For Years, People Said There Were No Lenape Left in Pennsylvania. This Group Begs to Differ.
The Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania is fighting for governmental recognition — despite pushback from other Lenape tribes — raising big questions about who gets to call themselves Native and how the state views its history.
It’s a muggy mid-September Sunday, and kayakers and vacationing families are taking in the calm waters of Mauch Chunk Lake, a small reservoir in the southern Poconos. While beachgoers lounge on the sand and watch eagles cruise above the trees, another group is gathered a few hundred yards up the shore for an even more traditional lakeside activity: a Native American powwow. The reverberation of drumbeats, along with the smell of burning sage and barbecue, hangs in the humid air, floating across the parking lot between the powwow and the beach.
Many of the people dancing, chatting and celebrating at the powwow claim ancestral connections to the Lenape (leh-NAH-pay), the Indigenous people of the Delaware Valley. Some are dressed in full regalia, wearing head-to-toe beads and painted feathers, attracting stares from those who came to Mauch Chunk Lake for swimming or a hike. They gawk, open-mouthed. Some take pictures. It’s as if the last thing they expected to see on their weekend trip to the Poconos was the people who lived here first.
It’s a common belief that there are no longer any Lenape (sometimes called Delaware Indians, the name given to them by European colonists) in Pennsylvania. It is widely presumed that every single Lenape person was forcibly relocated to Oklahoma, Ontario and Wisconsin. But those affiliated with the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania (LNPA) — the nonprofit group hosting the powwow — maintain that some Lenape never left.
Now, LNPA members are making a push for government recognition of their status as a tribe, something they say will help correct years of erasure and ensure that both the history of the Lenape and the fact of their continued existence gain more prominence across the state. It’s a complex endeavor that raises questions about who gets to call themselves Native — made even more complicated by vigorous objections from other Lenape tribes who question the legitimacy of the LNPA.
A few feet away from shore, Ken Macaulay reflects on the path that brought him to the powwow, which is called “Return to Mauch Chunk.” Tanned from a summer of working outdoors, dressed in all black with his thin gray hair in a ponytail, Ken sits on a wooden bench, polishing off an elk burger and thinking about his childhood in 1950s Central Jersey. He and his sister knew they had Indigenous lineage through their mother, and they were taught to respect the land around their childhood farm. But their grandmother, who grew up when it was even more dangerous to be Native, was always quick to remind the rest of the family to keep that heritage a secret. She would often say to Ken, his sister and his cousins: “Tell no one you’re Native.”
That grandmother, Bessie Lattig, was born at the turn of the last century, when Pennsylvania still had an Indian residential school in Carlisle tasked with forcibly removing Indigenous children from their families in an effort to replace Lenape traditions with Western values. When he was a kid, Ken says, he wasn’t taught much about Lenape culture, though his parents emphasized spirituality and connection to the land. In 1970, at 20, he was drafted into the military and sent to Vietnam. As a scout for Project Delta, doing recon in the jungles of Cambodia and Laos, he thought about his ancestors, who would have used similar tracking skills.
When he returned from the war, he was determined to reconnect to his Native roots and eventually found his way to the LNPA.
Founded in 1998 by Chief Bill Whippoorwill Thompsan as the Eastern Lenape Nation, the LNPA is a nonprofit comprised mainly of people who descend from marriages between Lenape women and white men. It’s currently the only group claiming Native heritage in Pennsylvania — the remnant of what was once a 20,000-strong society here. There are officially recognized ancestral tribes in New Jersey and Delaware: the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape in Bridgeton, the Ramapough in Mahwah, the Powhatan Renape in Pennsauken, the Lenape Tribe of Indians in Dover. But in part because Pennsylvania’s settlers and state institutions dispersed Indigenous people more effectively than in New Jersey and Delaware, its Lenape didn’t form a cohesive community in the 200 years that followed the mass forced removals.
“If you stayed, you disowned every aspect of your Lenape heritage publicly,” says Adam Waterbear DePaul, a member of the LNPA’s tribal council and the organization’s story keeper. “We couldn’t speak the language, hold ceremonies. We couldn’t dress traditionally. We dressed like colonists; we spoke like colonists.” As the nation grew, Lenape in the Delaware Valley, like so many other Indigenous people across the county, were often mistakenly or intentionally miscategorized as other races and encouraged to culturally assimilate into white society. And while there are established Lenape tribes in New Jersey, Delaware and the Midwest, there has never been a state or federally recognized tribe — Lenape or otherwise — in Pennsylvania.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that descendants in Pennsylvania organized and appointed an informal chief, and almost another 50 years before the LNPA officially formed. Now, there are 397 people on the membership rolls who have sufficiently proven their Lenape lineage, using whatever documentation they had — birth records, newspaper clippings, photos, diaries. There are members scattered across the country, but most are concentrated in Eastern Pennsylvania and the Philadelphia metropolitan area.
The organization is working to revitalize the Lenape language, called Unami, on the East Coast, hosting classes led by Adam DePaul’s mother, Shelley. Leaders collaborate with Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore and Haverford colleges to offer classes and speak on their culture and other Indigenous issues. Members view themselves as stewards of the Lenape homeland and organize environmentally focused events, consulting with nonprofit groups like the Friends of the Wissahickon. The organization’s most public endeavor is the Rising Nation River Journey, a once-every-four-years trek down the Delaware River that culminates in the signing of a “treaty of renewed brotherhood” between the LNPA and such organizations as the Friends of the Wissahickon, the Northeast Pennsylvania Audubon Society, the City of Easton and the Penn Museum. In the time between river journeys, the tribe hosts festivals and annual powwows like September’s Return to Mauch Chunk.
Recognition, says Morgan Ridgway, could “act as a political and legal tool to combat the pervasive idea that there are no Indians left in Pennsylvania.”
Despite its self-proclaimed heritage and nationhood, the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania has no official tribal recognition. In 2019, the LNPA’s tribal council began working to change that. Currently, 574 tribes have been acknowledged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs as sovereign nations, a designation the federal government gave to some tribes as early as the 18th century. These nations can create their own laws and set taxes and are eligible for funding and grants, which then support social and economic development, medical care, educational opportunities, and cultural and historic preservation. The government can also put reservation lands in a trust to protect them from development.
The standards for federal acknowledgment are stringent. Groups must be able to prove their continued existence as tribal entities since at least 1900 and demonstrate that they’ve had political influence over their members for that long. Even those that might meet these criteria — the rigidity and fairness of which are currently being debated among Indigenous activists nationwide — face the steep financial cost of years of lawyer fees and documentation efforts. When they don’t fit the criteria or lack the resources to engage in a lengthy federal recognition battle, tribes generally work to become recognized by a state instead.
State-recognized tribes aren’t considered sovereign nations but do enjoy some resources and privileges. In New Jersey, recognized tribes have formed a relationship with the state government, are permitted to sell traditional arts and crafts labeled “American Indian-made,” and are eligible for some federal and state funding.
This is the path the LNPA hopes to follow. Its members insist they don’t want a massive federal payout, just some official recognition from Pennsylvania. They say such recognition will make it easier for them to continue their outreach and education (some colleges, for instance, opt to work instead with the federally recognized Lenape in Oklahoma), continue the stewardship of the land that they see as their duty, safeguard a sense of identity for their children, and gain a little more public recognition for the Lenape people across the country.
“If we get state recognition, it’s going to bring more attention to what we do,” says Ken Macaulay, now 71 and the organization’s cultural chief. “We don’t want casinos or anything like that,” he says. “We just want people to realize there are people here who are Native American descendants who do their best to try to take care of the homelands.”
Advocates for state recognition say the designation would be a small step toward resolving centuries of abuse and exploitation. Morgan Ridgway, a PhD candidate studying the Indigenous people in our region — and a member of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe — suggests that for the LNPA, recognition could “act as a political and legal tool to combat the pervasive idea that there are no Indians left in Pennsylvania.”
In the years before European colonists arrived, various bands of Lenape (it means “original person” in Unami) lived in an area they called Lenapehoking, which was composed of present-day Manhattan and southern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey and northern Delaware. At the time Europeans surveyed the area, the Lenape formed a loose confederation of towns stretching from present-day Trenton and eastern Pennsylvania to southern New Jersey and Wilmington. They traded amongst themselves, grew corn and other crops, hunted, fished, crafted stone tools and baskets, and worshipped a single deity, the Great Spirit. Egalitarian and democratic, Lenape society had a matrilineal structure in which women held equal status with men.
When Dutch and Swedish settlers arrived in southern New Jersey in the early part of the 17th century, the mixed society they formed was cooperative and cordial, Lehigh University historian Jean R. Soderlund writes in her book Lenape Country: Delaware Valley Society Before William Penn. After William Penn arrived in 1682, he engaged in treaty agreements and land sales with the Lenape; the result was that the Lenape left land that today makes up Philadelphia — the towns of Shackamaxon and Passyunk. At the beginning of the 18th century, the last Lenape land holding in what had by then been dubbed “Pennsylvania” stretched from central Bucks County to the Poconos.
After Penn died in 1718, colonists continued to flood into the region, often settling illegally on Lenape land. Penn’s sons claimed they’d found a drafted deed between their father and the Lenape from 1686 that hadn’t yet been executed — a deed the Lenape insisted they had never seen.
It indicated that the Penns would receive land that stretched from Wrightstown to “as far as a Man could walk in a day and half” — a common unit of measurement. The Penn brothers employed trained speed walkers who made it 64 miles to present-day Jim Thorpe — double what the Lenape likely imagined when they agreed to the deal now known as the Walking Purchase. In 1741, the Iroquois, working on behalf of the English, drove them out, pushing the Lenape west to land along the Susquehanna River and in the Ohio River basin.
Eventually the Lenape would join the French to take up arms against the English in the French and Indian War, but it would be too late. Divided geographically and politically, Lenape factions in central and western Pennsylvania fought on both sides in some of the bloodiest conflicts of the Revolutionary War, while the violence pushed them west into Indiana and north into Canada. About 1,000 Lenape arrived in Oklahoma in the 1860s, and today, the state is home to two federally recognized Lenape nations, the Delaware Nation in Anadarko and the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Bartlesville. Wisconsin is host to the Stockbridge-Munsee, and two more federally recognized Lenape nations reside in Ontario.
Lenape who lived east of the Delaware River retained a degree of autonomy compared to those in Pennsylvania. Eventually most were pushed west, but some assimilated with the New Jersey colonists and purchased land and other holdings. Many converted to Christianity. Though the majority would eventually move to distant regions, the remainder sought each other out and merged with other tribal communities. By the early 1700s, Lenape had gathered near present-day Cheswold, Delaware, and formed communities throughout southern New Jersey in combination with the Nanticoke people of Maryland.
The LNPA hopes official recognition will be a way to address the fractured and fraught history of the Lenape in Pennsylvania and reestablish a Native presence in our state. But that same history is why other already-recognized tribes — tribes with a clear through line to the original Lenape population — are so wary about any plans to elevate the status of the LNPA.
Indigenous groups put significant emphasis on the history of tribal identity. As part of its mission to preserve the “inherent tribal sovereignty” of its affiliated members, the Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes — of which two state-recognized Lenape tribes, in New Jersey and Delaware, are a part — released guidance in 2013 for state governments on establishing recognition criteria. Among the list of requirements is that a tribe has “maintained tribal identity in some manner that can be documented to have continued from at least the 19th century or earlier.” But 200 years passed between the departure of the main body of the Lenape people to the west in the late 18th century and the founding of the LNPA in 1998. Whether or not Lenape people continued to live covertly in Pennsylvania, it’s undisputed that there was no continuous tribal entity in the region. In the eyes of some other Indigenous people — and according to the established criteria — this makes the LNPA a fabricated tribe.
Though scant, there is some evidence that Lenape were living in the state after removal efforts. A 1901 article in the Inquirer, for example, describes a petition to the U.S. Indian Affairs Commission claiming that the Walking Purchase was fraudulent. The petitioners said they were descendants of members of a smaller tribe of Lenape that was never transported west.
But the Delaware Tribe of Indians holds that no Lenape people exist outside its membership and that of the four other federally recognized nations. In 2015, their tribal council passed a resolution opposing “fabricated Delaware ‘tribes,’ ‘groups,’ and ‘Indians.’”
Jeremy Johnson is a member of the nation’s tribal council. He says the tribe “truly believes that because of the way our societies were set up, we left no relatives behind. Anyone who was ‘left behind’ of Lenape descent was absorbed and adopted into other legitimate tribes.”
By that logic, the Delaware Tribe considers both state-recognized tribes and organizations like the LNPA to be inauthentic and denounces their existence on the grounds that they jeopardize the “sovereignty and reputation of the Delaware Tribe of Indians and the general public.” These groups, they claim, are being allocated public and private funds in “epidemic proportions,” yet are unqualified to represent the Lenape people or speak publicly about Lenape heritage.
The Delaware say they are the true keepers of the Lenape identity, and it’s they who should be consulted if local Pennsylvanians want to learn more about the state’s original inhabitants. Even though they are now located in Oklahoma, the tribe’s members feel as connected as ever to Lenapehoking. “We’re still dealing with the vestiges of colonialism,” says Curtis Zunigha, the Delaware Tribe of Indians’ cultural director. “I’m sitting out here in Oklahoma when I should be sitting at the same table as you and the mayor and the governor.” If Pennsylvania’s state government is going to renew a connection with a Lenape group, he says, it should be with the federally recognized nations, not an organization like the LNPA.
The Delaware Nation in Anadarko holds a similar opinion. In February, it appointed a representative to combat what it refers to as “Corporations Posing as Indigenous Nations.” Hereditary chief Daniel StrongWalker Thomas said in a press release that “the forced removal of the Lenape people from Lenapehoking, combined with continued exclusion from contemporary events and happenings,” has resulted in an increasing number of “pretendians.” Those claiming membership in tribes or organizations other than the five federally recognized nations are masking their theft “within a robe of cultural preservation and unproven Indigenous lineage.”
At the heart of this dispute is the fact that there are limited resources available to help Native communities, and that means tribes have to be fiercely protective of their status. With a history of occupation, theft and murder by the U.S. government and its citizens, and with so many people today hoping to cash in on their lore and legacy, tribal gatekeeping is one of the few mechanisms of control left for the recognized tribes.
There’s also a stark paradox built into the American Indian recognition process. In effect, the U.S. government, a colonial power, retains the authority to grant authenticity to the very people who lived on this soil first. This isn’t lost on Indigenous people, which is why they emphasize that though federal and state governments have the ability to acknowledge a tribal nation’s government, Indigenous people retain what they call “inherent sovereignty.” Native people predate the existence of the United States and thus possess unalienable powers such as the ability to create their own membership requirements, laws and customs.
Donna Fann-Boyle, a Pennsylvania-based activist of Cherokee descent, accepts the LNPA’s claim that there are people in the state descended from the Lenape who stayed in the region. But because the organization didn’t retain a tribal identity or act as a continuous political entity in the years following the displacement of the rest of the Lenape, it shouldn’t get the same recognition as the tribes that have endured for centuries, she says.
The fact that the LNPA, acting as a tribal group, has written treaties with local universities and organizations is “disrespectful, and it’s not the way that Native people behave,” says Fann-Boyle, who leads the Coalition of Natives & Allies (CNA), a Pennsylvania-based organization devoted to eliminating racist Native mascots and imagery across the state. She says that only recognized tribes who have gone through the arduous process of proving their history have the right to make treaties (and do so sparingly and as needed, not every four years, like the LNPA), the authority to speak about their culture at schools and universities, and the ability to present themselves as a tribal nation. Of the LNPA, Fann-Boyle says: “They’re breaking traditions.”
“It shouldn’t be just a feel-good moment,” says Donna Fann-Boyle. “Like all of a sudden, we’re going to do something right to make up for the wrong. Because if they do that, then they’re just making the wrong worse.”
But when it comes to Pennsylvania, tribal tradition is hard to define. Because there are no established tribes in the state, and because the state government doesn’t have an office or department dedicated to Indigenous affairs, there is no real process for Pennsylvania’s Native groups to become recognized.
And that may give the LNPA an opening. The state’s General Assembly could compose and pass a bill outlining such a process, a list of requirements that tribal groups must meet, and what resources and privileges a tribe would receive. The LNPA has received some positive feedback from state legislators, and it’s backed by some local colleges and municipalities.
This new push for state recognition — a similar effort failed in 2004 — is taking place against a political landscape that has cast new attention on issues of racial and economic injustice. The current focus on racial equity has given the LNPA some hope that politicians will be more receptive to its efforts. And indeed, state leaders have now begun to show some interest in recognizing the Lenape living in Pennsylvania. In July, a spokesperson for Governor Tom Wolf told WHYY that should a bill creating a process for state recognition reach his desk, he would give it “serious consideration.”
The federal Lenape tribes and Indigenous activists who see the LNPA as trying to force its way into state recognition worry that the good headlines politicians could grab with a recognition bill will hold more weight than centuries of established ideas as to what constitutes tribal authenticity. Recognizing the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania would create, critics say, a new, modern tribe — one that would make a mockery of the long-standing persecution of tribal groups across the country and the centuries of work they’ve put into establishing their authority and identities. “It shouldn’t be just a feel-good moment,” says Fann-Boyle. “Like all of a sudden, we’re going to do something right to make up for the wrong. Because if they do that, then they’re just making the wrong worse.”
Leaders of the Delaware Tribe of Indians plan to bring their concerns to Pennsylvania state officials should the LNPA’s recognition efforts move forward. “The legislature, as we’ve discovered firsthand through a visit, is naive and very uneducated,” says Arla Patch, a non-Native activist with CNA. The CNA wants lawmakers to consider the criteria other state tribes in the U.S. have had to meet before they start thinking about any legislation — criteria that would effectively bar the LNPA from recognition.
To the LNPA and its supporters, those criteria ignore how difficult it was for Natives living in Pennsylvania to assert any identity. “Of course we’re a tribe,” says the LNPA’s Adam DePaul. “If you take a dish and you smash it on the floor and then you glue it back together, you can’t say it’s never been a dish. You can try to say it’s not a dish anymore, but if you do that, you have to admit you’re the catalyst for that.”
For DePaul, recognition means that families like Macaulay’s will no longer be caught between cultures. “A large part of that can be feeling that they’re not legitimate and feeling that because the state or the federal government hasn’t told them that they’re Lenape, they’re not,” says DePaul, who says that was his attitude when he was growing up in the Poconos. “State government approval does go far in helping the youth in our community feel confident and feel less hesitant about celebrating our heritage.”
But at some level, the LNPA has already done that. Ken Macaulay’s son Cory joined him at the Mauch Chunk powwow, as he has for most of his life. Thanks to his father’s involvement with the LNPA, Cory was born into a family and culture that celebrated, rather than shamed, his Native heritage; even his baby shower incorporated Native elements. He considers the LNPA his extended family.
The eldest of Ken’s two sons, Cory is so much like his father that people often call him a clone. Like Ken, he’s a veteran; he was in the military police in Iraq. Now 42, he worked for a time in the National Park Service, teaching visitors about Indigenous history at southeastern Pennsylvania’s Fort Necessity National Battlefield — the site of the opening act of the French and Indian War. He’s a construction worker now, too: “Like my father, but union.”
Of all that’s been passed from father to son, passion for their heritage seems to be the most salient. Cory, who also favors all black and ties his thin hair — brown, not gray — in a ponytail, is raising his three teenage daughters to have pride in their Native roots, roots he feels are as legitimate as any others. “For the people to say, ‘We marched every Native American out of the state’ is pompous and preposterous,” he says. “I want recognition for my daughters and someday my grandchildren.”
What neither Cory nor Ken mentions is the fact that regardless of whether some Lenape have remained in the region, out in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ontario, there are approximately 15,000 Lenape people whose ancestors were forced westward. They, too, have passed down history, traditions and language in an unbroken line, despite all obstacles, for centuries — but haven’t been able to return to their ancestral land since the 1700s.
Despite the contested status of its host, the powwow attracted attendees of a variety of Indigenous nationalities. People of Lenape, Cherokee, Apache, Muscogee and Lakota descent joined in intertribal dances, exhibited solo performances, and sold handmade jewelry and crafts. Even non-Native guests were invited to dance and to partake in children’s games and gift giveaways.
Before any of this could happen, though, Ken and Cory, other members of the LNPA, and representatives of various tribes took part in an opening flag ceremony. Some wore historic regalia from their respective tribes, and others donned regalia in brighter, more modern colors. Many wore t-shirts and jeans. They all marched solemnly in a circle to the beat of the drums, each holding a flag aloft — for the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, for the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, for the armed forces, for the United States. There was none, though, for the Delaware Nation.
Published as “The First Philadelphians” in the November 2021 issue of Philadelphia magazine.