Centuries ago, there were several Lenape tribes residing in what is now the state of New Jersey. They were later called by the European settlers “Delawares,” combining in this name all people who lived along the Delaware River. These Native Americans call themselves Lenape, which means The People. The Lenape ancestors were among the first Native Americans to come in contact with the Europeans (Swedish, Finns, Dutch, and English) in the early 1600s. Later on, they signed the first Indian treaty with the newly formed United States Government on September 17, 1778.
Nevertheless, during the next few centuries, the Lenape had to give up their lands and move westward – first to Ohio, then to Indiana, Missouri, Kansas, and finally, Indian Territory, now Oklahoma. The process of dispossession and removal of the Lenape from their ancestral lands was extremely intensified after the Indian Removal Act, which was passed in 1830. People still tell stories about the “trail of tears.” Small contingents of “Delawares” who fled to Canada now live in two reserves in Ontario – The Delaware Nation at Moraviantown and The Munsee-Delaware Nation. These are the “sister tribes” of the Nanticoke Lenni Lenape people today.
However, some Lenape people chose to remain in their ancestral homeland. Their language and many of their traditions were lost as they struggled to survive under the pressures of assimilation that included a variety of Americanization Programs for the Native Americans in the 1800s and early 1900s. The Indian Citizenship Act was passed in 1924, and for the first time, Native Americans were accepted as citizens of the United States. It was not until the second half of the 20th century that the Nanticoke Lenni Lenape people continuing in their ancient homeland, began to openly reclaim their rightful place in the cultural landscape of our region.
After a few hundred years of continuing their tribal existence through an informal family clan type of governance, a formal tribal re-organization of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but it was completed only after Congress passed the “American Indian Religious Freedom Act” in 1978, finally protecting Native American rights to practice their spiritual traditions. In 1982 the New Jersey Senate passed “Concurrent Resolution No. 73,” acknowledging the tribe as a confederation of Nanticoke and Lenni-Lenape. Today, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation is the northernmost of three interrelated tribes of the Delaware Bay area.
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe, once locally referred to as “Cohansies,” are dedicated to maintaining a strong cultural identity while also encouraging economic development. For hundreds of years, members of the tribe have struggled to maintain cultural survival through years of adversities and attempts of annihilation. Preserving arts and traditions is key to ensuring this survival. As Chief Mark “Quiet Hawk” Gould emphasizes, “There is no point in the survival of our people if our traditions, our songs, our crafts do not survive with it.” Lenape cultural heritage is also a way of keeping family and community bonds. According to Carol “Whispering Nightingale” Lively, “Our heritage is the glue that holds families and communities together over generations. It is the connection to our roots and defines how we fit in the larger scheme of life.”
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape are committed to correcting the historical portrayal of their tribe and celebrating the rich culture that is preserved through the generations living in this region today. John “Smiling Thunderbear” Norwood explains, “Our heritage is constantly unfolding and is not fixed in the past, like some ancient relic or dinosaur fossil. It is the past that continues to evolve into the future, and only the people of the tribal community can rightly shape that process of cultural evolution.” Click here to download We’re Still Here, a free booklet detailing their history.
Learn more about the tribe by subscribing to Tyrese “Bright Flower” Gould Jacinto’s YouTube series, which dives into the “hidden in plain sight culture.” Tyrese shares this important message, “Customs and celebrations have been passed down through many generations. We will remember each generation that passes leaves markers and teachings through the birth of the new generations. We have remained in our homeland and have been here for over 10,000 years, right here in New Jersey. We have discovered how to survive, to be “our people” and/or authorities on South Jersey Indigenous. The promises we made to our elders many years ago are being honored with each generation.”