Trailheads presents information and details about the exhibits, events and programs hosted by the historic sites and museums on PHMC's Pennsylvania Trails of History.
Delaware leaders and members traveled from Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ontario to mark the return of their ancestors to their Lenape homelands. Jeremy Johnson, cultural education director of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, who wrote the blogpost, “The Hands of My Grandmothers,” is in the front row center in a black shirt with red and white stripes. Ellen Henderson Photography

Delaware leaders and members traveled from Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ontario to mark the return of their ancestors to their Lenape homelands. Jeremy Johnson, cultural education director of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, who wrote the blogpost, “The Hands of My Grandmothers,” is in the front row center in a black shirt with red and white stripes.
Ellen Henderson Photography

Over the course of four days this past April, the remains of approximately 180 Lenape ancestors were reinterred at Pennsbury Manor, the reconstructed home of William Penn near Morrisville in Bucks County. The ceremony brought together leaders of all five federally recognized tribes of the Lenape diaspora: the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma, the Delaware Tribe of Indians (Oklahoma), the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Band of Indians (Wisconsin), the Munsee-Delaware Nation (Ontario, Canada), and the Delaware Nation at Moraviantown (Ontario).

Curtis Zunigha, Delaware Tribe of Indians, and Barton Cartwright, Delaware Nation, burning cedar during the communal gathering. Ellen Henderson Photography

Curtis Zunigha, Delaware Tribe of Indians, and Barton Cartwright, Delaware Nation, burning cedar during the communal gathering.
Ellen Henderson Photography

Pennsbury site administrator Doug Miller described the event: “Tribal members worked from early morning into each evening, and as ancestors were ready, they were interred facing east, as is the Delaware tradition. On the final morning [April 11], the five tribes gathered to inter one final matriarch (the Delaware are a matrilineal society). Invited guests stayed in the Visitor Center while a private Delaware ceremony occurred. Following this, honored guests, some having escorted the ancestral remains from repositories across the nation, joined in a traditional Delaware feast that included hominy and venison. Tribal leaders honored one another and the collective group. Blessings, prayers and fellowship followed.”

Pennsbury displayed a 1682 wampum belt given to William Penn by the Lenape. The belt was on temporary loan from the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA), which in turn holds it on long-term loan from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania Collection of the Philadelphia History Museum. As Jeremy Johnson, cultural education director of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, noted in a July 4 blog post for PMA: “This belt and the agreement with William Penn still loom large within our Lenape communities. William Penn is still spoken of as a friend to the Lenape in stories that are passed from one generation to the next. This belt symbolizes all of that history and is representative of a time when the Lenape were prosperous and still able to survive in our homelands.”

The reinterment took four days to complete, but it was many years in the making. The 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) created a process for federal agencies and museums to repatriate certain Native American cultural items in their collections, including human remains, funerary objects, sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony. The remains reinterred at Pennsbury fell under NAGPRA guidelines. In Native News Online, April 21, 2022, Jenna Kunze reported: “All of them had been dug up from a ceremonial burial area in New Jersey between the late 1800s and the 1980s, said Susan Bachor, the Delaware tribe’s deputy historic preservation officer. The human remains were then given or sold to individual collectors, universities, and institutions, where they remained for decades, some for over a century.”

Historic preservation officers from the five tribes worked for nearly 15 years to locate their ancestors’ remains, coordinating their efforts and using word-of-mouth and museum cataloguing information generated under NAGPRA. The institutions that returned remains to the Delaware included Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology (Berkeley, CA), Field Museum (Chicago), Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology (Andover, MA), Peabody Museum at Harvard University (Cambridge, MA), the American Museum of Natural History (New York City), Temple University and the University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia), and the New Jersey State Museum (Trenton).

 

From left, Martina Thomas and John Thomas, Delaware Tribe of Indians, and Deborah Dotson, Delaware Nation president, at Pennsbury. Ellen Henderson Photography

From left, Martina Thomas and John Thomas, Delaware Tribe of Indians, and Deborah Dotson, Delaware Nation president, at Pennsbury.
Ellen Henderson Photography

As the Delaware were on the journey to find and reclaim their ancestors and their sacred cultural objects, the staff at Pennsbury Manor were on their own journey to reconnect with the Delaware. As Miller explained, when William Penn received the Charter in 1681 for what became Pennsylvania, he was encouraged by King Charles II to establish good relations with the native peoples there. “Penn employed translators to negotiate with the Lenape and endeavored to learn the basics of their language. Penn’s first purchase included the land that Pennsbury Manor, his dream home, would sit on.” When Penn was preparing to leave Pennsbury for England in 1701, “200 Lenape, sachems and their entourage visited Pennsbury to see him off. Following his passing [in 1718], the Lenape sent a fur robe edged with feathers to comfort the mourning Hannah in her despair.”

In his PMA blog post, Jeremy Johnson recounts what happened next. “Ultimately the association with the Penn family resulted in the Walking Purchase [1737], a land swindle that cheated the Lenape out of 1,200 square miles of land, perpetuated by William Penn’s sons, Thomas, John, and Richard. The Walking Purchase was just one of the first in a long string of broken treaties that finally resulted in the Lenape Nation being broken apart and scattered in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario, Canada.”

Delaware tribal members and invited guests enjoyed a communal meal following the final reinterment. Ellen Henderson Photography

Delaware tribal members and invited guests enjoyed a communal meal following the final reinterment.
Ellen Henderson Photography

In 2009, with a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts and guidance from Rick West, founding director of the National Museum of the American Indian, Pennsbury staff traveled to Oklahoma to meet with Delaware tribal officials and begin to build a relationship. As the Delaware repatriation efforts progressed, it became clear that they would need to find a suitable location for reinterment. As Susan Bachor commented to Native News Online, the Delaware seek to reinter their ancestors as close as possible to the original burial site. Pennsbury’s proximity to New Jersey and history with the Lenape made it a good choice. Pennsbury and PHMC staff worked together with Delaware leaders for years, including delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic, to plan and carry out the final reinterment in April.

I asked Doug Miller what the reinterment effort meant to Pennsbury Manor: “For Pennsbury the ceremony was to bring full circle Penn’s relationship with the Lenape by deeding back a small part of the land that Penn had purchased in the 1680s. For the site it is a beginning. Deepening a relationship, building trust, and moving to tell a bit of the story of Pennsylvania’s first people. There were unintended consequences to the Lenape welcoming Penn and the early colonists here. These led to the forced removal and centuries of hardships for the Delaware. The trust that the Delaware have placed in Pennsbury is humbling, especially when we consider that it has been museums and universities that have desecrated gravesites in the past. Pennsbury hopes to be worthy of the trust that the original people of this region have placed in our care.”

Jeremy Johnson ends his blog post with these words: “I was standing once again in Lenapehoking, which is a feat that our many-years-distant relatives likely could have never imagined. We were called here to take care of our ancestors’ remains in our ancestral homelands. It was because of them that we had returned once more. They had taken care of us without ever knowing, and we, in turn, took care of them for the last time so that they could know a lasting and final peace. It was their strength, survival, and perseverance that paved the way for our Lenape people to exist in this place and time, and continue to do so well into the future.”

 

The author thanks Jeremy Johnson, Delaware Tribe of Indians, for his assistance with information in this article.

 

Amy Killpatrick Fox is a museum educator in PHMC’s Bureau of Historic Sites & Museums. She writes a weekly blog also called Trailheads.