Lenape chief aims to ensure future generations know tribal history

DOVER — Throughout September, Lenape heritage will be celebrated in downtown Dover, and on Labor Day the culture of the tribe was explained by Dennis Coker at the Old State House.

“We’re working with Delaware Heritage Park this month and it started on Saturday with Cultural Heritage Day on the Green,” said Mr. Coker, principal chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware.

His lecture focused primarily on the past of the tribe starting in Colonial times and leading up to the present.
At the height of its existence, the Lenape had a population of about 5,000 ranging from Lewes to Duck Creek but during European colonization from the mid-1600s to mid-1700s, smallpox killed off nearly 90 percent of the tribe.

Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware Principal Chief Dennis Coker gave a presentation on the history of the tribe at the Old State House in Dover on Labor Day. (Delaware State News/Ashton Brown)

Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware Principal Chief Dennis Coker gave a presentation on the history of the tribe at the Old State House in Dover on Labor Day. (Delaware State News/Ashton Brown)

“We came to the conclusion when we saw so fewer Europeans dying from this disease that their creator must be superior to ours,” Mr. Coker said. “We couldn’t help but wonder why our creator has abandoned us and in an effort to survive, we Christianized in only a couple decades.”

Many Lenape remained Christian for hundreds of years and assimilated into society, becoming property owners in the late 1700s.

“In Cheswold, we started our own community of Christian Indians. We became a hub of sorts and even had our own schools,” Mr. Coker said.

He also explained how much tribal life has changed within his own lifetime.

Along with the Brown v. Board of Education decision, not only did black and white schools become integrated, Native Americans did too. The Lenape school in Cheswold closed and all students were transferred to Capital School District.

Although the Lenape were then going to school in Dover, Mr. Coker said the community in Cheswold remained tight-knit.

He said integration really took off in the 1970s when intermarriage increased due to Lenape finding more friends and future spouses in school.

In the same time period, the Lenape extended their relationships in the Indian community as well, becoming close with tribes in southern Delaware and southern New Jersey.

It wasn’t until 1993 that the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware sought formal recognition. The tribe formed a 501(c)3 and elected a council and chief. At the time, Mr. Coker’s brother was elected principal chief. Mr. Coker became chief in 1995.

It took 16 years of persistence for the tribe to be formally recognized by the state of Delaware, he said. That happened in 2009 with a bill recognizing the tribe was signed by Gov. Jack Markell.

The nation was included in the 2010 census and more than 800 Delawareans registered as Lenape.

“It’s amazing that 400 years after we had our culture stripped from us and now so many people are showing interest,” Mr. Coker said.

Since becoming principal chief, Mr. Coker has dedicated most his free time to becoming more knowledgeable about the history and culture of the tribe.

“It’s my responsibility to see that seven generations from now, there’s someone still around to pass down the history and culture of our tribe,” he said.

More First State Heritage Park events are upcoming to recognize Native American history. The next ones are “Native American Games and Amusements” from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday on Legislative Mall; “Lost and Found: Native American Identity in Delaware’s Public Schools” at 1 p.m. Sept. 19 at the Old State House and “Surviving the Invasion: The First Peoples of the First State” at 1 p.m. Sept. 26 at the Old State House.

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