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Lenape Indian Tribe looks to reclaim historic Delaware land, establish sovereignty
Jessica Bies, Delaware News Journal Published 3:34 p.m. ET July 16, 2018 | Updated 8:58 a.m. ET July 17, 2018
(13 photos at the link)
https://www.delawareonline.com/story/ne … 775992002/
DOVER — Lenape Indian Chief Dennis Coker's ancestors are buried in a small cemetery on Denneys Road near the Fork Branch Preserve just outside the capital city.
Across the street and down the road is Little Union Church, where his ancestors worshipped. And across the street from that is where the old Lenape Indian schoolhouse used to stand, the place the tribe's children learned to read and write before desegregation and its closure in 1964.
Almost none of it belongs to the tribe, Coker said.
All the Lenape own is a small vacant lot abutting the church and the busy road.
That's one of the main reasons the Native American community has embarked on a project to get at least some of the land back, if it can, from the state of Delaware. Coker hopes to use the old school site, which is now polluted, to build a community center and gathering place for the tribe.
“Right now, the Lenape Tribe of Delaware only owns one-half acre of a peninsula that we use to have had free roam of," Coker said. "As a sovereign nation of people we really need to be able to provide for ourselves, and we can’t do that without land."
For many Native Americans, sovereignty means having the ability to manage their own affairs and exist as nations that are recognized as having control over their own destinies and assets.
The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware was officially recognized by the First State in 2016. Coker said though the future looks bright, establishing the tribe as an independent nation and accumulating land has been a slow process.
It's nothing short of miraculous that the Lenape have maintained a viable community in Cheswold, he believed. They were among the first indigenous people to have contact with Henry Hudson, an English sea explorer who introduced smallpox to the tribe, resulting in many of their deaths.
Yet, the Lenape lived side-by-side with early Colonists, who slowly took over their ancestral land. The area was also home to the Nanticoke Indians, who are closely interrelated.
“It’s a tragic story in a way, but its also a story of resilience and determination," Coker said, marveling on the tribe's commitment to the land and staying in Delaware. Many Lenape instead moved west and now live in Oklahoma.
The Cheswold group, on the other hand, became "settlers," adopting Christian names and buying land in Kent County so they could continue to live where their ancestors had.
In 2010, the first time the tribe was included on the U.S. Census, about 850 people identified themselves as members. Latest census numbers put the tribe's population at about 567.
Citizenship in the tribe requires at least one-quarter of an individual’s bloodline to be 100 percent Cheswold-area Lenape.
The Fork Branch School on Denneys Road was one of three built after the Civil War for Native Amercian students. Another was located outside Dover on Kenton Road and a third was located in Cheswold.
Coker only remembers two of them and says older schoolhouses may have been torn down or abandoned before he was born.
“What’s interesting about our schools was that they were managed by trustees from our community, who had exclusive say over who attended," Coker said. "They were for the community.��
But the Lenape lost ownership of the Fork Branch School in 1921 after Pierre S. du Pont incorporated the Delaware School Auxiliary Association and rebuilt it and other "colored schools" for the State Board of Education.
After desegregation, the Fork Branch School briefly served as the site of a nurse training program until it was badly damaged in a fire.
Then, in 1968, custody of the land was transferred to the State Police Department for $1.. The site was near the department's administrative offices in Dover and the troopers needed a new firing range.
For the next 40 years, bullets whizzed through the air only a few feet away from where the Lenape's ancestors were buried.
Coker's great-grandmother, Sarah Coker, is buried there, he said, as well as members of other Lenape families. Sarah Coker also once owned the land the Fork Branch School was built upon, Dennis Coker said.
“The cemetery is a resting place for the ancestors of our community, somewhat exclusively, with the exception of a spouse here or there that was not native. It wasn’t in my mind an ideal spot for a firing range," said Coker, who felt that "some mistakes were made" regarding the property and its ultimate use.
"I guess our ancestors are deceased, so it didn't bother them ... But it certainly wasn't a sensitive thing to do."
Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, said he wants to help the Lenape get the land back and right any wrongs regarding the property.
"Oddly enough I ran that range for a number of years," said Lawson, a retired state trooper who was in charge of firearms training at the site.
He said he had no idea of the land's significance.
"When I became a legislator and heard they were trying to get it back, I jumped onboard," he said. "It's critical, in my opinion, that they do get it back.
"That's their homestead. That's where they went to school before desegregation. That's their cemetery. That's their church."
One of the biggest obstacles has been the condition of the soil, the senator said. Because it was used as a firing range, the two-acre plot is dotted with lead bullets and other contaminants.
So, the Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control has been brought on board help with remediation, a multi-stage process that involves first testing the soil and then removing any sources of pollution.
DNREC spokesman Michael Globetti said the agency is working with the Environmental Protection Agency, which operates a Brownfields Program and provides federal funding for site testing and cleanup.
Brownfields are properties where expansion, redevelopment or reuse have been complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.
"The phase I assessment indicated a potential release of hazardous substances from the site’s former use as a state firing range," Globetti said in an email. "The EPA is currently working with the agency’s environmental contractor to draft a work plan for the phase II assessment that will include soil and groundwater sampling. This work will be completed in the next few months."
During phase 1 surveyors found spent skeet targets, shotgun shells, lead projectiles, bowling pins that had apparently been used for target practice, flare tubes and a used rubber grenade among other things, according to a DNREC report.
The site is currently fenced off. Wooden and concrete platforms that likely were used during target practice are still visible.
Coker likes to look past the steel fence and debris, however. When he visits the property he checks on two Arborvitae, or white cedar trees, flanking the old sidewalk that used to lead to the school.
Several of the hardwoods also stand in the cemetery, where they were planted to mark burial plots and give the Lenape ancestors some shade.
"Arborvitae, the tree of life, the white cedar, is one of our sacred trees," Coker said, explaining how its needles are used in religious ceremonies.
They are burned and the smoke carries tribe members' prayers to the creator, he said.
Coker said indigenous people have strong ties to the land and certain plants, which is one reason the tribe wants the land back. Eagles can often be seen flying above the cemetery, he said, and turkey and deer are drawn there by the stream.
"Native Americans, their spirituality actually emanates from their location and where they live," he said.
Eventually, Coker hopes to build a community center on Denney's Road, complete with a kitchen and office as well as outdoor space where the tribe can hold large gatherings. He would also like to have a windmill, a well and a garden, so the tribe can be self-sufficient and more independent.
Getting the cemetery and church added to the National Register of Historic places is another goal, especially since they are located close to or in the right-of-way and could be torn down or damaged if the road is widened.
Coker said buying the land and preserving the historical landmarks is a small, but significant step for the tribe and will allow it to build a home for itself.
"Having land opens up so many opportunities," Coker said. "We rent now and it's eating us alive."
Immigrants took land from Native Americans in Delaware. They want some of it back.
ByRob Tornoe, July 20, 2018
https://whyy.org/articles/immigrants-to … f-it-back/
In today’s heated political environment, it’s hard to avoid chants from anti-immigrant activists calling on foreigners to go home or pushing incorrect — and often racist — claims about migrants stealing our jobs or diluting our culture.
Where were they 400 years ago?
In the late 16th century, the Lenape were a powerful Native American nation thriving in Delaware and all along the Delaware River, spanning all the way north into present-day New Jersey, Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley.
Unfortunately, we know all too well what happened next. European immigrants gradually pushed the Lenape out of their ancestral homes, aided by the diseases they brought with them across the ocean, including smallpox, cholera and influenza.
Some Lenape groups were forced out of what’s now Delaware, and they headed west, ultimately ending up in Oklahoma where several tribes currently reside. Some, who had relocated to Ohio, served as solders in the Continental Army (though the Lenape were divided, and some tribes decided to side with the British).
And some tribe members assumed Christian names, bought land in Delaware and ultimately relocated to present-day Cheswold where, amazingly and against all odds, 560 or so still reside, according to recent U.S. Census numbers.
And now they’re looking to reclaim a small portion of the territory that once belonged to them.
The Lenape are trying to reclaiming historic land in north Dover and establish their sovereignty, according to the News Journal. The land includes area that once housed the old Lenape Indian schoolhouse, the Little Union Church and a small cemetery where the ancestors of Chief Dennis Coker are buried.
In recent years, Delaware State Police have used the area as a firing range, and Coker told the News Journal “some mistakes were made" regarding the property and its use.
“It wasn’t in my mind an ideal spot for a firing range," Coker said. “I guess our ancestors are deceased, so it didn’t bother them … but it certainly wasn’t a sensitive thing to do."
The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware was officially recognized in 2016. But regaining even a small piece of the land it once owned has been a slow process, mostly due to pollution by possibly hazardous substances.
Fortunately, state Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, a retired state trooper who was in charge of training at the range, is working to help Coker and his tribe. The EPA is working to draft a plan to assess the condition of the soil and groundwater, and the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control told Delaware Public Media it hopes to have that completed in the next few months.
“Our goals are to, possibly, create a community center there," Coker said. “And have our families and our children have access to the property in an intimate relationship — you know, playing and rolling around on the ground and stuff like that."
Based on its history, there’s probably no other group in this country that has more reason to be dubious and angry than Native Americans. But time and time again, it’s Native Americans such as Coker who remain positive and take the high road, siding often with those most threatened by the hateful rhetoric attempting to paint everyone who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border as someone unworthy of joining our country.
“Today, we live in a county of immigrants. We welcome you, as we have welcomed generations of immigrants to these shores, since even before this great country was founded," Ray Halbritter, a representative of the Oneida Indian Nation in upstate New York, recently wrote at TheHill.com. “In the words of the great Chief Joseph, we have always known that all people ‘were made by the same great Spirit Chief.’"
America first, indeed.