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Let’s Talk Lenape – Native American Influences in Philadelphia

Ever since Europeans set foot in the Old World, the “thanksgiving” title has been given to many celebrations and commemorations: George Washington issued a day of thanksgiving in honor of the adoption of a new Constitution; President Madison proclaimed such a day to celebrate the end of the War of 1812; and well before then, farmers and their families rejoiced in these occassions after a bountiful harvest; others yet refer to it as a day of mourning.

“The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth” (1914) By Jennie A. Brownscombe (Source: Stedelijk Museum De Lakenhal)

The one that captures our imagination — especially romanticized by Jennie Augusta Brownscombe’s 1914 painting — is the famous feast attended by Pilgrims and Native Americans, the supposed first true thanksgiving. And while we now know the historical inaccuracies captured by a few strokes of Brownscombe’s paintbrush and that it was essentially two writers who wittingly or otherwise put this version of Thanksgiving as we know it on the national calendar, what more do we know about the first interactions between European settlers and the original inhabitants? Where are their stories? How do we commemorate their contributions, if at all?

Anyone visiting Philadelphia in November — or any month, for that matter — shouldn’t miss the sites we, as guides, know and love to show off: the building where we signed the Declaration and Constitution; the tiny little alleyway of charming and cozy colonial houses; the largest of a beloved convenience chain in the country… Yet, it’s these places, too, that contain hundreds of years of history, sometimes just beneath the surface, long before the colonists arrived. And some of our best museums have been leading the way in uncovering the Native American history in and surrounding Philadelphia. While you’re walking through our streets or visiting our great institutions, keep an eye out for the traces a people who were as integral to our story as George Washington or William Penn.

Benjamin West’s “The Treaty of Penn with the Indians” (1771)

Penn Treaty Park

And Penn happens to be the posterchild of peace in Philadelphia. The founder of the city met in this park, once a Lenape village called Shackamaxon (the colonists’s spelling / prounouciation), in 1683 to conduct a peace treaty with Chief Tamanend*. Tamenend’s people had already at this point experienced the intrusion of earlier Europen settlers and endured epidemics and warfare that greatly reduced their number. Tamanend entered a land agreement with Penn, who came to claim the land promised to him by King Charles II of England, an agreement that respected the existing Lenape settlements until Penn’s death. William’s ancestors would eventually strip the Lenape of their land claims and protection from other warring tribes.

It’s not an uplifting end, for sure. Penn Treaty Park today is a quiet green space with beautiful views of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge south over the Delaware River. The park will undergo a facelift as the neighboring area of Fishtown continues to boom, but for now, we can look back on a time when two figures sought to coexist, despite vast differences in background, interpretations of land owning, and their respective motivations.

Nearby food and drink

*A statue in Old City, located on Front and Market streets, commemorates the Lenape sachem.

Penn Museum’s Native American Voices exhibit’s touch screens and audio enhancements give more depth to the objects displayed and Native American stories. Penn Museum is offered on our Museums on the Run Tour! (Source: Penn Live)

Penn Museum

Sites like Penn Treaty Park no longer have visible remnants of Native American life. Even those exacavated in recent years have been since built over by the National Constition Center and The Olde Bar / Welcome Park in Old City. And while the incredible Penn Museum displays artifacts that offer a more tangible insight into Native American culture and lifestyle in southeastern Pennsylvania and beyond, the institution brings the actual voices of modern-day Native Americans into the story. The artifact collection itself is incredible, helping to connect the place they inhabit with the original inhabitants, but it’s absolutely worth taking the time to explore current-day Native American identities and sigificant initiatives and policy reform. If you’re an educator and/or want to easily convey meaningful activities to kids, check out this resourceful PDF.

Nearby food and drink:

  • POKE-MAN (definitely opt for the set “Signature Works” if you’re not sure what you’re doing…a very personal recommendation)
  • Mood Cafe (deliciously sweet lassis)
  • World Cafe Live (excellent live music and drinks) + street food vendors (Shamless plug: our Beyond the Cheesesteak food tour)

You can sit among the Oneida as they contemplate their role in the American’s war. This museum is offered on our Museums on the Run Tour! (Source: Oneida Indian Nation)

Museum of the American Revolution

People like those of the Lenape tribe, mentioned above, didn’t just disappear due to disease decimation and the trickery of English laws. Especially during the time of American independence, a choice had to be made: who will we side with to protect our people? Protection against not just the opposing side but the other warring Native American tribes. Alliances that would benefit economically as well. The Museum of the American Revolution’s Oneida Nation Gallery voices the tribe’s debate on whether to join the American cause quite literally: a starkly-lit room of lifelike Oneida leaders vocally weigh out the decision to join the American cause for independence.

The Oneida stories, which you can learn more about here, are vital to American revolutionary history. While we can’t fully correct the past and the outcome of Native American displacement, we should at the very least include them as essential in the telling of the founding of our nation.

Nearby food and drink:

  • Jones (the salads are huge and scrumptious)
  • The Twisted Tale (great berry cocktails and live music upstairs)
  • Moshulu (restaurant and bar aboard a moored ship whose title honors Seneca Indian tribe word for “One who Fears Nothing”)

Grab lunch and coffee at Black ‘n Brew and their beautifully mosaicked storefront (Source: blackbrew.net)

Neighborhood, Town, & Streets Names

As with any city, it’s good fun to pay attention to street and neighborhood names. In Philadelphia, we have plenty of linguistic links to the area’s past inhabitants:

Passyunk (Avenue): The south Philly segment of this lengthy street is now known for its restaurants (you can’t go wrong with a Cantina margarita or a rice bowl at Bing Bing Dim Sum) and receives it’s name from Lenape language for “place between the hills”.

Moyamensing (Avenue): “Place of judgment” (which Philadelphians might immediately relate to the prison) or, dubiously, “pigeon excrement”, though that could be anywhere…

Wissahickon (Creek, Park, Neighborhood): Our beloved park north of the city and which translates in Lenape to “catfish creek”. Due to early-established colinial paper mills, damming, and general human interference, we’ve yet to see a catfish, though the creek is improving through local efforts (if you’re a local, definitely join up!)

Kingsessing (Avenue, Neighborhood): Early settler’s muddling of the Lenape term “Chingsessing,” or “the place where there is a meadow”. This area is adjacent to The Woodlands, which happens to be featured in a very excellent blog post by our local guide Owen….

 

By visiting these places and institutions, we will obviously not right any wrongs of the past. We can, however, understand better how to move forward and to work with each other toward a common goal. We should give thanks to those who have helped us on our way, be open to motivations and ideologies other than our own, and extend a hand to those who need help on their way.