Traditional ceremonies marked the signing of HB 345 on Aug. 4.
In a day marked by traditional celebrations and rituals, Gov. Jack Markell formally recognized the Lenape Indians of Delaware as an Indian tribe.
Several dozen Native Americans from the tribe gathered Aug. 4 in front of Markell’s Dover office to mark the day. A contingent went upstairs to watch him sign House Bill 345.
The legislation makes the tribe eligible for recognition under United States laws that offer protection for goods manufactured by Indian tribes.
The Lenapes have been acknowledged for more than a century as a distinct ethnic community within the state, mostly centered on Cheswold, Principal Chief Dennis J. Coker said. But the tribe didn’t seek legal recognition by the state until its members realized that recognition was required to earn federal status to protect their economic interests.
Up until now, the Lenapes had been unable to sell their arts and crafts as “Indian made,” or to take advantage of other economic opportunities available to tribes through the Small Business Administration, Coker said.
The chief approached Rep. Sean M. Lynn, D-Dover, to set the legislation in motion. Lynn introduced HB 345 in April and, after one amendment, it passed both legislative chambers.
“We’re really happy, we’re so enthusiastic about this day,” Coker said. “Our recognition legislation actually recognized the sovereignty of our tribal government. To have that sovereignty recognized by the state of Delaware is an enormous accomplishment.”
At one time, the Lenapes inhabited parts of Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The members of the tribe have long been concentrated in the area surrounding Cheswold, where they were known as Moors. Coker said about 850 people identified themselves as Lenape during the 2010 census, the first time they were allowed to do so.
Citizenship in the tribe requires at least one-quarter of an individual’s bloodline to be 100 percent Lenape from the Cheswold area, he said. That the tribe has remained a viable community over the 400 years since Henry Hudson first made contact with their ancestors is nothing short of a miracle, Coker added.
More work is needed to fully document the tribe’s history and how its members retained their cultural identity, he said.
At the signing, Lynn thanked tribe members and extended his gratitude to Sen. Dave Lawson, R-Marydel, and other Republican members of the General Assembly for helping pass the legislation.
“This is something that should have happened decades ago ,and we were exceedingly pleased to make it happen for the Lenape tribe,” Lynn said.
Markell signed a similar bill, HB 434, two days earlier. It extends state recognition to the Nanticoke tribe of Sussex County.
The Lenapes are part of the Confederation of Sovereign Nentego-Lenape Tribes, which includes the Nanticokes and the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape in Bridgeton, N.J.
The Lenapes’ recognition realized the hopes of the late Anna Moseley, who used to talk about how members of the tribe sometimes were ostracized because of their Indian blood.
“She used to say they couldn’t tell anyone they were Indians,” said Moseley’s grandson Chad Cooper. “It was very hard for them to say who they were. The prejudice was so bad; it was just a struggle.”
Bruce Morris, a Lenape-Nanticoke, said the day was a blessing.
“These people have worked more than 25 years for this and I think it’s well-deserved,” he said. “This day will go down in the history of the Lenape Indians of Delaware.”