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Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware grapples over leadership

Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
A Methodist church in Cheswold that acts as a gathering place for some members of the Lenape community.

The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware has become more visible in recent years, especially after receiving official state recognition in 2016.

But less visible has been the behind-the-scenes battle over leadership of the tribe, a battle that remains unresolved and is now becoming more public.

Delaware Public Media’s Paul Kiefer examines how the tribe got to this point.

The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware has become more visible in recent years, especially after receiving official state recognition in 2016.

But the long-running dispute over who leads the tribe – and who can call themselves a part of the tribe – has only recently emerged into the public eye.

Three people currently claim to be Chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware.

The most recent addition to that list is Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen. Though Christiansen is a prominent figure – he first joined Dover’s City Council in 1983 – the first public announcement of his new role as Chief was only a passing remark at the start of a poorly attended virtual meeting of Delaware’s Human and Civil Rights Commission.

It came from Doris Cooper, a commissioner and member of one of the groups calling itself the Lenape tribal council. Her comment didn’t elicit any questions from fellow commissioners.

Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen with members of one of the groups calling itself the Lenape Tribal Council..PNG
Theo Braunskill
Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware
Dover Mayor Robin Christiansen with members of one of the groups calling itself the Lenape Tribal Council.

Those in Christiansen’s circle, including the staff of his office at Dover City Hall, were eager to confirm the news. Reached by phone that week, Christiansen laid out his goals for the tribe.

 “My responsibilities are to help reorganize the tribe, to increase the population of people that are of Lenape heritage,” he said. “And to just be their advocate whenever they need an advocate.”

But in the view of White Otter Coker – also known as Dennis Coker – Christiansen had no business speaking as Chief.

He works out of the Lenape tribe’s cultural center: a small ground-floor unit in a strip mall office building at the far northern edge of Dover.

Coker has been the most recognizable face of the tribe for years, appearing alongside Governor John Carney as recently as November. Coker says that despite competing claims to leadership, he remains the legitimate Chief the best advocate for the tribe’s 300-or-so enrolled members, many of whom live near Cheswold in Kent County. “I’m trying to just keep doing what I’ve done for years on behalf of the tribe,” he said. “I’m still here. The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware hasn’t missed a beat when it comes to advocating for the town of Cheswold or the citizens of our tribal government.”

While the split between Coker and those backing Christiansen is recent, disputes over the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware’s leadership date back decades.

The third person calling themselves Chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware is Isaac Carney. He grew up in Cheswold, and he was there when the first efforts to reorganize the tribe began; indeed, he was one of the organizers.

A June 1991 Delaware State News story about the tribe’s efforts to seek state recognition featured a photo of Carney on the front page. “We were called the coalition,” he said – a tight-knit group of families with plans to revive Lenape identity in a community that had remained hidden in plain sight for well over a century.

The coalition set about organizing a sovereign tribal government from scratch, developing a constitution and bylaws and, like many tribes, establishing a so-called “blood quantum” requirement for tribal citizenship: a person must be able to trace a quarter of their ancestry to the Lenape tribe to qualify.

Other nearby and closely related tribes had already undergone that process. The Nanticoke Tribe in Sussex County began reorganizing in the 1920s, and the Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape Indian Tribe in southern New Jersey incorporated in the 1970s; in fact, some of those involved in organizing efforts in Delaware originally joined the tribe in New Jersey.

But as the coalition in Cheswold began chartering their own tribe, Carney and his family stepped away. “I stayed in there about a year,” he said. “I finished up and I didn’t go back.”

He cites an array of reasons for his departure. Some involved frustrations with the growing role of the Coker family in the tribe’s affairs; White Otter Coker’s brother, Alonzo, became Chief in 1991. But Carney’s objections to the incorporation of a 501(C)3 nonprofit for the tribe – called the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, Inc. – remains a key part of the dispute.

While other nearby tribes have nonprofit entities subordinate to their tribal council – the New Jersey tribe incorporated theirs in the late 1970s – Carney argues the nonprofit incorporated here in 1991 has nothing to do with the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware. Instead, he considers it a business entity controlled by Coker, who took over as Chief after his brother’s death in 1995.

Carney argues the true Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware has operated separately from the nonprofit for over two decades with a council drawn from the “core families” of Cheswold’s Lenape community. Most people eligible for tribal citizenship, he claims, don’t associate with Coker, and those who submitted citizenship applications to Coker’s group were misled. “People don’t understand how they got tied up with a 501(C)3,” he said. “Their intentions were to join the tribe.”

But according to Coker himself, the nonprofit is merely a charitable organization associated with the tribal government, and the tribe’s council are the nonprofit’s board members. While the tribal government manages responsibilities like processing citizenship applications, the nonprofit provides a bank account to receive donations and an entity to hold deeds to tribal land.

Coker adds that even amidst the dispute over tribal leadership, the operations of the nonprofit have continued uninterrupted.

“We are still receiving donations, and we still intend to build a community center,” he said. “There are a lot of things we have that I don’t want to say we have and make it a matter of public record – that will give them a target to attack.”

A photo of Coker hanging in his office at the Lenape Cultural Center in Dover..jpg
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
A photo of Coker hanging in his office at the Lenape Cultural Center in Dover.

Notable tribal assets include land near the Fork Branch Nature Preserve north of Dover, including the former site of a historical Lenape church destroyed by a fire in 2018; Coker hopes to build the aforementioned community center on that land.

He also holds the password to the bank account into which the state deposits grant-in-aid funds. The grant-in-aid package passed by the General Assembly last year included more than $15,000 for the tribe.

Coker has largely avoided interacting with Carney for years, and the split has remained out of the public eye. In that time, Coker appeared in dozens of news articles as the tribe’s Chief and spokesperson. In 2002, he organized a Lenape homecoming for members of the tribe’s diaspora, including members of federally recognized Lenape tribes in Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Ontario – descendants of Lenape people displaced by European settlement in the colonial era.

Coker played a role in the creation of a state-designated tribal statistical area ahead of the 2010 census, which identified more than 800 people in the Cheswold area identifying as Lenape.

And in 2016, Coker stood beside then-Governor Jack Markell as he signed legislation finally granting the tribe state recognition.

But after over a decade of effectively ignoring one another, conflict between Carney and Coker began to ignite in the years following the state’s recognition of the tribe. Starting in 2018, Carney began writing letters to Coker identifying himself as a tribal citizen and accusing Coker of mismanaging the tribe’s affairs, including by allegedly failing to file essential documents with the IRS.

And for reasons that are difficult to discern – possibly having to do with the tribe’s blood quantum requirements or financial disputes – tensions also emerged within the tribal council working with Coker. After the pandemic forced the tribal council to stop meeting in person, those simmering tensions erupted.

In 2021, several people associated with Coker’s organization approached Carney for help removing Coker as Chief and director of the nonprofit.

Carney opted to write a petition demanding Coker’s resignation, ostensibly on behalf of the tribe’s membership. It collected dozens of signatures.

In early July of that year, a group of signatories confronted Coker in the parking lot of the tribe’s cultural center, blocking the center’s door with construction cones and eventually calling the police after pressuring him to turn over the keys.

Coker rebuffed the petition. In a cease-and-desist letter sent to Carney and others in August 2021, Coker’s attorney argued the petition wasn’t a legal means of removing Coker as the head of the nonprofit or the tribe. “Your actions and statements purporting to act as the new leadership of the Lenape Tribe are improper, invalid and infringe upon the ability of Mr. Coker, the Lenape Tribe and the Lenape Corporation to conduct tribal business,” attorney Lindsay Faccenda wrote.

The group that served Coker the petition demanding his resignation blocked the door to the Cultural Center with cones taken from a damaged staircase nearby..JPG
Paul Kiefer
The group that served Coker the petition demanding his resignation blocked the door to the Cultural Center with cones taken from a damaged staircase nearby.

The confrontation in July had no immediate impacts, but a few months later, a group of newly sworn-in members of Coker’s tribal council held a special meeting to vote him out of office. Those councilmembers declined to comment on the reasons for their objections to Coker’s leadership.

Coker disputes the legitimacy of that vote, arguing he successfully vetoed their decision. He also accuses the council members behind the vote of mishandling tribal money and conspiring to loosen the tribe’s membership rules. Despite his objections, by the start of 2022, Coker found himself working without an elected council.

Notably, despite a shared interest in ousting Coker, the group who voted him out chose to appoint an interim chief to serve out the remaining year of Coker’s term instead of turning to Carney for leadership.

His daughter, Tina Carney, says that her family had no interest in working with the councilmembers. In their view, the group who voted to oust Coker are outsiders – members of families too far removed from Cheswold, Carney claims. Moreover, Carney alleges that some don’t meet the tribe’s blood quantum requirement. “When you marry out of your culture, among Native Americans, you can’t come back in,” she said. “They don’t meet the criteria of the quarter quantum.”

Thus, by the end of 2021, three groups claimed to represent the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware.

Christiansen’s role in the dispute is far more recent. The Dover mayor wasn’t involved in a tribal council until last fall, when the councilmembers behind Coker’s ouster approached him for help: the interim chief’s term was coming to an end, and they needed a new leader.

“The folks that were installed as the leaders of the tribe came to me and asked if I would be interested in helping them,” he said. “I stepped forward, as I have for all segments of the community. I’m going to remain above the fray. The council acted legitimately within the cycle of their constitution to elect a new chief.”

Christiansen says the first order of business is resolving the uncertainty about who controls the tribe’s – and the nonprofit’s – assets. “We have a lot of outstanding questions in regards to the finances and properties owned by the tribe,” he said. “We’re going to try to get that resolved shortly, hopefully with the help of the two past chiefs” – referring both to the interim chief and to Coker himself.

For his part, Carney has little interest in Christiansen. As far as he’s concerned, Coker’s ouster wasn’t successful. “They think they got rid of Dennis,” he said. “They haven’t gotten rid of him.”

Carney says he isn’t interested in taking control of the nonprofit itself; instead, his group incorporated its own business entity – the Lenape Indian Tribe Association, Inc. – in September.

He does, however, believe the nonprofit should undergo an audit. This month, Tina Carney sent a packet of documents – including letters to and from Coker, pages from the tribe’s constitution and a copy of the petition – to Governor Carney’s office to lay out the case for reviewing the nonprofit’s affairs. The Governor’s office would not comment on the matter.

The Lenape Cultural Center is on the ground floor of a strip mall office building on Route 13..jpg
Paul Kiefer
Delaware Public Media
The Lenape Cultural Center is on the ground floor of a strip mall office building on Route 13.

Unlike neighboring New Jersey and Maryland, Delaware doesn’t have an agency tasked with managing relationships with Native American tribes – though the Maryland Commission on Indian Affairs, for instance, cannot intervene in intra-tribal disputes.

However, both Coker and Carney anticipate resolving the dispute over what constitutes the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware will involve the state in some capacity – whether through the court system or the Division of Corporations.

And with the legislature’s next budget cycle approaching, pressure on the state to decide where to direct any grant-in-aid dollars will rise over the coming months.

Until then, Coker remains determined not to give in to his challengers. “My credibility is not in question here,” he said. “You need to talk to those people who are lying and cheating and stealing. They’re stealing our identity – that’s what they want. They want our identity.”

The group of council members backing Christiansen are also forging ahead. This month, a press release announcing Christiansen’s election made it into Indian Country Today – a prominent national Native American news outlet. But while the group was reluctant to answer questions about the leadership dispute, their election of Christiansen brings the split into the public eye.

Some impacts of the dispute are far less visible from the outside. All three leaders agree there are many more Lenape descendants — including some who might be eligible for citizenship — than there are active tribal members. They also broadly agree the controversy about the tribe’s leadership will fray a community that worked hard to piece itself back together.

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Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.