The recent lawsuit filed against the State of New Jersey by the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape is the latest, but by no means the saddest, chapter in a story that has played out over the past three centuries.
By all accounts, including his own, William Penn had an amicable relationship with the Lenape who lived on the lands that had been given to him by King Charles II of England as repayment of a debt owed to Penn’s father. Penn paid the Lenape for their lands, and then re-paid them again and again, in a practice that the Lenape regarded more as a lease arrangement than the sale of land, which was a concept they knew little about.
On more than one occasion, Penn wrote about his admiration for the Lenape people who had lived along the Delaware River, from southern New York to the Delaware Bay, for thousands of years. The trouble began when Penn returned to England for the final time in 1701, having entrusted his Province of Pennsylvania to what would become a series of administrators and, eventually, three of his sons. The relationship between these stewards of Pennsylvania and the Lenape deteriorated steadily, culminating in the Walking Purchase of 1737, a deception that robbed the Lenape of lands equivalent in size to the state of Rhode Island.
Any student of history understands that the Lenape, like all Indians in the eastern part of the country, were the victims of a numbers game they could not possibly win. By the middle of the 18th century, the European immigration that had begun so humbly in Jamestown, New York, and Plymouth had resulted in hundreds of thousands of people looking for land on which to build new lives. Simply put, the Indians were in the way.
It was inevitable that the Lenape and many other native peoples would be displaced, but the way in which they were displaced didn’t have to be so egregious. The men to whom power had been entrusted by William Penn simply changed the rules, at every opportunity, to get what they wanted. There is no better example of that than the Walking Purchase. Now, more than three hundred years after William Penn returned to England, the people to whom power has been entrusted are still changing the rules to get what they want.
In my opinion, the treatment of Native Americans in the East has been, and continues to be, especially abhorrent, and its residue is a special kind of shame. Indians of the American West have also been removed repeatedly, each time to a place that most people don’t care about. They are forgotten peoples banished to forgotten and worthless lands. The Indians in the East are different. They are not so easily swept out of mind like their brothers in the West. In granting them recognition—or in granting them anything at all—governments run the risk of dealing with native peoples who may eventually want more. They may eventually want to prosper; they may want the same things that other citizens of this country have; and they may even want some of their land back. That’s threatening to the people in power, so they hide behind imagined threats like the possibility of a gaming casino.
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape are going to court to regain something they have already been given. It’s an old and unfortunate story. Winning will only chip away at the abuse they have suffered for three hundred years, but no one should underestimate the perseverance of people who have been chipping away since the last ice age.