The Indigenous Tribes of the Delaware Valley: Rightful Owners of Stolen Land

By: James Yeun & J. M. Audrey

Have you been to Philadelphia’s Manayunk neighborhood? Or perhaps Conshohocken or Neshaminy Creek? All these locations have been absorbed into Pennsylvania’s history and culture, but they have deeper, older roots with the indigenous peoples of this area. These names all come from the Lenape (Leh-NAH-pay) peoples, who once flourished along the Delaware and lower Hudson river valleys. Unfortunately, the invasion of white settlers into the area in the 1600s and 1700s forced the Lenape west into the interior of the continent. However, many descendants are reclaiming their land and rights in the 21st century.

The Lenape: Origins and Diaspora

Today, many Lenape tribes are officially recognized. At the federal level, three Lenape tribes are recognized: the Delaware Tribe, the Delaware Tribe of Indians, and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. At the state level, the Ramapough Lenape Nation and Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape Tribal Nation are recognized within New Jersey; the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware is recognized within Delaware. On top of this, Lenape tribes even exist as far away as Canada: the Munsee-Delaware Nation, the Moravian of the Thames First Nation, and the Six Nations of the Grand River

While Pennsylvania does not recognize any indigenous tribes, there are some active tribes throughout the state, including the Thunder Mountain Lenape Nation and the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania

So many different names may seem confusing: If the Lenape are one indigenous people, why are there so many different tribes? Historically, Lenape territory stretched from eastern Pennsylvania along the Delaware River, through present-day New Jersey and portions of northern Delaware, and extended north all the way up to the lower Hudson Valley in New York. This included the places where New York City and Philadelphia stand today. However, European colonizers stole the Lenape’s land through violence and fraud, ultimately pushing the Lenape people west.

Initially, upon losing their territory in 1758 in the Treaty of Easton, many Lenape migrated to present-day Ohio and Canada. Unfortunately, American pioneers and U.S. Army campaigns confronted those settling in Ohio and continued to push the Lenape further and further west. By the 1860s, many Lenape who remained in America settled in Oklahoma, far from their historic homeland.

Different Lenape communities emerged in these settled areas (and even in the historic areas of New Jersey and Delaware). Each of these communities had begun to develop their own internal system of self-government and mutual assistance, and could trace their roots back to the original Lenape people. Thus, each of these communities could claim — under U.S. law — recognition as a tribe. This means the Lenape who live in New Jersey are a distinct tribal entity from those who live in Delaware. Each have their own tribal government and laws but share a common history and right to historic land. 

Lenape and Delaware Tribes Today

Although millions of people native to what is now the United States were killed by white colonizers or died of European diseases between the 1530s and 1930s, survivors proudly keep their cultures alive. Racist and colonialist narratives continue this violence by constructing the stories of indigenous peoples in America in the past tense; as if they are some bygone remnant of cultures and peoples to be celebrated, but never seen. However, many indigenous tribes and communities exist across the country, actively resisting America’s continued racist and colonialist tactics. The Ramapough Lenape Nation, in New Jersey, recently received a favorable ruling in support of their lawsuit against the Mahwah township, which has sought to restrict the Lenape’s installation of tepees and prayer poles on their land. Additionally, the township has limited the number of people allowed on the property for religious gatherings. In May 2018, the Ramapough Nation filed federal and state lawsuits against the township.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape of New Jersey maintain an online cultural learning center and museum. Similarly, the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware supports a tribal center and hosts many programs about their culture, history, and experiences, as does the Delaware Tribe of Indians. The Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania also runs a cultural center, which currently features a University of Pennsylvania–hosted exhibit titled, “Fulfilling a Prophecy: the Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania.” The exhibit features oral histories, family heirlooms, and photographs.

Although not members of the Lenape tribe, the Northern Arawak Taino Nation are politically active in resisting pipeline projects, including the struggles at Standing Rock in 2016 and 2017, as well as opposing a local pipeline in Lancaster County and mourning the disruption of a native burial ground.  

To learn more about any of these tribes and their communities, please visit their websites. Through educating ourselves on the history of this land and its people, we can begin to address and make reparations for the cruelties done to the original and true owners of this land.

Caption: Art by Corey Brickley. Turtle Island is what many Native American peoples call Earth or North America.


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