A bigger home for the Nanticoke on ancestral land in Sussex County
Nonprofit donates 31 acres where tribe plans cultural activities
A 31-acre cornfield on the edge of Millsboro doesn’t look very different from any other piece of Delaware farmland but its transfer to the Nanticoke tribe is a historic step that for the first time gives the community ownership of an ancestral parcel that was privately owned for generations.
The tribe took ownership of the land in October after it was purchased by The Conservation Fund, a land-preservation nonprofit, and then donated to the community. The land was seen as part of the tribe’s heritage because its previous owners have Nanticoke ancestors but it has never before been owned by the community.
Now that the Delaware-based tribe is the official owner, it has high hopes of turning the parcel into a place where native American culture can thrive, and where members of the community can strengthen ties with each other.
“This is a huge event for the tribe,” said Chief Natosha Norwood Carmine, the first female chief of the tribe, that has about 700 members in Delaware, and around 2,000 nationwide. “It will help us have a bigger, stronger community because we will have a place to gather. Our stories are oral stories, passed down from generation to generation. So our elders will be able to answer questions about what this property was when they were growing up.”
In an interview with Delaware Public Media at the edge of the land, Carmine said she hopes to use part of it to build a pavilion where cultural events such as dancing and perhaps powwows can be held. She’s also looking to build a right of way on the property so that community members can park their cars away from the busy traffic of Route 24. And she’s hoping to create walking trails where people can spend time together in the outdoors, and perhaps even a field for lacrosse, which she said originated with the native American community.
“When people have a place to come together, they become more connected, they become more caring,” said Carmine, 63, who works part time in a Sussex County law office. “We’ve got away from that as our generations have crossed over. It was easy because we didn’t have so much TV and social media back in the 60s and 70s. It eliminates people from visiting each other.”
On Nov. 15, the center unveiled a historical marker to commemorate the education of native American children from the 1920s to the 1960s in the former one-room schoolhouse. In September, the tribe moved its annual powwow to a site near Milton after more than 40 years at Millsboro. The move was in search of more space, Carmine said.
The size of the land, adjoining the Nanticoke Indian Center on Route 24 near the Indian River, represents a big increase over its current parcel of about an acre, where a former schoolhouse is now a community center.
Blaine Phillips, Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for The Conservation Fund's Conservation Acquisition program, declined to say how much the fund paid for the parcel but noted that the agreed price was less than the $999,000 listed. “We didn’t pay full value but it gives you an idea of the range we were working in,” he said.
Funding was provided by Mount Cuba Center, a nonprofit botanical garden in Hockessin, and the Delaware Open Space Council, a state panel that advises the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control on land preservation.
There were two competing bids, at least one of which came from a developer of residential real estate, said Lisa Horsey, a Keller Williams agent who represented the sellers – the Harmon and Draine families. Her clients eventually accepted a bid by The Conservation Fund that was slightly lower than the competition because they wanted to protect the land by transferring it to the tribe.
“This is long overdue. The Nanticoke were here long before us, and now at least part of our land records will reflect that."
“The family was very concerned about protecting it, and the Nanticoke tribe had been trying to purchase it since it was listed,” Horsey said.
Competition for the lot increased the urgency of trying to acquire it in an area that is being rapidly eaten up by new residential subdivisions, leading to “astronomical” land prices, Phillips said.
“This was not a negotiation in a vacuum; this was a real market, and we were trying to make sure the property got protected quickly,” he said. “The development pressure is intense, especially over the last few years, with people moving down to the beach to work remotely. It feels like every square inch is under threat.”
Even though the tribe hopes to build on the land, its plans won’t conflict with an easement imposed by the State of Delaware that is specifically crafted to allow tribal activities but permanently prevents residential development if the tribe ever decides to sell the parcel, Phillips said.
The Nanticoke approached him in March 2020 when it learned the land was for sale, and he quickly learned that the tribe didn’t have much property to call home.
“This started for me by attending meetings of the Nanticoke, and realizing that they really didn’t have much of a physical presence in our state,” he said. “Before this project, they were leasing lands to conduct their annual powwow and other gatherings.”
“It’s part of their ancestral lands, and made obvious sense to extend their activities and their footprint,” he said. “We recognized a need, and an opportunity, and we really just had to put together the resources to buy the land.”
The Conservation Fund has acquired “numerous” other parcels for native American tribes elsewhere in the U.S. but never before in Delaware, Phillips said. Early next year, it expects to close on the purchase of 11 acres of near Dover where the Lenape tribe have a burial ground and – like the Nanticoke at Millsboro – a historic school.
For Carmine, the land acquisition realizes a dream that she had when she became chief of the tribe six years ago.
Until now, the tribe has relied on rented or borrowed land to hold cultural events like its annual powwow, a festival of dancing and other ethnic activities. If they are held in the open air, that leaves them vulnerable to bad weather but if there’s a pavilion on the new land, it will allow festivities to take place regardless of the weather, she said.
“It gives us growth that we’ve never had before,” she said. “If our dancers are doing a performance, and it’s going to be a rainy day, they can dance under the pavilion, and everyone will be able to view it.”
The transaction represents a restoration of tribal rights, said Phillips.
“This is long overdue,” he said. “The Nanticoke were here long before us, and now at least part of our land records will reflect that.”