Lenape Indians get historic recognition by state

 

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signs legislation Thursday to officially recognize the Lenape as a Delaware Indian tribe. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Delaware Gov. Jack Markell signs legislation Thursday to officially recognize the Lenape as a Delaware Indian tribe. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

DOVER — For the first time, the Lenape Indian tribe was officially recognized by the state of Delaware Thursday.

Gov. Jack Markell signed into law a bill granting the Lenape tribe legitimate status. The law allows members to market goods as official Indian-made products and work with the Small Business Administration for added economic development, but the impact goes well beyond the financial realm.

“I’m just very happy,” Principal Chief Dennis J. Coker said. “This is a major, major milestone for us as a community, so our people can stand up and be very proud of who they are and their ancestry and not have to worry about the naysayers who may argue otherwise.”

The proposal that provided recognition, House Bill 345, may have passed unanimously, but it was the culmination of years of work.

The Lenape sought to have legislation passed in 1993 but were unsuccessful, Chief Coker said. After that effort failed, members of the tribe decided additional work was needed.

“I started to do a lot of collaboration with state agencies and the federal government and federal agencies because as I mentioned earlier, we’ve always had an acknowledgment. So there was the idea that we did exist,” Chief Coker said. “Now, formal recognition was — they were a little bit apprehensive because there are those that thought that state recognition would lead us to a casino, and that is absolutely not the case.”

The Lenape tribe members during smugging ceremony in front of the Truitt Building after Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation recognizing the Lenape tribe in the Governor’s office on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The Lenape tribe members during smugging ceremony in front of the Truitt Building after Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation recognizing the Lenape tribe in the Governor’s office on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The state now will have two officially recognized tribes: the Lenape and the Nanticoke. A companion piece of legislation passed this year gives the status to the Nanticoke retroactive to 1881.

Thursday, dozens of people, including members of the Lenape tribe and lawmakers who supported the legislation, attended the ceremony in the governor’s office across the street from Legislative Hall.

“This is a historic event,” main bill sponsor Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, said. “This is something that many people in this room have worked for and worked on for literally generations.”

Afterward, most of the audience gathered outside the governor’s office for a celebration. Before playing two sacred songs, members took part in the practice of “smudging,” where herbs are burned to purify the body.

After breathing in the smoke, seven members of the tribe sat together in a circle, beating a drum and chanting, while others looked on proudly at the ritual.

Lenape tribe member Terry Sammons drums in front of the Truitt Building after Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation recognizing the Lenape tribe in the Governor’s office on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Lenape tribe member Terry Sammons drums in front of the Truitt Building after Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation recognizing the Lenape tribe in the Governor’s office on Thursday. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

The Lenape people can trace lineage back 300 years and have been living around Cheswold for at least that long.

The tribe partnered with the U.S. Census Bureau in 2010, with the agency giving the organization “state designated tribal statistical area” status for the 2010 census. About 850 people identified themselves as Lenape in that survey, although Chief Coker said he believes there are more. Members have also intermarried with the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indian tribe in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and share many traits with the Nanticoke in Sussex County.

“It’s been 400 years and change since we roamed the Delmarva Peninsula at will, freely, as a free, independent sovereign nation of people, and our recognition legislation actually acknowledges the sovereignty of our tribal government and its democratic form of constitutional government, so to have that sovereignty recognized by the state of Delaware is just an immense, immense historic accomplishment,” Chief Coker said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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