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The Delaware Nation is bridging a 1,400-mile gap to reclaim its heritage with a new Tribal Historic Preservation Office on the ancestral homelands of its Lenape ancestors.  

That’s according to a Memorandum of Understanding signed between the tribe and the university on Oct. 13. Headquartered in Anadarko, Oklahoma, the Delaware Nation set up the new office at Lehigh University in eastern Pennsylvania as part of a larger effort to protect its cultural resources and deal more effectively with tribal consultation and repatriation efforts.

The office on Lehigh's campus will be staffed by the Nation’s Tribal Historic Preservation Officer (THPO), non-tribal citizen Katelyn Lucas. Lucas will work to fulfill the department’s goal of “preserv[ing] the culture, history, ancestral lands, and sacred sites, objects of cultural patrimony, materials, and objects possessing ongoing cultural significance to the Delaware Nation.” 

Her role will include consulting under NAGPRA with museums and institutions in the Northeast that hold Lenape human remains and their burial objects, as well as informing educational initiatives on Lenape history for tribal citizens and the general public, Lucas said.

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“Much of this work naturally occurs within the original Lenape homeland region. Since tribal headquarters and most of Delaware Nation's citizens and staff are located in Oklahoma, the frequent need to travel to Lenape homelands for consultations is often a challenge,” Lucas wrote in response to Native News Online’s questions. “It is essential to have an office for tribal staff within the homeland region so that Delaware Nation can more easily and effectively respond to consultation requests and be present for various work in their homeland region.”

Before they were forced by settlers to move west, Lenape people once lived on lands that are now occupied by six states in the Northeast: Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and parts of New York, Connecticut, and Maryland. 

Today, the Lenape people are among five federally recognized nations in the U.S. and Canada: the Delaware Nation of Oklahoma and the Delaware Tribe of Indians, in Oklahoma; the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Band of Indians, in Wisconsin; and the Munsee-Delaware Nation and the Delaware Nation at Moraviantown, in Ontario.

The Delaware Nation’s historic oversight includes areas in 18 states, according to the Nation’s website. 

“Our hope is that Katelyn will be able to respond to inadvertent discoveries, any consultations that she needs to do, quicker than us having to send someone up to Pennsylvania,” Delaware Nation president Deborah Dotson told Native News Online. “My hope is that we can keep the office at Lehigh forever. It's a great collaboration between the two of us.”

The Nation completed its last repatriation in April 2022, when it reburied the remains of nearly 200 Lenape ancestors and their burial objects that were held for decades by universities and institutions across the country. Those institutions included the Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology in Berkeley, California; the Field Museum in Chicago; the Robert S. Peabody Institute of Archaeology in Massachusetts; the Peabody Museum at Harvard University; the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; Temple University; the University of Pennsylvania; and the New Jersey State Museum. 

Each ancestor had been dug up from a ceremonial burial area in New Jersey between the late 1800s and the 1980s, Susan Bachor, the Delaware tribe’s deputy tribal historic preservation officer, said at the time. The human remains were then given or sold to individual collectors, universities, and institutions, where they remained for decades, some for more than a century. 

Delaware Nation's historic preservation office is currently involved in “many” ongoing NAGPRA consultations, which it works on in collaboration with the other federally recognized Lenape tribal nations, according to Lucas.

“The Lenape people just have this much larger area of interest, because of their long long removal pathway,” Lucas told Native News Online. “They have that core homeland range that we're dealing with, but they also have all those states that they followed along the way. So it is a big problem and it is going to take many years to get all these ancestors and their artifacts returned.”

The new office and MOU are part of a larger effort at Lehigh and throughout the state to cultivate and represent a true history of the Lenape people.

On Oct. 13, at the MOU signing ceremony, Lehigh’s Institute for Indigenous Studies (IIS) announced another initiative, backed by a $200,000 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission.

The two-year planning grant, which was awarded to the Pennsylvania Tourism Office who enlisted the help of Lehigh’s IIS, will allow researchers to engage with Lenape tribal communities the first year. Researchers overseeing the grant project include Jason Hale (Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation of Kansas), a senior research scientist in the College of Health and IIS; Carly Camplain, (Comanche Nation of Oklahoma), an assistant professor in the Department of Community and Population Health; Lehigh history professor Michelle LeMaster; and Christine Makosky Daley, co-director for the Institute for Indigenous Studies.

Sean Daley, IIS’ director, said that researchers will be working with federally recognized Lenape tribes to develop a plan on how best to highlight Pennsylvania’s Indigenous histories, as well as contemporary Native culture. In the second year of the grant, he said, that research will be conveyed to the non-Native tribal entities and potential partners in the state also interested in accurate Lenape representation.

“A lot of this discussion has been about bringing [Leanpe people] into contemporary context, not just the truth, but the vibrancy of contemporary Indigenous peoples,” Daley told Native News Online. “Growing up in New Jersey, we were all convinced in the fourth grade when we learned about Indian people that they were gone. And that’s how people around here think about it. Not every museum exhibit has to be in the context of the 1600s or 1700s. Look what the Lenape are doing today.”

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About The Author
Jenna Kunze
Author: Jenna KunzeEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Senior Reporter
Jenna Kunze is a staff reporter covering Indian health, the environment and breaking news for Native News Online. She is also the lead reporter on stories related to Indian boarding schools and repatriation. Her bylines have appeared in The Arctic Sounder, High Country News, Indian Country Today, Tribal Business News, Smithsonian Magazine, Elle and Anchorage Daily News. Kunze is based in New York.