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Lenape Chief talks state recognition struggle, sovereignty

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Sophia Schmidt, Delaware Public Media
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Chief Dennis Coker speaks at the Old State House in Dover Monday

In a lecture through the State Division of Historical And Cultural Affairs Monday, Principal Chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware Dennis Coker described what he calls the long and “tedious” process of securing state recognition in 2016— and his vision for the future.

Nena Todd, Historic Sites Supervisor at the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs, introduced the elected Chief of 23 years.

“He has done such a remarkable job of keeping the community together, and fighting and advocating for his community,” she said.

Coker detailed the Tribe’s two-decade fight for state recognition— including the opposition they faced at various points from state agencies, academic institutions and other tribal entities before succeeding in 2016.

Coker says the tribe’s first big push for state recognition came in 1993, when a resolution was debated in the General Assembly.

“We were opposed from a couple of different directions,” he said. “So our legislation was tabled, and we decided at that point in time that we really had some work to do.”

A key victory came when the Lenape— also known historically as Delaware Moor—community in Cheswold received state designated tribal statistical area status for the 2010 Census. This required buy-in from the State Historic Preservation Office, which Coker says had opposed the effort for the 2000 census.

The 2010 census allowed the Tribe to get more data on their community.

“[The US Census Bureau] determined that we were 20 percent of the population inside our census district, which was a very high number,” said Coker. “And what it really indicated was the health, the vitality of our community still.”

According to 2012-2016 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, nearly 30% of people in the Lenape Indian Tribe of DE state designated tribal area identify as American Indian or Alaska Native.

 

The Tribe formed a constitutional tribal government in 2010.

The Chief says his commitment to remaining visible, changes in leadership at state agencies and efforts by local archeologists Dr. Cara Blume and Ned Heite contributed to the 2016 success.

Coker points out that challenges remain— such as engaging Lenape youth and achieving true sovereignty when the tribe only owns half an acre of land.

He adds that the Tribe has struggled to maintain a full Tribal Council, and that enrolling more tribal citizens is made difficult by the fact that being visible as Native American in Delaware has historically meant facing discrimination or violence.

Monday’s talk was part of the First People of the First State program series hosted this month by the Division of Historical And Cultural Affairs, Delaware Humanities, and the Tribe.

 

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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