On January 15, 2023 Birmingham Meeting hosted a special program with guests Adam Waterbear DePaul and Grandmother Shelley DePaul, members of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania. Adam is a member of the tribal council and is its Chief of Education and Tribal Storykeeper, and Grandmother Shelley is a Clan Mother and has also been a storykeeper and instrumental in preserving the Unami language of the Lenape. Both have worked in the university setting and helped bring the story of their people to the wider world through classes and exhibits in libraries and museums, public presentations like this one, and their involvement with the Lenape Nation Cultural Center in Easton, PA.
Over 100 individuals attended the hybrid event with Adam in the meetinghouse and Grandmother Shelley on Zoom. After attending meeting for worship with Birmingham Friends and guests, Adam began the program with words of thanks in his native language and then wove his narrative along the timeline of the past, present, and future of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania. He related how the members of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania are descendants of the Indigenous people who have continuously occupied the land of the Delaware River watershed for thousands of years, the land they call Lenapehoking. When white colonists from Europe arrived in this area, including the first Quakers, the Lenape made space for them as neighbors. The Lenape respected, even revered, William Penn for his honesty and desire to live together in peace always, but the pledge of peace did not endure. The Lenape had different customs and a culture that did not recognize land ownership. Instead, they felt as one with all of the earth, a sacred gift of the Creator, of which they were (and are) caretakers. The colonists arrived with the mindset that the land and everything on it was theirs by right and destiny – to own and use for their individual prosperity or to enrich the coffers of their king in Europe. They regarded the Indigenous people as a heathen race and took advantage of the cultural differences and the lack of a written Lenape language, used trickery and force to acquire land, set up boundaries and wrote treaties that were not upheld. In the 17-and 1800s, most Lenape moved away from their homeland, some of their own accord seeking a new home, while others fled for their lives. Many Lenape were forcibly removed and dispersed as “Delaware” tribes to other parts of the US and Canada. Today there are federally recognized Delaware tribes in Oklahoma and Wisconsin, and there are also tribes in Ontario, Canada. There are state recognized Lenape tribes in Delaware and New Jersey but none in Pennsylvania.
While some Lenape moved away and were able to maintain aspects of their culture, customs and language outside of Lenapehoking, a smaller number of Lenape never left and others returned after moving away temporarily. The Lenape who stayed went into hiding in their homeland, entered into agreements as indentured servants of colonists or married settlers. They found ways to become invisible and keep their customs and culture hidden from all but each other. Their language nearly disappeared. The ones who stayed faced betrayal by neighbors and were victims of prejudice, severe discrimination, violence to property and person, and were constantly afraid of being discovered and removed from their families and community. Lenape children were removed from their homes and put into boarding schools which attempted to erase their customs and culture, including language, as they were required to assimilate into white Christian culture. This is a sad and shameful truth that should be acknowledged more widely.
Adam and Grandmother Shelley are descendants of Lenape who stayed and went into hiding. It has been only since the mid-20th century that the hidden Lenape of Pennsylvania have begun to emerge from the shadows and find each other. Still they have faced prejudice and discrimination as people of color. Not until more recently did these Lenape people feel safe enough to tell their story and celebrate their traditions in the open. They call themselves the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, they number fewer than 400 enrolled members, and they are working toward obtaining official recognition by the state of Pennsylvania.
Grandmother Shelley related the moving story of the Prophecy of the Fourth Crow, which is believed to mirror the history of the people of Lenapehoking who have struggled to survive and keep their community and culture intact. The story can be summarized as follows: The First of the Four Crows flew in harmony with the earth; the Second Crow got sick and died; the Third Crow hid to survive; the Fourth will fly in harmony with nature again. As a primarily spoken language, storytelling is an essential part of Lenape culture for celebrations and keeping their culture alive. It is believed a story is alive; there is so much to be gained as elders pass down history and wisdom to younger members of the community. And there is so much to be gained by practicing listening. To write down a story is to limit its power and mystery.
Adam and Grandmother Shelley and other members of Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania believe the Fourth Crow period is underway. They are working to raise awareness of their true history and continued presence and to revitalize aspects of their culture which were suppressed in the Third Crow period when outlawed by the government of the United States. Two goals which guide members of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania today are to be good stewards of the environment while living in harmony with all things and to preserve and perpetuate their language.
Adam’s voice quickened as he told listeners about the Rising Nation River Journey. Begun in the summer of 2002 and taking place every four years, Lenape people and their neighbors who live along the Delaware River paddle canoes down the river on a three-week journey from Hancock, New York to Cape May, New Jersey. The trip is symbolic of the brotherhood of the Lenape with their neighbors. Just as the Lenape chief, Tamanend, signed a treaty of friendship with William Penn, a Treaty of Renewed Friendship is signed with the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania during each trip by members of organizations and individuals who wish to actively support the Lenape culture and help to sustain their people, language and way of life. Grandmother Shelley helps the Fourth Crow to soar by teaching Lenape people and others the spoken Unami dialect and translating and consulting on the written language, which is a more recent development. She also assists those who want to plant a traditional Lenape garden of vegetables and medicinal herbs.
The January 15 program with Adam and Grandmother Shelley DePaul was the effort of the members of the Right Relationship with Lenape People Working Group of Birmingham Meeting. The group formed initially to write a land acknowledgment for the meeting, and since that was accomplished, the group has set goals of meeting with members of other Lenape tribes, attending programs and exhibits of and by Lenape people and looking for ways to support the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania’s desire for state recognition and other needs they have expressed. In addition, the programs for children and youth at Birmingham Meeting include Lenape voices through stories and activities for exploration and wondering.