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Lenape community in Cheswold plans memorial weekend celebration

Sarah Miller Fuller, Lenape Tribal Citizen
Chief "Quiet Thunder" Gilbert, Past Chief of Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation of New Jersey and Cheswold resident, addresses direct descendants at last year's event

The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware and the Immanuel Union United Methodist Church are hosting a celebration of community history and identity Sunday at the Fork Branch cemetery in Cheswold.  


The event will celebrate veterans, recognize work by local Boy Scouts to maintain the cemetery and feature a demonstration of recipes made with native foods by archeologist and chef Henry Ward.

The Tribe and the historically Lenape church will also use the event to continue their cultural mapping project.

It’s work project organizer RuthAnn Purchase James describes as combining genealogy, oral history and documentation of historic sites, all rooted in the still-active Fork Branch Cemetery that dates back to the start of the 20th century.

“They have all three tribes of the Delaware Bay represented in this one cemetery, and that’s why it’s really significant as a base for exploring our region’s history,” said Purchase James.

Those involved with the mapping project, which has gotten some funding from Delaware Humanities and from personal donations by community members, say it’s in its initial stages.

Richard “Dickie” Durham, historian at Immanuel Union, says he hopes it’ll have an online presence someday.

“So that if … a grandson and granddaughter that might have moved away, and now they want to learn where grandma and grandpop’s buried, that we’ve got information for them online,” he said.

Purchase James, descendant of the Lenape clan by way of New Jersey, hopes the project will serve not only the remnant Lenape community in Cheswold but also nearby sister tribes and remnant Lenape communities in the diaspora.

The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware’s Chief Dennis Coker says the cultural mapping project helps encourage tribal citizens to celebrate their ancestry.  

“We, a people who have been hiding in plain sight for a couple of centuries, still find it difficult to come out, so to speak,” he said.

Chief Coker says that blending in helped the remnant Lenape community in Cheswold survive. But, he says, it’s time for the indigenous people of Delaware to reclaim their identity.

“We are … the first people of the First State. We’re the first farmers, the first environmentalists, the first doctors,” he said. “We’re the first everything that was here.”

The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware was granted State Designated Tribal Area status for the purpose of the Federal 2010 US Census.

The General Assembly gave the group state recognition as an American Indian Tribe in 2016.  

Sophia Schmidt is a Delaware native. She comes to Delaware Public Media from NPR’s Weekend Edition in Washington, DC, where she produced arts, politics, science and culture interviews. She previously wrote about education and environment for The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, MA. She graduated from Williams College, where she studied environmental policy and biology, and covered environmental events and local renewable energy for the college paper.
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