to be the city’s whitewashing of his ancestors’ history.
So who were the standard bearers of Lenape culture. And where could they be found?
Healing Historic Wounds in Pennsylvania
Easton sits at the confluence of the Lehigh and Delaware rivers. It’s a walkable town with deep colonial roots a short drive from Allentown. A hand-made sign pointed me to the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania’s Cultural Center tucked into the ground floor of the Bachmann House, a sturdy colonial-era pub on the town’s main drag.
Barbara Bluejay was on hand to welcome the public on the day I visited. She showed me some of the family heirlooms and sacred objects that were included in the “Fulfilling a Prophecy” exhibit the group co-curated at the Penn Museum of Anthropology in 2010. A doll with a second face stitched on the back of its head epitomized one way her ancestors coped with persecution and discrimination: hiding their Native identity. “We were afraid to show how much we had been hurt,” she explained with a Bucks County twang.
A video from the exhibit played in the background. The soundtrack was New Agey–gurgling creeks, airy flutes–until the drums started up and an impassioned chorus of women shout-singing in the Lenape language brought the space alive.
From what I could tell, the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania’s (LNP) sense of identity coalesced around the Penn Museum exhibit. It gave members of the self-declared tribe–educated, disconnected from tribal life, but nonetheless imbued with Lenape culture and committed to preserving it–a platform to reintroduce themselves to the world.
Bluejay explained that the crafts for sale can’t carry the Native-made label, since the organization is not a state-recognized tribe. “They could arrest us,” she said. Pennsylvania is one of 13 states that don’t recognize Native American tribes. Even if the state did recognize tribes, it’s unlikely the LNP would qualify. Its members aren’t interrelated, and it would be difficult to prove they’ve had a continuous presence in the region going back to the 19th century.
When I asked her what she thought about the portrayal of Lenape history in Philadelphia, she said she’d bring it to the tribal council. “We’re careful about who we talk to. We’re the peace keepers. We don’t like to make trouble.”
Outside the farmer’s market was winding down. On the walk back to my car the American Spirits logo in the window of a tobacco shop caught my eye: a silhouetted Native American in feathered headdress smoking a ceremonial pipe. (American Spirits is not a Native-owned company.)
Bluejay put me in touch with LNP member Ann Dapice, whom I spoke with by phone. Dapice, who is Lenape and Cherokee, grew up near Tulsa and internalized the racist attitudes toward Indigenous people then prevalent. “We were ashamed of our Indian heritage,” she said. When she moved east to study at Penn she learned that she had ancestors in the region who’d remained throughout the period of forced removals. She connected with the LNP after the Penn exhibit put them on the map. When she told then-Chief Bob Redhawk who her people were, she recalled him saying, “Welcome to the tribe.”
On returning to Oklahoma, Dapice was struck by what she perceived to be a lack of interest in Colonial-era history among the federally-recognized Lenape tribes with whom she and her daughter work as educators. “The people out here, their only story is that they had to move west. At the same time they don’t want to learn what they lost–there’s a fear of learning what they lost.”
Standard bearers or no, few would deny that the LNP are forging fruitful alliances with non-native institutions to help raise awareness of the Lenape in eastern Pennsylvania. Dapice helps Penn recruit and retain Native students. Shelley DePaul teaches the Lenape language at Swarthmore. In late September they’ll undertake a “Walking Purchase Healing Journey” in collaboration with the Bachmann Players, a group of historical reenactors who perform upstairs at the Bachmann House. Together they’ll retrace the Walking Purchase path by car, with stops along the way for healing ceremonies conducted by the LNP and dramatizations by the Bachmann Players.
I caught up with the Bachmann Player’s artistic director Christopher Black as he was out on the road visiting James Logan’s estate in Germantown, the site of negotiations that cemented the Lenape’s dispossession from the Lehigh Valley following the Walking Purchase. “It was a huge, traumatic event for the Lenape. I’m hoping to get people to touch base with that history through the reenactment,” Black said.
That history is a bit complicated, so bear with me. In 1737, Thomas and John Penn enlisted James Logan, William Penn’s former secretary and a land speculator in his own right, to forge a deed claiming that the Lenape’s forebears had promised to sell the elder Penn as much land in the Lehigh Valley as could be walked in a day and a half, a typical unit of measurement among the Lenape. Since they had trusted William Penn, Lapowinsa and other Lenape leaders agreed to the deal given assurances that their settlements would be protected.
The English used cartographic sleights of hand to misrepresent the scope of the area to be “walked,” then hired runners to cover a path that had been cleared in advance, resulting in the transfer of a piece of land the size of Rhode Island.
The Lenape knew they’d been duped and did not vacate their lands right away. Thomas Penn sought to forcibly remove them, Logan tried appeasing them, but in the end the Proprietors merely sat back as a wave of European migrants terrorized most of the Lenape into abandoning their homes.
Ironically, the square named after Logan in Philadelphia’s museum district features a fountain with sculptures of mythologized Indians. The blued bronze figures that give the fountain that metallic tang children find irresistible in summer are supposed to represent the three rivers and streams that run through the city. Artist Alexander Calder thought of them as Native variants on the European river god tradition.
Zoe Strauss, the Philadelphia-based artist who received a Guggenheim grant for her work photographing the city’s underclass, proposed an alternative monument for Logan Square, one that would acknowledge Logan’s role in the Walking Purchase: three 65-mile paved paths emanating outward from the fountain, meant not for strolling, but for measuring distance and recording ownership.
Strauss’ obviously unfeasible proposal perhaps inadvertently suggests the limitations of monuments as correctives to historical wrongdoings. Nonetheless, a true reckoning with our shared colonial history calls for a bold collective reexamination of the local foundational narratives that for so long rendered Indigenous perspectives mute, elevating English land speculators to patron saints while conveniently eliding the genocidal violence that followed in their wake.
Fighting for Recognition, Building a Movement
I found myself back at Penn Treaty Park on a bright Saturday afternoon in late May. Cumbia music wafted on the breeze. Kids clambered over the turtle sculpture meant to acknowledge the Lenape’s historic link to the park. To the untutored eye it was just another feature of the playground landscape.
I’d been in touch with John Norwood of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape, a state-recognized tribe in New Jersey. Tribal councilman, judge, minister, Indigenous-rights activist: Norwood is a standard bearer if ever there was one. Though he was busy preparing for the tribe’s well-attended annual powwow, he took the time to look over my notes and offer his analysis.
He found the statue of Teedyuscung in Wissahickon Valley Park to be “woefully historically inaccurate. Northeastern Woodland cultures did not wear Western Plains war bonnets.”
The Museum of the American Revolution, he thought, mischaracterized the 1737 land transfer, and “allows for the mistaken assumption that all Lenape left the homeland.” The American Swedish Historical Museum did a better job of explaining the Walking Purchase and Indigenous concepts of land tenure.
As for Penn Treaty Park, the historical markers and plaques “make reference to ‘the Indians,’ but don’t mention the tribes or chiefs involved. They state that Penn made peace as though he was the only actor. Very insulting.”
Friends of Penn Treaty Park president A.J. Thompson acknowledged that the park needs to do a better job of recognizing the Lenape. He noted that they’d recently engaged Councilman Mark Squilla to commit to a new statue of Tamanend for the park. A spokesperson for Squilla told me that updating signage would be part of the approval process for the new statue.
Norwood would welcome these developments. “It’s important that a balanced view of the Shackamaxon treaty be raised, with our tribal leaders no longer being almost forgotten, nameless ‘Indians’ while the English names are celebrated.”
But the tribe’s priorities go beyond symbolic recognition.“While our relationship with the public and building a better understanding of who we are today is very important, our major priorities have more to do with perpetuating our culture, serving our people, and protecting our tribal rights into the future.”
Those rights were threatened in 2012 when former New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s administration abruptly invalidated the tribe’s state recognition, which carries financial benefits, along with that of New Jersey’s other two recognized tribes, the Ramopough Lenape and Powhatan Renape. The Nanticoke fought the decision and prevailed in a 2018 court case that reaffirmed their state recognition. (The Ramopough and Powhatan had their state recognition reaffirmed following the Nanticoke’s legal victory.)
Indigenous activists are increasingly joining together to amplify their presence and press their concerns. Last month the Philadelphia-based activist collective Indigenous 215 protested a routine ribbon-cutting ceremony at Columbus Square in South Philly, calling for the renaming of the square and the removal of monuments to Columbus throughout the city.
As calls to drop Columbus’ toxic legacy mount across the U.S., here in Philly it’s about time we also moved beyond our tourism board-approved origin stories to acknowledge the devastating impact colonialism had on the Lenape.
The Museum of the American Revolution, to its credit, raised some pertinent questions last October when it hosted a series of panel discussions to mark Indigenous Peoples Weekend. One panel asked: “Can we memorialize historical figures without glorifying atrocities?” Surely we can and must.
On October 12, Penn Treaty Park will celebrate Indigenous Peoples Day with a pan-Indigenous powwow and teach-in hosted by members of Philly’s Native community with help from Friends of Penn Treaty Park. As I gazed out on the riverfront thronged with picnickers I recalled something Ann Dapice had told me: even before the arrival of Europeans, the Delaware was the place where the tribes all came together to trade and socialize.
Four hundred years later, that’s still the case.