Millions of people visit New York each year from around the world. They come to see Times Square or the Statue of Liberty, to work, to study. Yet they may not even know they’re in Lenapehoking, the land of the Lenape people, also called Lenape’ok or Delaware.
Our homeland spans the watershed ecology of the Delaware River, including also the lower Hudson River, and the Atlantic coastline from the mouth of the Hudson to the mouth of the Delaware. Today it holds places that are essential to the American identity, like Philadelphia and New York City.
All of the sovereign nations of the Lenape people were driven out of Lenapehoking by plagues, war, exploitative treaties and scalp bounties. Our homeland was taken from us, but we are reclaiming our voices and our places there.
Last fall I traveled to Lenapehoking on assignment, bringing three other Lenape’ok with me: Lauryn French, Trinity Guido and my adult child, River Whittle.
Parts of the trip were painful. We saw land that holds the bones of our ancestors, now covered in concrete and asphalt. We thought about the brutality inflicted on our people.
But it wasn’t just that. There was also joy.
“Do I want to go back sad? I feel like there have been so many tears in the hundreds of years that we’ve been removed. My line has cried enough about our homeland,” Lauryn said. “I’m going to go and be happy. I am going to go and enjoy it. Everything in my line told me that was not supposed to happen.”
Returning To A Site Of Pride And Pain
The Lenape’ok first came into contact with Europeans when Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed into what is now the New York harbor in 1524. Since that time, we have signed many treaties with successive waves of colonists. The first exchange of note was the supposed sale of Manhattan Island to the Dutch for some trinkets and a few guilders. That would never have been a transfer of land “ownership” from a Lenape perspective. It would have been a ceremonial social contract in which we allowed access to the ecology we were tasked with caring for, as long as the balance of reciprocity with the land and us remained intact.
Of course, Dutch colonists didn’t see it that way, which soon led to war, and eventually our complete extirpation from the New York City area. During the wars that forced the Lenape’ok from Manhattan Island, Dutch colonial governors ordered a wall built over our primary trade route across the island to exclude us and competing colonizers from it, which is where Wall Street gets its name from today.
Fast forward to the American Revolution, and my sixth great-grandfather Chief White Eyes had negotiated the Treaty of Fort Pitt 1778, the first Indian treaty the United States ever signed. In exchange for our alliance, White Eyes made the fledgling United States promise to give Lenape people our own state and equal representation in Congress.
After they had what they wanted from him, he was treacherously murdered by American militia while serving amongst them, and the treaty was never honored.
“I was just looking out the window imagining what it would look like if New York City wasn’t there. And that’s the first time I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m actually here!””
More treaty violations were followed by more upheavals, until finally we landed in Oklahoma (aka “Indian Territory”), Wisconsin and Ontario, Canada. Today’s Lenape communities, culture and sovereignty are represented by the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Bartlesville, Oklahoma; the Delaware Nation Lenni Lenape in Anadarko, Oklahoma; the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Community in Bowler, Wisconsin; the Munsee-Delaware Nation at Bucktown, Ontario; and the Delaware Nation at Moraviantown, Ontario. (To ensure authentic Lenape representation, be sure to consult and defer to only the federally recognized Lenape nations, which are linked here.)
Significant challenges remain in our efforts to reclaim our presence in Lenapehoking. From the financial hurdles of visiting or buying land, to the community impacts of surviving generations of wars, relocations and forced assimilation boarding schools, to absurd levels of appropriation, misrepresentation and erasure — such as 501c organizations falsely claiming to be Lenape nations in Lenapehoking, and fundraising in our name. The centuries-long fight to preserve Lenape culture and sovereignty continues.
The four of us who visited Lenapehoking together share connected, but different, ancestries. Sisters Lauryn French and Trinity Guido are enrolled citizens of the Delaware Nation Lenni Lenape. Lauryn is also a descendant of the Caddo, Ottawa, Pawnee and Otoe people, and Trinity a descendant of the Caddo, Ottawa, Comanche, Kiowa and Fort Sill Apache people. River and I are both enrolled citizens of the Caddo Nation of Oklahoma, and Delaware Nation descendants.
As we made our way to meet in New York, the history of our people was on our minds.
“Flying into New York was really cool,” said Trinity, who was making her first trip to Lenapehoking. “I was just looking out the window imagining what it would look like if New York City wasn’t there. And that’s the first time I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m actually here!’”
Connecting With ‘A Part Of Us’ At Rockaway Beach
Lauryn and Trinity met up with River and me at Rockaway Beach for our first day together in Lenapehoking. Rockaway Beach was named for a band of Lenape’ok who lived there. They along with other coastal bands such as the Canarsie and Nanticoke were among the first Lenape communities forced from their homes by war and encroachment.
We wanted to be close to nature on our first day, where we could connect with the original ecology of Lenapehoking before trying to hear the voices of our Ancestors through the cacophony of civilization in Manhattan.
Trinity began to cry. It was a surprise for her, since she’s usually not an emotional person.
“I just feel more connected,” she recalled telling Lauryn. “You understand things better about our tribe, being where they were. But it makes you feel a roller coaster of emotions.”
Historically, the Lenape’ok lived in scattered villages connected to specific places in Lenapehoking and to each other by language, culture, clans, intermarriage, trade and shared ancestral descent. It wasn’t until the pressures of colonialism began displacing thousands of Lenape’ok along the Eastern Seaboard that we began to retreat west and unify under centralized leadership to survive.
By the time of the American Revolution, the Lenape’ok bands and sub-tribes had amalgamated into what became known as the Delaware Nation or Delaware Tribe, residing mostly west of Lenapehoking at the invitation of neighboring tribes. Some smaller groups went north to join our relatives the Mohicans, or further, into Canada.
By staying just ahead of the relentless wave of westward expansion and assimilation that had enveloped our homeland for as long as they could, they were able to preserve Lenape culture and sovereignty, and our Munsee and Unami language dialects.
Being back at Rockaway Beach was empowering, said Lauryn.
“I can touch that water, and I know that water at some point has touched my people,” Lauryn said. “I just wanted to stand in the water, just be in the water, and feel it. Wanting it to kind of, like, knock me over. No matter if it is polluted, it’s still a part of us. I come from a piece of all of that.”
Finding Peace In Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area
For our second day in Lenapehoking, we chose nature again. We’d greeted the ocean waters of our homeland, now it was time for the woodland forest. So we decided to visit the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area an hour and a half west of New York City.
It is among the most intact pieces of Lenapehoking ecology left. The Minisink Archaeological Site, found along the banks of the Delaware River near the Gap, marks a place our ancestors feasted on diverse wild foods over 13,000 years ago.
We saw ecology that is used in Lenape regalia, food and medicine — things like sassafras, birchbark and sugar maple — that many Lenape’ok don’t get to witness in the wild.
“These are things I study just to feel more connected, so seeing them in person, it’s almost like meeting a celebrity,” River said with a chuckle.
That night we sat by a woodland lake and looked at the stars. Trinity called it “the best experience of [her] life.”
“I’ve never felt peace like that before,” Trinity said. “It was so cold, but we weren’t even feeling cold; the conversation was keeping us warm. I don’t know how to describe it, but that’s the feeling that I want people to feel whenever they go back home. I really wish that more Lenape people could go back and experience that.”
Reclaiming Joy In New York City
On our third day, we toured some locations in the city. Our first stop was at the East River Park. Once known as Corlears Hook, it’s a place where our people suffered greatly. Forty Wappinger Lenape’ok were massacred in their sleep there at the order of director-general for the Dutch East India Company, Willem Kieft. Kieft had a vicious plan to extirpate Lenape people and exact tribute to increase corporate profits — which included slaughtering children in front of their parents.
Dutch colonist David Pieterszen de Vries observed another attack, and reported the following account. It’s brutal to read, but important.
Infants were torn from their mother’s breasts, and hacked to pieces in the presence of their parents, and pieces thrown into the fire and in the water, and other sucklings, being bound to small boards, were cut, stuck, and pierced, and miserably massacred in a manner to move a heart of stone. Some were thrown into the river, and when the fathers and mothers endeavored to save them, the soldiers would not let them come on land but made both parents and children drown.
After our visit, much of East River Park was destroyed as part of a sea rise abatement plan. Over 1,000 trees were cut down to execute the plan.
Despite a somber awareness of the location and feeling grief over its history, we also felt joy experiencing another day together as Lenape’ok in Lenapehoking. We’ve been mourning those trees and those Ancestors since we left. We were not there only to recognize our pain and sorrow, but to celebrate our happiness at being with them again.
“I’m not going to go there and cry because somebody so long ago said I couldn’t be there,” Lauryn said. “I’m going to go be myself. I’m going to feel more connected to who I am. I’m going to reclaim our laughter, our smiles, and our new experiences in our homeland.”
“If we cried about everything bad that happened, we’d just be crying around all the time, and we wouldn’t have any room for joy,” River added. “And if we had done that, we wouldn’t have survived.”
Besides, there was power in simply being a Lenape and being home.
“Anywhere we went, I was like, ‘Wow, I’m a Lenape woman in this area! When was the last time that happened? I don’t know. But here I am.’ And I’m going to take up space and do whatever I want!” Trinity said with a hearty laugh.
Resilience In Times Square
That evening, we met at Times Square. We knew we had to symbolically reclaim that space together.
Historically, Broadway was one of our main trade routes, and some vestigial form of that intercultural trade and exchange seems to remain today.
Lauryn, Trinity and River wore parts of their regalia, which are considered sacred, and some people approached to ask about it. They were happy to educate curious bystanders, but not all of the engagement was welcome.
“Somebody came up and touched my regalia, which did not feel good at all,” said Trinity. “You don’t know what kind of energy they have or what their intentions were.”
But it was also powerful to be there.
“I think there’s a certain act of resilience to being there in our regalia and being witnessed by so many people,” said River. “It was cool helping each other get ready there. Just doing what Native people do together, helping each other. And doing that in a very public space and feeling proud because ultimately we belong here. And if people don’t understand or know that, it doesn’t matter. Because it’s just how it is.”
The Sounds Of Our Homeland In Harriman State Park
On the final day of our trip, we visited Harriman State Park just north of the city. There was a profound sense of wonder in the idea that we were standing in a forest of food just falling from the trees, which had provided sustenance for our ancestors since the dawn of human memory there.
Our relationships with those things as relatives, not “resources,” reminds us how important it is to protect them in reciprocity. We are meant to be medicine for the land, as the land is medicine for us. That messaging is woven into our identity and culture.
River, an artist, felt inspired by the patterns and sounds of nature there.
“It was so cool hearing all the sounds,” River said. “The little leaves or twigs crunching under your feet, or the nuts. Because that’s where our language came from. The sounds our homeland makes. As an artist I think a lot about the patterns in our regalia, and looking at our homeland and seeing where they come from reminded me to let things flow naturally.”
Lauryn has been back to Lenapehoking during the spring and summer as a youth leader for a series of homeland immersion camps for Lenape youth, but autumn looked different. She was able to connect patterns in our regalia to the changing of the seasons, an example of how closely our cultural identity is woven to our homeland ecology — even after centuries of separation.
“The landscape looks very different in the fall,” said Lauryn. “One of our designs is this very hard, triangular shape, and I couldn’t find it anywhere in my prior visits. But I found it this time on the sumac leaves. Instead of being open and up, they were hanging down.”
“I was sort of freaking out. Every time I come back, I try to find this dang design!” she said with a laugh.
Our time reconnecting with the land that made us who we are came to an end. It was an experience Trinity said she will never forget. “I was able to make a connection I would’ve never been able to make,” she said.
So what happens next?
There are cultural preservation and connection programs flourishing in each Lenape community, and the Lenape diaspora is steadily growing stronger and more unified in our efforts to reclaim our presence in Lenapehoking. One example is the Lenapeowsi Foundation, which is composed of representatives from the recognized Lenape nations working together to preserve Lenape culture for all Lenape’ok ― especially Lenape youth.
“I’m trying to formulate a legacy for Lenape children,” Lauryn said. “They get to go back without understanding all the historical trauma, and experience just being Delaware people in their homeland. Whereas elders go back and often it’s for repatriation and reburials, and the journey home can be pain-led. Our grandmas have gone back and cried and prayed.”
“We need to bring our children back to laugh,” Lauryn continued. “There’s so much medicine in laughter. There’s so much medicine in humor. Our people need that. And our homeland needs that laughter offering just as much as that tobacco offering, just as much as that cedar smoke, just as much as our tears, Lenapehoking needs our laughter. We need our children, who are our innocence, our hopes, and our dreams, to go back. Because their laughter and their medicine is pure. Each generation is further away from historical trauma that we can end.”