Under a cloudy sky broken by intermittent sunshine, members of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania gathered for a peaceful rally on the steps of the State Capitol in Harrisburg May 1. They were there to remind legislators that it is time to give them legal status as a recognized tribe.
Dressed in regalia, carrying signs with their message and carefully lighting sweetgrass for ceremonial smudging, the members disregarded the rain as the Itchy Dog Singers opened the event with a drum circle.
Chief Chuck Gentlemoon Demund, Keeper of Ceremony, and Clan Mother Shelley DePaul, Language Keeper, kept the rally moving and focused on the goal of gaining tribal recognition. They were there to address the “Political Erasure and ‘Documentary Genocide’ of the Pennsylvania Lenape, Past to Present,” as described by Adam Waterbear DePaul, Director of Education and Tribal Storykeeper.
Supporters, both Native and non-Native allies, were passionate in their praise of the Lenape and their rich traditions, their culture of respect for the earth and their desire to be recognized as a people who have been here for centuries.
The Lenape have lived in the woodlands of eastern North America and are still here today, leading successful lives but without the recognition due them. The people of the Lenape nation are the indigenous people of the land now called Pennsylvania, but there is more to their story of survival and resilience. Learn more at https://www.lenape-nation.org. According to DePaul, lack of state recognition impacts their identity, especially for the youth.
Members of the Lenape Nation stepped forward to call for an end to the erasure and to recognize the tribe and help them regain their identity. A call and response, led by Demund, punctuated their demands: “We are . . . Still here.”
Judy Wicks spoke about the cultural and spiritual values of the Lenape that inspired her to open the White Dog Café in Philadelphia’s University City more than 40 years ago. As a social activist, her principles of environmental sustainability and community engagement align closely with the indigenous people who occupied this land before settlers arrived.
Other speakers—educators, environmentalists, faith leaders and preservationists—joined the array of speakers. A clan mother spoke sorrowfully of a relative who performed sacred ceremonies alone in a basement room, being ashamed to express his spirituality in the open. Another told of becoming aware of her Native heritage when she was older and the feeling it inspired her to realize her true identity. She wore a red, fringed shawl draped around her shoulders, as a turtle shell gathered her hair neatly at the base of her neck.
Clan Mother Shelley DePaul read letters of support she collected beforehand from students, tribal members and friends. As the Treaty Signer Liaison, she invited signers of the Treaty of Friendship to write letters of support for the rally. The number of signatures on the Treaty of Friendship has grown from its creation in 2002 to a lengthy list of Lenape people and allies.
According to their website, “The Journey down the Lenape Sipu (Delaware River) is a joint effort to raise awareness, awaken the spirit, and bestow the past, environmentally, culturally and historically, to the future.” Held every four years, the river journey includes ceremonial stops along the way, where signatures are added to the nonbinding treaty, as kayakers move down the river to their destination at Cape May, New Jersey. (More at https://www.lenape-nation.org/1st-project.)
DePaul later expressed the desire of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania to make all state government officials aware of the “legitimate Lenape descendants of the state who request state recognition.”
“We all descend from Lenape ancestors who remained behind,” she explained. While some Lenape did remain, most were relocated to Oklahoma, along with many other Native peoples forcibly removed from their lands in the East. “We have contacted all members of the State Legislature, as well as Governor Shapiro, U. S. Senator Bob Casey, and U. S. Representative Matt Cartwright, offering to discuss with them the particular history of those who never left,” said DePaul.
“Pennsylvania is the only state in the East that does not recognize its indigenous people,” she asserted, and we believe that if they were made aware of us and our many partners and accomplishments as caretakers of the land and the Delaware River, they would take pride in the existence of our people.”
The Rev. Bob Coombe, a member of the Eastern PA Conference’s Committee on Native American Ministries (CoNAM), attended the rally. “The spirit at the Capitol was uplifting, peaceful, powerful, fair and for justice,” he commented. Coombe was able to meet Pa. Rep. Joe Cerisi, District 146, who came to the steps to hear the calls for recognition and to speak supportively to Coombe and Adam DePaul.
While the support of legislators at the rally was positive, CoNAM urges supporters to write and call state officials asking for recognition of the Lenape Nation of PA.
*Verna Colliver, a member of Lansdale UMC, is Secretary of EPA’s CoNAM. She addressed the rally on CONAM’s behalf, stating that The United Methodist Church “condemns the Doctrine of Discovery as a legal document used for the seizing of lands and abusing the human rights of indigenous peoples.” She said that it is time “to repair and restore the relationship” with the Lenape and to give recognition to the original occupants of the land and to their descendants who are living here today.
Other media reports on this concern:
- WHTM – ABC 27 News: Pennsylvania lawmakers called on to recognize Lenape Nation
- “Philadelphia’s Forgotten Forebears: How Pennsylvania Erased the Lenape From Local History” by Daneil Shurley for Hidden City (2019)
- “For Years, People Said There Were No Lenape Left in Pennsylvania. This Group Begs to Differ.” By Samantha Spengler(2021)