Week 22: The History of Indigenous People of Philadelphia

It is Thanksgiving week and November is Native American Heritage Month, so we wanted to bring a focus to the indigenous people in and around our community this week within our work. As you may know, we stand on the land of the Lenni-Lenape tribe; we hope to amplify their voices in sharing the history, their struggles, where they are today, and what we can do as individuals and as a community to help them and undo the damage of the past. 

Who are the Lenape Tribe:

The Lenni-Lenape (translates to “original people”) are one of the oldest nations in the Northeast, having spawned many of the other tribes in the northeast seaboard. They were known to be both warriors and mediators, keeping peace and managing disputes between neighboring tribes. While many of the Lenape people adopted Christianity, they continued to preserve their culture and the legacy of their ancestors. The Lenape tribe originates from the Lenape and Nanticoke peoples, and their homeland includes New Jersey, northern Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania, and southeastern New York.

Lenape and the Quaker settlers:

The Lenape Tribe’s first contact with outsiders was in 1638 with the arrival of Dutch and Swedish colonizers who set up transactions between the two peoples. While the first European settlers arrived in 1677, it wasn’t until 1682 that William Penn showed up to claim the land guaranteed to the Quakers. Penn, a devout Quaker, maintained the values of peace and friendship through the Shackamaxon Agreement that bought out indigenous lands but designated certain villages and locations that could not be sold away from the Lenape people. It wasn’t until his death and the ascendance of his son, Thomas Penn, that the Lenape were tricked into selling close to a million acres of their land. In 1763, a mob of frontiersmen originating from central Pennsylvania attacked the Conestoga people near Lancaster. The Quaker government condemned the attackers and moved the Moravian Lenape (Christian Lenape people residing near Philadelphia) inside the city to protect them from the mob. When the mob continued to grow, the Quakers took up arms to protect the Lenape people within the city. Despite this solidarity, in the following centuries the Lenape people experienced much hardship; their lands were stolen away and their population was decimated by disease. While most Lenape resorted to migrating west, many remained in Philadelphia.

Relations with the U.S. government:

Following the Declaration of Independence, the first treaty signed by the U.S. government was with the Lenape people in 1778 (Treaty of Fort Pitt). The treaty promised statehood in return for help in fighting against the British, a promise that, like many others, was not upheld. Antagonism between indigenous people and European settlers continued as tribal lands were infringed upon; many tribes’ members were murdered or taken from their homeland while those who remained lived in perpetual fear, trying to survive by assimilating into the dominant culture. 

While the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Constitution in 1787, and the Bill of Rights ratified in 1791, it wasn’t until 1879 that the U.S. federal government recognized indigenous people to be protected by the law. Native Americans were not considered citizens until 1924 (less than 100 years ago). The American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 expanded the rights of Native Americans to practice their religion, and under the protection of this law many native tribes were better able to advocate for themselves. 

Modern Day:

Today, according to Census data, 13,000 Philadelphians identify themselves as Native American. The Lenape tribe has a constitutional government which includes all three branches, while their community services are handled through a tribally controlled non-profit organization focused on improving the health, welfare, housing, human rights, economic security, and access to clean land and water for Native Americans living within the Delaware Valley. 

While using casino gaming for economic development has become a stereotype of indigenous tribes, the Lenape have a tribal law forbidding the ownership, operation, management, or sponsorship of any business that profits from vice (including the casino industry). While they avidly support their fellow tribes in determining their own policies and views of this issue, the Lenape government believes it is within the wishes of their creator, their elders, and their tribal leaders to find other means of financial development without perpetrating an industry they see as immoral. 

The United States has consistently worked throughout history to erase the heritage and existence of the indigenous people that were here before us. We have failed to adequately recognize the atrocities and injustices that were and continue to be perpetrated against Native Americans. In 1995, a statue of Tamanend, a Lenape leader, was erected to commemorate the legacy and history of the Lenape people. While it is a step in the right direction towards recognizing indigenous people, it leaves a lot to be desired in terms of recognizing the bloody and uncomfortable history of the genocide of Native Americans. 

How to Help: We must continue to educate ourselves about the history and present situation of Indigenous tribes. Additionally, you can donate to organizations working to support Native American communities, such as the Native American Rights Fund or the Partnership With Native Americans organization, particularly during of COVID-19, as Native Americans have been disproportionately impacted. Finally, you can stay informed about current issues concerning Native American lands, as the government and large corporations often work to take advantage of these vulnerable lands (for example, the Dakota Access Pipeline), and join the fight in protecting these lands when given the opportunity.