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Lenni Lenape woman keeps her Native American heritage alive

Lenni Lenape woman keeps her Native American heritage alive

Uhma Ruth Py of Reinholds is an elder in the tribe.

Written by Marylouise Sholly, Reading Eagle correspondent

https://www.readingeagle.com/life/artic … tage-alive

On misty autumn mornings, look across the stubble fields and you can almost see the spirits of the Lenape who settled this land thousands of years before the arrival of the Europeans.

The Lenni Lenape are still here, living in Penn's Woods and all along the East Coast, reminds a local woman who counts Lenape among her heritage.
"We're all over; we haven't left," Uhma Ruth Py said.

When speaking of the native nation of the Lenni Lenape, Ruth asks that people don't speak in the past tense.

Having Lenape heritage on both her mother's and father's sides of the family, Ruth has made it her mission to educate folks about the culture, history and lifestyle of the Lenape.

"It's not being taught in schools and what is taught isn't taught properly," Ruth said. "If I don't pass this on - do what my grandmother did - nobody's going to learn (about the Native culture). In fact, I need to find someone else, someone to teach when I get older."

Originally from Bucks County, Ruth and her husband, Joseph, and their children have made their home in Reinholds for nearly 30 years.

As a professional Native American storyteller, Ruth travels to encampments and festivals across the state, acquainting people with the artifacts, tools, household implements and weapons of the Lenape as she explains the pillars of the ancient culture.

Ruth shares children's games, explains cooking methods and favorite foods and displays everything from jewelry to animal hides to give the whole story of the Lenape.

Ruth is an elder of the Lenni Lenape nation, an honor bestowed on her when she turned 50.

"You are automatically an elder when you reach that age, and you will be called 'grandmother' for your knowledge and wisdom," Ruth said.

Respect for older members of the Lenape community is a hallmark of their nation, she added.

In fact, Ruth said, the Lenape keep their ancestors with them, in their hearts and minds, as much as possible.

"The older you get in the (Lenape) community, the more people come to you for your wisdom," Ruth said. "And the ancestors tell you what to do, give you advice in your dreams."

Growing up, Ruth knew she had Native blood, but she didn't know from which nation.

Students discuss heritage

While a student at Kutztown University, Ruth met a group of students at an off-campus restaurant who were discussing their heritage.

Among the students were those with Shawnee, Arapaho, Lakota, and Cherokee ancestry.

When one of the students said to Ruth, "You obviously have native blood by your features; what nation are you?" she didn't know what to say.

After a bit of investigating, she learned that her forebears had lived in Bucks County, a region that's always been Lenape territory.

Finding out her actual ancestry was a gift that pointed her life toward a new path, sharing her heritage.

"All my life, I've been drawn to the culture of the Native Americans," Ruth said.

The Lenni Lenape are called the Delaware by the English, Ruth said, because they had many settlements along that river.

Having majored in library science and elementary education at Kutztown, Ruth did substitute teaching for several years and also served as a Girl Scout leader for 25 years.

While on a trip with the Scouts to Virginia, Ruth met descendants of Pocohontas and was able to hold a feathered cape that belonged to Chief Powhatan, a highlight of her experiences.

Marrying shortly after college graduation, Ruth traveled with her husband, who served in the Navy for 25 years, to places as far flung as the Bahamas and the Great Lakes region in the U.S.

It was when she moved closer to her grandmother in Reinholds, Doris Riverbird Paschael, that she learned much more about her ancestry and the Lenape culture.
"She grew up on a Seneca reservation in New York," Ruth said, explaining that her grandmother was both Seneca and Lenape. "She told us all the stories and all the culture. Grandmother used to have her teaching table, and I would go around with her when she taught."


Mission bloomed

Ruth's mission bloomed when she was in her 30s, after being taught about the Lenape nation by her grandmother.

A mother of three daughters and one son and grandmother of seven, Ruth finds that children are drawn to her when she participates in festivals.

Her affinity for kids was noted by her people, who gave her the native name Child-keeper Woman.

At the recent festival at the Dreibelbis Farm near Virginville, Ruth showed kids how to play Native American games.

The original Dreibelbis farmhouse was a log cabin, built on the site of a Lenape settlement.

When talking to the kids, Ruth inserts moral tales along the way.

She also shares history, informing her young audience that Pennsylvania used to have buffalo herds, too.

The buffalo in Pennsylvania were smaller than their Western cousins because these buffalo had to navigate through forests, she said, adding that the last buffalo herd seen in Pennsylvania was in 1830.

Legend of the turtles

She tells them the legend of the turtles and says that the North American continent is called Turtle Island by Native Americans.

Ruth also does bead work, leather working and sewing in the Native American tradition.

Ruth periodically meets with other Lenape, sometimes at her home, where they craft as they share stories, or at her cabin in Pike County.

Ruth also contributes her knowledge to the museum of the University of Pennsylvania.

A book about Colonial times, "Joseph's Dilemma," was dedicated to her by author Irvin R. Stutzman for her help with cultural background information.

"For people trying to find their history, if your family was here before 1810 and if they were farmers or indentured servants, chances are higher that you have Native American blood," Ruth said. "More men were here than women, and they went to get wives from the Native Americans."

On Colonial wills, if a settler married a Native American woman, many times only the first name of the wife was recorded, with three dots behind it, since the wife didn't come with a maiden name.

That's one way of finding out if your family has Native American blood, she said.

Ruth also advised first speaking with the oldest member of your family, then taking any of the DNA tests available.

"The Lenape encouraged their women to marry immigrants because they knew that was a way for us to retain our land," Ruth said. "And we are still here. There are pockets of us all over the place."

Contact Marylouise Sholly: life@readingeagle.com.

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