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Lenape group and UD student travel to study traditional fishing nets

Henry Ward, courtesy of Chief Dennis Coker
The group poses in front of a statue of Chief Joseph at the Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md.

Several Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware citizens and community members recently travelled to the National Museum of the American Indian’s Cultural Resources Center for the first time.

At their visit to the Cultural Resources Center (CRC) in Suitland, Md., the group that included Principal Chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware Dennis Coker saw fishing nets like those their relatives and ancestors made.

CRC staff pulled a variety of Mid-Atlantic region nets, fykes, eel traps, floats and net-making tools from the object collections.


Most were made around the late 19th or early 20th centuries, and were identified primarily as Nanticoke. Several Pamunkey and Mattaponi objects were also displayed.


The Delaware contingency was led by University of Delaware student Annabelle Fichtner— who was visiting the collections for research.

In addition to studying art conservation and anthropology at UD, she’s an intern with the Tribe’s  Village of Fork Branch Cultural Mapping Project.


Credit Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
The NMAI's Cultural Resources Center in Suitland, Md.
A model of the CRC building, which was designed through consultation with Native peoples throughout the hemisphere

Fichtner says her undergraduate thesis investigates “how fishing nets were traditionally made among Mid-Atlantic tribes in general, and …  how this knowledge can then be spread and revived within contemporary Native communities.”

The particular Native community she is partnering with is the Lenape community based in Cheswold, Del. 

Village of Fork Branch Cultural Mapping Project Manager RuthAnn Purchase gave Fichtner the idea for the net project. She notes the significance of water for the Lenape.

“Being on the Delmarva peninsula, water was their life. They had to cross the peninsula by water,” said Purchase. “And the sturgeon were twenty-something feet long and gave all this caviar. And the shad was so full, they say you could cross the Brandywine River on the backs of the fish when they came up to breed.”

Chief Coker says from the Tribe’s perspective, the project is about more than nets.

“The goal in identifying some of these cordage materials and identifying net-making techniques … is simply an exercise in reminding our people how resourceful they were in order to survive," he said.

Annabelle Fichtner (right) and advisor Laura Mina (left) hold up a fyke. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (032490.000)

Coker sees the project not so much as a rediscovery of cultural practices, but as a tool for expanding awareness.


“Deep down inside, our DNA knows about these things,” said Coker. “It just needs to be awakened again, because it has certainly been encouraged to sleep.”

Finding artifacts made by a relative

Melody and Charlotte Cline handle the same fyke. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution (032490.000)

According to Fichtner, at least two of the net-related objects the group saw were Lenape.

She says a wooden shuttle used to weave nets and a wooden net float were documented elsewhere by twentieth-century anthropologist C. A. Weslager as made by Lenape fisherman Clem Carney.

Lenape tribal citizen Melody Cline went on the trip to the CRC with her husband and three children.

Annabelle Fichtner talks about net-making shuttles and net floats, including two she attributes to Lenape fisherman Clem Carney, as Melody Cline looks on (photo taken at NMAI CRC)

Clem Carney was her sixth great cousin. She says she didn’t expect to see objects made by him on the trip.

“Those are the first that I’ve seen. That’s amazing. It really gives me goosebumps,” said Cline.

The net-making shuttle and net float were labelled as made by a Nanticoke fisher.

Fichtner explains that this kind of misattribution is common.

“These anthropologists would come and sort of take the train through these communities and not necessarily recognize that one was different from the other,” she said.

During the trip, Fichtner filed paperwork suggesting that the objects’ documentation be changed to reflect a Lenape origin.

Identifying traditional fibers


The nets the group looked at were nearly all made of commercial cotton.

But Fichtner and Cultural Resources staff did find two individual knots of cordage— which is similar to twine— made from native plants.

The group looks at microscopy images of plant fibers

Textile conservation fellow Nora Frankel identified these as likely made of dogbane.

Textile conservation fellow Nora Frankel shows Charlotte and Melody Cline the part of the plant that is used to make bast-fiber cordage

Frankel gave seven-year-old Charlotte Cline a lesson in natural fiber spinning.

“Today was really fun because I got to learn about fiber, and … wooden stuff that was from a long, long time ago,” said Charlotte Cline.

Chief Coker has spoken about the difficulty of getting Lenape youth involved with their culture. But the group that went to the Cultural Resources Center included three youths.

RuthAnn Purchase and Charlotte Cline twist plant fibers for cordage

While Fichtner aims to teach Lenape community members to weave traditional nets using contemporary manufactured materials, Coker notes that he doesn’t expect Tribal citizens to begin weaving nets for subsistence fishing again.

“You never know where those practices will lead you,” said Coker. “Even if it’s nothing but making you aware of a higher order of things, a spiritual connection, and giving thanks for all of this that we have.”

Collaborating with CRC staff

Cultural Resources staff honored the Lenape visitors with a homemade lunch.

Purchase notes that seeds of future partnerships were planted.

“Having these interns from the universities work with our tribal citizens just opens so many doors in every direction,” said Purchase.


Dr. Maria Martinez, program specialist for Collections Management at the CRC, says the Center gets visits from tribal leaders like Chief Coker roughly once a week.


Chief Dennis Coker talks about how the ability to fish in certain nearby waterways has changed over the last few generations (photo taken at the NMAI CRC)


She says visits from Native constituents help staff identify or learn about the full context of the objects they take care of.

Martinez notes that roughly 40 percent of visitors to the Center are Native, and 60 percent non-Native. She’d like to see that ratio flipped— and she says that boils down to outreach.

“We welcome Native people,” said Martinez. “This is who we serve, and this is what our purpose is. The National Museum of the American Indian is for our Native constituents.”

Chief Coker agrees that participation and leadership by Indigenous people is essential to conservation and research regarding their materials.

“I’m excited that our community is involved in this research, it isn’t just non-Native people that are interested in who and what we are,” he said. “I think this is just the beginning.”

Fichtner’s research project will culminate this spring in public workshops catering to Delaware’s Lenape community in which she’ll talk about traditional cordage materials and patterns, and offer hands-on lessons in net-making.



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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