As if death, disease, displacement and disregarded treaties weren’t bad enough, the European settlers of the New World didn’t get the names of our continent’s First Nations right. The indigenous inhabitants of Lenapehoking, the area stretching from the mid-Hudson Valley in the north to Delaware Bay in the south – including the entire state of New Jersey – were collectively known as the Lenape, meaning “real people.” But the colonists dubbed them the Delawares, which isn’t even an indigenous name; it was lifted from the English aristocratic title of Thomas West, third Baron De La Warr, Virginia’s first colonial governor.
The Lenape were united by a common Algonkian language, divided by the Kittatinny Mountains (the New Jersey spur of the Shawangunks) into northern Munsee and southern Unami dialects. According to their folklore, they had arrived from somewhere further west originally, but we have archaeological evidence of their presence going back some 12,000 years – to the end of the most recent Ice Age. They were mostly agricultural people, with a matrilineal and matrilocal clan system of social organization.
Of the estimated 20,000 Lenape descendants now living in the US and Canada, very few reside in their ancestral homeland. Most are clustered on reservations in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Ontario, as a result of one instance after another of forcible relocation to places then deemed undesirable for European-descended people. The only nearby exceptions are the Ramapough Lenape Nation communities clustered in the southern part of Rockland County and in Bergen and Passaic Counties in New Jersey, whose members claim descent from native people who fled into hiding in the mountains in the aftermath of wars with Dutch settlers in the mid-17th century.
But now a movement is afoot to establish a new home base of sorts in Lenapehoking for people of native ancestry – possibly in Ulster County, although no site has yet been identified. Stone Ridge resident, business consultant, former school administrator, amateur historian and author Harv Hilowitz has recently launched a campaign to open a cultural hub to be called the Lenape/Delaware Native American Center of the Hudson Valley. The concept is very much in its formative stages; as yet there is no business plan, no founding Board of Directors or core group of investors, no not-for-profit status. But Hilowitz will share his vision with the public this Saturday in an Open House at the Marbletown Community Center in Stone Ridge.
According to the new website dedicated to the concept, “The proposed Lenape/Delaware Native American Center in the Hudson Valley is envisioned as an attractive, contemporary facility in a meaningful natural setting, representing an important step toward:
Restoring a Lenape presence here in a dignified, restorative and respectful way, providing Lenape/Delaware People an aspirational opportunity to return to this part of Lenapehoking, their ancestral land;
Offering inspirational education and correct information about the people to the general public, telling the Lenape/Delaware story in their own words;
Creation of a platform for the presentation and sale of contemporary Lenape art and products, as well as traditionally inspired crafts, as a means of bringing increased recognition to the Lenape/Delaware as a living people, and additional income streams from such positive non-exploitative exposure and sales;
Being a platform of advocacy for the Lenape/Delaware and a springboard of restorative justice for them and all Indian Country.”
In addition to seeking financial support and site ideas for the venture, Hilowitz has issued a call for donations and loans of items that could be put on exhibit – with the caveat that sacred objects and grave goods will be “repatriated to the rightful tribal owners when so identified.” He takes pains to specify that the project is “not into the appropriation of authentic Native American imagery, practices or customs for the purpose of exploitation or stereotyping.” Hilowitz is also asking for introductions and contact information for “gatekeepers” who can legitimately claim to speak on behalf of contemporary Lenape peoples and provide guidance to the Center’s efforts toward “renewal of their ancient language, customs, cultural and traditional practices.”
It’s a tall order, but a journey of a thousand miles – even a long-delayed homeward journey – begins with a single step. To learn more, attend the discussion and roundtable beginning at 2 p.m. on Saturday, November 23 at the Marbletown Community Center, located at 3564 Main Street in Stone Ridge; or visit www.lenapecenter.org.
Lenape/Delaware Native American Center of the Hudson Valley Open House, Sat., Nov. 23, 2 p.m., free, Marbletown Community Center, Stone Ridge; (845) 590-0925, www.lenapecenter.org