What is it like to encounter a work of great ceremonial value and personal meaning in a museum?
On a cool, sunny day in mid-April of this year, I stood in the visitor’s center of Pennsbury Manor in Morrisville, Pennsylvania, in front of a display case which housed the Penn Treaty Wampum Belt. Earlier in the morning, I and other members of our Lenape communities* had just reinterred over 180 Lenape ancestors and artifacts back into the rich earth of our homelands, where they could finally have the peace that they deserved after years and years of sitting on shelves or being displayed for the public gaze in universities, museums, and private collections.
Even though it was the second time I had viewed the belt, I was overcome with emotion just as I had been on first seeing it. My direct ancestors could have been the individuals who took the delicate wampum beads and strung them onto the buckskin strips in intricate patterns to create a symbol of the peace and understanding that was agreed upon by William Penn and Chief Tammanund in 1683. My grandmothers of hundreds of years past could have physically touched and created this beautiful belt, which was now housed behind thick glass just out of my reach.
As I stood scanning every detail of the belt, my thoughts returned again and again to my ancestors. My relatives. My family. The reason I was standing in the visitor center at Pennsbury Manor in Lenapehoking, our original homelands far away from my, and my tribe’s, current home in Oklahoma.
The belt symbolized a promise made to our Lenape ancestors of peaceful coexistence with those who were beginning to reside in Lenapehoking. It was a promise that, after years of turmoil with the Dutch, we could live and remain undisturbed by those encroaching on our homelands.
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.
Unfortunately, as history has so often proven, that agreement was short-lived. Ultimately the association with the Penn family resulted in the Walking Purchase, 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.
As I stood gazing at the belt, myriad competing emotions invaded my mind: sadness, longing, thankfulness, joy, and pride. All the feelings of hundreds of years of history banged around in my head. But the main thought that kept emerging to the fore was that of our ancestors and our obligations to them.
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 Delaware Tribe of Indians, Delaware Nation, Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Indians, Eelūnaapèewii Lahkèewiit Delaware Nation at Moraviantown, and Munsee-Delaware Nation.
Jeremy Johnson is the Cultural Education Director of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, which is now based in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. Before his current role he served as Assistant Chief. He is a lifelong educator and worked as an English teacher for over eighteen years. He is committed to preserving and revitalizing Lenape culture and language for the future generations of his tribe.
This project has been supported by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.