PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) - A native American tribe that was thought to have disappeared is telling its story in a new exhibition that shows its culture has survived the ravages of European civilization.
The Lenape, which inhabited eastern Pennsylvania in their tens of thousands before European settlers arrived in the late 17th century, mostly scattered to western states including Oklahoma, Kansas and Wisconsin in the face of persecution by the colonists.
Those who remained were so few and so secretive that they were widely thought to have disappeared.
But the exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology shows that they have sustained essential elements of their culture despite being marginalized for hundreds of years.
“Outward assimilation kept them from persecution,” said Abigail Seldin, a University of Pennsylvania graduate student and a co-curator of the exhibition.
Seldin was doing research into the apparent disappearance of the tribe from Pennsylvania when some local Lenape asked the museum if they could borrow a maple canoe paddle in the university’s collection for a tribal ceremony in spring 2007.
The incident led Seldin to suspect the tribe had
“They said, ‘Our community has been in hiding for 200 years,’” Seldin explained.
The discovery led to talks with the remaining Lenape community who eventually gave their blessing and their assistance to the exhibition “Fulfilling a Prophecy: The Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania”, which runs until September 2009.
Among the items on display is a doll with a face painted on the back of its head as a symbol of the determination of the Lenape to preserve their culture secretly from the European-dominated society.
A quilt contains a deliberate irregularity that the maker included because only the Creator can make perfection, according to Shelley DePaul, a member of the Lenape Nation and a co-curator of the exhibition.
The absence of one pink square from the quilt is a subtle but important sign that the Lenape culture lives on but that it had chosen to do so in with the utmost discretion for fear of further persecution, said DePaul.
A 1764 edition of the Pennsylvania Gazette newspaper is a chilling example of what the Lenape faced. In the newspaper the sons of Pennsylvania founder William Penn offered a reward for the scalps of native Americans, including children.
Even though the show marks a major coming out for the Lenape, DePaul said some members of the tribe still fear discrimination and regard some parts of their culture as too sacred for public exposure.
There are now about 250 people registered as members of the Lenape Nation, but DePaul believes there are many more who are unaware of their heritage because of generations of intermarriage.
DePaul is one of only two people known to speak the Lenape language in their eastern homeland. The other, Robert Red Hawk Ruth who is chief of the Lenape Nation, said the exhibition marks an important departure for the tribe after centuries of oppression.
“We believe the time has come for our people ... to share the rich and unique history and culture of the Lenape community of Pennsylvania,” he said.