PHILADELPHIA – Following the Lenape prophecy of the fourth crow, who “flew the way of harmony again with the Creator” after being in hiding for so long, Lenape people from their home territory in eastern Pennsylvania recently presented a daylong celebration of their culture, history and future plans at an exhibit co-curated by tribal leaders at one of the most prominent universities in the United States.
“Fulfilling a Prophecy: The Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania” opened at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Philadelphia Sept. 13 to tell the long-unspoken story of the region’s local Natives. A reception was also held that day, featuring Lenape leaders, singers, drummers, dancers, artisans and scholars from the university.
The Prophecy of the Fourth Crow, which recounts the story of the Lenape after the arrival of the Europeans, was used as a model for structuring the project.
The exhibition and the events at the reception are part of an effort to re-introduce the once-hidden Lenapes to their neighbors and to the larger Native and non-Native community. In the last few years, the local Lenape have been reaching out to many communities – including a special canoe trip down the entire Delaware River – to let people know that some of the Lenape never left this area in the first place.
The reception opened with presentations by the renowned Red Blanket Singers (Lenape, Mohawk, Taino); dances by other Lenapes, including Jack Rainmaker; a reunion of the Red Hawk Singers; opening prayers; blessings; and a talk on the project by co-curators Chief Bob Red Hawk Ruth of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, Lenape educator and historian Shelley DePaul and Abigail Seldin, a graduate student of anthropology at the university. (Robert Preucel, director of the Penn Center for Native American Studies, also helped to guide and develop the project.)
The Prophecy of the Fourth Crow
There were also demonstrations of beadwork and displays of old maps and trails, as well as the extensive exhibit itself that featured more than 60 historical documents and cultural objects, such as ancient masks, cornhusk dolls, jewelry, a traditional wedding stick, a beaded umbilical cord bag and a large ceremonial drum. Most of the pieces are heirlooms and were loaned by local Lenape families to be returned after the end of the exhibition.
The Lenape are the original inhabitants of what is now Delaware, New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania and southern New York state. They have resided in this region for approximately 10,000 years. History books have long asserted that, after being tricked and then attacked for their land, the Lenape were forced to leave their region in the 1700s. Most of the displaced people ended up in Ohio, Kansas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Canada.
“We were hiding for over 200 years,” explained Ruth in a series of brief interviews with Indian Country Today. “Even up to the 1950s, when I was younger, it was drummed into us to not tell anybody. It wasn’t as bad for me; but for my father and his father, they did suffer.”
He recounted how his father and others from that generation were encouraged to “pass” as other nationalities to avoid further persecution.
“We lived in fear; it was a terrible thing.”
The little family-based communities survived, however, by supporting each other culturally and economically and by finding safer environments. Through research into their local history and genealogy, the Pennsylvania Lenape learned how their ancestors, who were hiding from colonial authorities, gravitated towards religious communities in the area. Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren communities tended to be open, or at least not hostile, to them, Ruth said.
“So, a Lenape woman would marry a German farmer,” he continued. “And then she would encourage her child to marry another Lenape; and we learned about many such stories through the baptismal and marriage records of these churches.”
Red Hawk emphasized that these small communities lived more or less in harmony for close to 200 years; and while they were grateful to the religious communities for the help and support, that did not stop them from continuing their Lenape traditions.
People handed down stories, sacred objects, songs and ceremonies. Ruth remembers going to blessings and other sacred events as well as consulting with the elders for advice and guidance.
For DePaul, who also teaches Lenape language immersion classes, it was at one such gatherings that they began to discuss the idea of preserving their history and culture in a written form, before some of this sacred information could disappear.
“We respectfully took this idea to the elders,” she said at the talk. “We said that we are seldom able to get together to share this knowledge; and it is so important for our children to know these stories, these prayers and ceremonies that we decided to start our own archives.”
Not long after the local Lenapes started the process of gathering information and organizing themselves in a more formal way, they went to the University of Pennsylvania to request the use of an ancient paddle owned by the school for a special ceremony. Preucel and his colleagues were glad to oblige, and this interaction marked the beginning of the collaboration between the university and the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, Seldin noted.
In the talk, she related how she had been working on an exhibit about the Lenape in Pennsylvania, which, up to that point, would have consisted of objects filling a 3-by-6-foot space.
“And suddenly here we were; we were at a Lenape ceremony and we were still in Pennsylvania.”
The no-longer-hidden history of the Lenape of Pennsylvania will be on exhibit at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology until September 2009.