The history of our tribe in its homeland goes back over 10,000 years. We are the descendants of those Nanticoke and Lenape who remained, or returned, to our ancient homeland after many of our relatives suffered removals and forced migrations to the mid-western United States or into Canada.
Our Lenape ancestors were those who inhabited New Jersey, Delaware, southern New York and eastern Pennsylvania at the time the Europeans came. We called ourselves “Lenni-Lenape,” which literally means “Men of Men”, but is translated to mean “Original People.” From the early 1600’s, the European settlers called the Lenape people “Delaware Indians.” Three main dialect clans, each made up of smaller independent but interrelated communities, extended from the northern part of our ancient homeland at the headwaters of the Delaware River down to the Delaware Bay. The Munsee (People of the Stony Country) lived in the north. The Unami (People Down River) and the Unalachtigo (People Who Live Near the Ocean) inhabited the central and southern areas of the homeland of the Lenni-Lenape.
The peace loving Lenni-Lenape are called the “grandfathers” or “ancient ones” by many other tribes and are considered to be among the most ancient of the Northeastern Nations, spawning many of the tribes along the northeastern seaboard. We were known as warriors and diplomats, often keeping the peace and mediating disputes between our neighboring Native Nations and were admired by European colonist for our hospitality and mediation skills.
Our Nanticoke ancestors, called the “Tidewater People,” dwelled along the Indian River in Southeastern Delaware, having migrated from the Nanticoke River of the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Our Nanticoke ancestors were among the first of the Northeastern Indian Nations to resist European colonial intrusion into our homeland as early as the 1650’s.
A little known fact is that as early as 1704, our ancestors living in the Delmarva Peninsula, who had lived there for thousands of years, were restricted to the Chicone (Chiconi), Broad Creek and Indian River Reservations by the British colonial governments. Also, the first and only Indian Reservation in New Jersey, the Brotherton Reservation in Burlington County (1758-1802), which was intended to be a safe haven for some of our ancestors. All of these reservations failed to protect our people and were disbanded, leaving our ancestors to struggle to maintain what bits of our ancient homeland that they could.
Nanticoke migration began in the 1600’s from the Eastern Shore of Maryland through Southeastern Delaware. By the 1800’s, many were living along the banks and tributaries of the Delaware River. As a result of this migration, Nanticoke people united with the Lenni-Lenape Indians who remained in New Jersey. It was difficult during those years to maintain community, but the Tribe persevered. Many of our ancestors embraced Christianity, starting at a time when the Europeans appeared to be no great threat, yet we have not forgotten or devalued our ancient ways and still honor our ancestor’s legacy. In fact, it has been through several tribal congregations that we have been able to preserve our culture and tribal government, maintain ties with our related tribal communities in Kent and Sussex Counties in Delaware, and defend our people.
The first treaty that was signed by the United States government, after its Declaration of Independence, was with the Lenni-Lenape (also called “Delawares”) in 1778 during the Revolutionary War. The revolutionary government promised that if the “Delawares” helped their fight against the British, they would be given statehood in the future… a promise that was not kept. Because of continuing conflict with European settlers encroaching upon Tribal lands, many of the Tribe’s members were killed or removed from their homelands. Some were able to continue to live in the homeland, however, they lived in constant fear. Those who remained survived through attempting to adapt to the dominant culture, becoming farmers and tradesmen.
The Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776… The United States Constitution was adopted in 1787 with the Bill of Rights being ratified in 1791. However, only since an 1879 U.S. Federal Court decision have American Indians been considered “persons within the meaning of the law” … It was not until 1924 that Congress recognized Native American people as citizens of the United States… And, it was not until 1978 that Congress signed into law the “American Indian Religious Freedom Act,” giving the Native Americans the right to practice their religious beliefs. With the protections of the “American Indian Religious Freedom Act” emboldening our people to be far more assertive on behalf of our tribe, the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe established a tribally governed 501(c)3 non-profit community benefit agency, “The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians of New Jersey,” which is chartered exclusively for educational, social, and cultural purposes, to promote the welfare of Native Americans who reside in the Delaware Valley; to extend charity in all forms to those Native Americans in need, giving priority to Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians residing in the Delaware Valley; to establish cultural and instructional facilities; to improve health and welfare, housing, human rights, and economic security; to acquire and preserve land and water areas in a natural scenic or open condition consistent with the heritage of the Native Americans who reside in the Delaware Valley.