This is officially National Native American Heritage Month, proclaimed as such by the late President George H. W. Bush 29 years ago. He did a good thing.
It’s the perfect month to celebrate “the original people” who roamed our forests and feasted on the wild turkey they hunted in our hills. I’ve been fascinated with tales of these people since childhood, and one of my favorite places is the Lenape Village at the Churchville Nature Center.
During my years as a journalist I’ve done lots of research on them and I’ve even met a few Lenape descendants. I’ve always thought of the Lenape as our native Americans because they left so much here in Bucks County, including place names that are scattered over our landscape
But the natives also ranged through much of New Jersey, northern Delaware and the southern portion of New York, including as far as Montauk on the tip of Long Island about 120 miles east of midtown Manhattan.
In fact, I was surprised to read recently that about 200,000 people of Lenape descent are among the 8.5 million who live in New York City.
History shows the Lenape were betrayed by the land-grabbing sons of William Penn during the Walking Purchase of 1737. Later, the harsh white-man’s government pursued and persecuted the Lenape, driving most away from their homes and to the West.
The natives’ reasons to leave were real. In the 1780s, Pennsylvania was still paying a bounty for “pursuing, taking, killing, and destroying Delawares and Shawnees”—and that included babies, according to the Pennsylvania Gazette. In fact, white settlers had to produce scalps or skins to collect their pay.
A century later many Lenape children were forcibly taken from their families and sent to Indian boarding schools designed to assimilate them into the mainstream culture.
But many remained here in hiding, fearful of discovery. Even now, the tribal memory of that is still capable of producing anxiety in some Lenapes and they tend to maintain their silence. Mistrust of the government still persists. It’s almost palpable among descendants.
Some were the children of German settlers who had come to this country without families and married Lenape women or at least fathered their children and taken responsibility for them.
Several years ago I talked to a Lehigh Valley woman who told me both her grandmothers were Lenape descendants who had married into Pennsylvania Dutch families. “Even into the 1950s they were fearful they would be discovered,” she told me.
“The Lenape were a matriarchal society. They turned to the women of the tribe to carry on their legends and traditions, passed from generation to generation by clan mothers. The Lenape women were the educators. They made sure the children understood the culture and followed the traditions. They were a gentle and peaceful people,” she said.
She, in fact, is a clan mother. “I was an only child and I spent a lot of time with my grandmothers,” she explained. “They pumped me full of knowledge about the Lenapes.”
She showed me a doll one of her grandmothers had given her when she was 10 years old. The doll looks simple enough, but it has been considered a powerful teaching tool. Its yarn hair hides a second secret face without a mouth on the back of the head meant to remind the child never to speak to others of her heritage.
That was a powerful message that is only now beginning to unravel as the Lenape are entering a period of renewal, coming forth with their story, showing pride in their heritage and their language.
Indeed, I have a Lenape-English dictionary, based on the work of a Moravian missionary to the Lenapes, and published in 1888. Its sophisticated, complex words do not indicate simple savages, but a bright and thoughtful people.
They were not only thoughtful but also prophetic when they named Lahaska, home base of the Bucks County Herald. Lahaska translates as “the place of much writing.”