Every four years, Adam DePaul canoes down the Delaware River, surrounded by the lush deciduous forests that have existed along the banks of the river for millennia.
DePaul is an English professor and tribal council member of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania who has coordinated the quadrennial Rising Nation River Journey since 2002. The two-week canoe trip down the Delaware River begins in Hancock, New York and ends in Cape May, New Jersey, including stops at 12 locations along the river to sign a Treaty of Renewed Brotherhood with groups ranging from historical societies to environmental groups and educational institutions.
In 2018, one of the stops was at Temple University’s Bell Tower on Aug. 16, which included the signing of a treaty which reaffirmed the Lenape to be the original inhabitants of Pennsylvania, The Temple News reported.
The Rising Nation River Journey is part of a larger effort by DePaul and other activists to raise awareness about the ongoing presence of the Lenape people in Pennsylvania, as well as their continued practice of ancestral tradition, culture and spiritual beliefs.
“Awareness is one of the prominent and very difficult issues that the Lenape nations face today,” DePaul said. “First, there are very few people in the area that have even heard of the Lenape, and many of those who have heard the Lenape as people who lived here a long time ago but no longer exist in the region.”
The current lack of public knowledge and recognition of the Lenape people is no accident, but rather the result of forced removal and centuries of systematic erasure of the tribe’s history, traditions and culture by European colonists, said Curtis Zunigha, an advocate for Lenape in the Philadelphia region and the cultural resources director of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, a subset of the Lenape now located in Oklahoma.
Today, both DePaul and Zunigha remain driven in attaining better representation for the Lenape people and correcting false narratives regarding their peoples’ history as well as their continued presence in 2020.
Lenape and The Walking Purchase
Zunigha’s family was part of the main band of the Lenape, later known as the Delaware, who were forcibly removed and pushed across the United States in 1867 to the Indian Territory known today as Oklahoma.
“I am a testament to the Lenape diaspora, in that my descendancy is only a part of my blood,” Zunigha said. “When the Lenape were forcibly pushed westward, they often mixed with other groups of indigenous people.”
Before Europeans arrived, the Lenape were the Indigenous group that inhabited several different regions along the East Coast, and consisted of three major clans, including the Munsee, the Unalachtigo, and the Unami, who resided in what is today the Philadelphia region, DePaul said.
“The Lenape were referred to as the ‘grandfather’ tribe and often served as arbitrators when there was tribal conflict in the region,” he added. “Within the three major clans, there were tens if not hundreds of smaller family clans, many with their own unique cultural traditions and dialects.”
DePaul’s primary research area is in Cultural and Mythological studies, with a specific focus on Lenape mythology.
Archeological evidence unearthed in West Philadelphia in 2001 points to the Lenape being a stable and sizable civilization, who relied on both hunting and subsistence farming to sustain themselves and used the natural resources at their disposal to construct homes known as wigwams, according to the West Philadelphia Community History Center.
Following the arrival of Europeans in the 17th century, early treaties between the Lenape and colonists were routinely broken or illegally amended by the Europeans and Lenape territory continued to shrink in the decades that followed as a result, DePaul said.
One of the most egregious of these land thefts occurred in 1737, when one of William Penn’s sons, Thomas, who was then proprietor of the Pennsylvania colony, lied to the Lenape in order to steal large amounts of their land in the Lehigh Valley in the infamous “Walking Purchase,” said Anna Marley, curator of historical American art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
In the 1730s, Pennsylvania officials and Lenape tribal leaders met in North Philadelphia, claiming to have ‘found’ a 1686 treaty which granted the Commonwealth as much tribal land as could be walked in one and a half days in an area between the Delaware and Lehigh rivers, Marley said.
“Pouncing on this opportunity, Thomas Penn hired the three fastest walkers in the colony to complete what comes to be known as the ‘Walking Purchase’, where Penn’s surveyors do a 60-mile run, allowing them to steal over a million square miles of Lenape land under the conditions of the sham-treaty,” she added.
In the century that followed, most of the Lenape were forcibly pushed westward by newly created state governments, resulting in a massive diaspora of Lenape people across the United States. Today groups of the Lenape can be found in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada, Zunigha said.
The culmination of hundreds of years of forced migration, institutionalized racism and forced assimilation have made it difficult to properly preserve Lenape culture and traditions, Zunigha said.
Zunigha’s father was in the U.S. Airforce, and as a result, he spent most of his childhood living on various military bases across the country.
“My father had largely rejected his Delaware identity, so it was only through visits to my grandparents that I began to learn about my cultural history and identity,” Zunigha said.
Despite living in Oklahoma, Zunigha still feels a strong sense of connection to his ancestral homeland on the east coast, maintained through a larger, more powerful, spiritual connection he feels to his people.
“There is no changing the events that erased so much of our culture, but acknowledging the original homeland of our people is an important aspect of affirming our unique history and identity as Lenape,” he said.
This summer saw a growing protest movement in cities across the U.S., including Philadelphia, surrounding the removal of statues and monuments which revere figures associated with racism and oppression, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“The real reason people are out here now raising hell and calling for these statues to be torn down is a direct result of the institutional racism that has existed in this country since the beginning, which has hurt Indigenous people and other minorities both,” Zunigha said.
With a spotlight on Indigenous people and their history, Zunigha has been engaging with academic institutions that want to expand awareness about the Lenape and express solidarity with the Lenape and other Native peoples regarding the land their institutions occupy.
In addition to the removal of controversial monuments, in the last several decades many states have opted to observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day, which recognizes Indigenous people as the original inhabitants of the U.S., something Zunigha sees as positive but only if done in a non-performative, comprehensive manner, he said.
“A real recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ Day goes beyond a superficial land acknowledgment or throwing up a generic Indian statue so people can feel good about themselves,” Zunigha said. “It’s about recognizing the real history of the Lenape people as well as understanding who we are today, which is not simply one, cohesive, singular, homogenous group of presumably dark-skinned people with roots to the Delaware River Valley, but something much more dynamic.”
For DePaul, a critical aspect of changing the often outdated narratives associated with the Lenape people is to remember they are still alive and thriving, especially in their original homeland.
“The standard teaching of Lenape history has largely framed them as no longer existing, or if they do exist, they are no longer in their homeland,” DePaul added. “This narrative is also perpetuated by outdated portrayals of Native people prevalent in everyday culture.”
These portrayals, images and symbols associated with Native American culture are usually historically inaccurate and reinforce detrimental stereotypes of Indigenous people and disproportionately affect Lenape youth, DePaul said.
“We have children who go to middle and high school who walk outside and see the Indian mascot on their sign, and are told, ‘Hey, that’s you,’ and just a small gesture like that, a daily reminder of being associated with these artifacts from the past, is incredibly alienating and pushes our youth away from wanting to identify as Native American, as Lenape,” DePaul said.
Today, there are small reminders of the once thriving Lenape tribe, the most prominent of these reminders perhaps being the names of the streets in North Philadelphia, which include Susquehanna, Tioga and Lehigh, all of which originally derive from the Unami dialect of the Lenape, DePaul said.
While there may be a lack of physical evidence of the Lenape in North Philadelphia, the spirit of the people is still very much alive, Zunigha said.
“Even after our forced removal from our homeland and essentially being told to fend for ourselves, we have survived and we are thriving,” Zunigha said. “This is because of an indomitable will to honor our ancestors and make a way for the next generation. The tie that binds us is a tie that’s been attacked since the first colonizer hit the shore and that is our language, our customs, our traditions and religious beliefs.”