Lenni Lenape Day

by Christine Adams Beckett

Recent scientific studies of genetics, archeology and linguistics suggest that native American peoples migrated from Asia 15,000 years ago, likely in three different waves.  These findings are detailed in a July, 2012 article from Nature Magazine, and for the first time suggest that the genetic make-up of native peoples are more complex than suggested by the long-held belief that our ancestors arrived in one large migration via a frozen Bering Straight from Siberia during the last Ice Age.

The three waves of these migrating people brought forth what is now known as 500 Nations of tribespeople on the North American continent, a rich conglomerate of native American life that is as diverse as the globe’s, but with one simple common trait: an abiding respect for our planet.  The concept of land ownership, largely a European concept, was foreign.  Their nomadic nature required that land  encompass a usefulness, both practical and spiritual, rather than a domination.

These nomadic peoples, presumably the original inhabitants, are the true discoverers of America, although what their land has become is drastically different from what it was.  The European nature of much of our culture is not the result of “discovery”, per se, but of money and power.  To celebrate Columbus Day in America and to perpetuate a myth of his contribution seems absurd, particularly since he never once set foot on what is now American soil.  His 1492 voyage brought him to what is now known as the Bahamian Islands, San Salvador, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

We know that the Vikings arrived in North America in 1002 or 1003, 500 years before Columbus.  We also know that the Basque people of Northwest Spain and Southwest France arrived long before him as well, trolling the north Atlantic and the coast of Canada for valuable cod fish.  The Basque likely kept their fishing spot secret from the rest of the exploring world to keep the profits to themselves.  They also had no interest in staking a flag in what is now known as Canada to claim it for their own, as the Conquistadors would do in 1492.  In fact, their culture, ancient and unchanging in its own rite with its own language, has survived thousands of years.  The Basque know culture, but no nationalism: they have seen their homeland change hands from Celts, to Romans, to Spanish to French and yet they still speak their same ancient language.  They still guard their ages-old customs, regardless of what flag flies overhead.  Although their origins are enigmatic, they may be of aboriginal decent themselves.

Mark Kurlansky writes in his Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed The World, that the Vikings had one thing in common with the Basque: they both fished for cod.  But the two groups differed in another: the Basque people packed it in salt for preservation purposes.  There is also evidence that the Basques lived peacefully in conjunction with the Inuit people, unlike the Vikings or the Europeans.  An article in Smithsonian Magazine, recently reported on archaeological digs in Canada which revealed a Basque blacksmith shop alongside an Inuit home, with artifacts to back it up, including Inuit soapstone toys and Basque blacksmith tools.

Yet we don’t celebrate the Vikings for discovering America (thankfully) and the Basque have remained their incognito selves when it comes to credit taking.  But somehow we still credit the discovery of sailing the ocean blue and the resulting discovery of America to Christopher Columbus.  Inappropriately so.

Columbus remains a very elusive figure in world history, largely due to what Tony Horowitz describes as Columbus’s own myth perpetuation.  He has been known to doctor his own journals and other documentation.  In his book A Voyage Long and Strange: Redicovering the New World, Horowitz observes:

Like most Americans, I’d never given [the fact that 42 cities are named after Columbus] a second thought — until I tracked Columbus’s path on a nautical chart pinned to my office wall.  Only then did it occur to me that the nation’s capital and a host of other sites across the land are named for a man who never set foot on this continent.

And that’s to say nothing of his vile treatment of native peoples.  Horowitz simply reports: “Modern critics of Columbus reverse the traditional narrative.  They focus on his troubled later voyages, and the horrors that followed in his wake, to cast the Genoese as a genocidal figure.  Columbus didn’t discover America; he destroyed it.”

So a modest proposal, on this ill conceived holiday: look into your local native peoples, educate yourselves and your children and celebrate them.  Here in Montclair, it was the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware, named for the river by which many of them lived.   They lived in harmony in a communal spirit, working together in peace on shared lands in shared dwellings.  Their chiefs or sachems were chosen for their wisdom, their upstanding behavior, their honesty and skill in speaking.  They were also lauded for their spiritual knowledge and cultural awareness.

Their creation story is one of a tortoise in the middle of a body of water, whose enormous back came forth higher and higher and made the earth.  The water around it became the seas.  Upon the tortoise sprouted a tree, and from the roots of this tree grew the first man and woman, literally born of the earth.  The earth is seen as their original mother / father god, and a logical explanation of their respect for the land: their spiritual connection to it rather than its ownership.

Benjamin West’s 1771 painting of William Penn’s 1682 treaty with the Lenape.

They lived in peace during the 17th century, legend has it, with WIlliam Penn, the founder of the Pennsylvania colony and a man who reportedly treated the Lenni Lenape / Delawares with honesty and fairness.  But just a generation later, the colonists shamefully displaced them.  The Walking Purchase, where on 25 August 1737, the Lenapes were forced from their homes once thought protected by Penn himself, and evicted to points west, then known as Wyoming, now Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.  The heart breaking description of Pennsylvania’s own Trail of Tears includes note of “a number of Nanticoke refugees passing by on their way to Wyoming.  They had come from the original homes on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and were carrying the bones of their dead in their arms so that they would not have to leave them behind.” (Josephy, Alvin M., Jr.500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians. 1st ed. New York, Alfred A. Knopf 1994).

There is one person in Pennsylvania who is trying to right this old wrong: Carol Galantino, who died of Leukemia in West Chester, Pennsylvania, left 12 acres of “fertile flood plain covered with grass, wild rose bushes and goldenrod” to the Lenni Lenape.  A Washington Post article published just after her death reports more on the neighborhood feud that ensued after Galantino’s act of good will, mainly over a wall that was erected to protect the indians recovered property.  But Galantino was firm: the discovery of arrow heads on her property were proof that it wasn’t really hers to begin with.

Montclair townspeople will likely not follow in the radical steps of Carol Galantino.  But acknowledgement of the Lenni Lenape’s presence is a good start.  Columbus Day is the perfect time, a day that falls around the harvest, when native peoples helped European settlers survive the long winter.  It is a day that should have been reserved to celebrate our ancient origins rather than our more politically powerful ones.