Mon. Jan 17th, 2022

Hannah Freeman is commonly referred to as the last known Lenape Indian in Chester County. She was honored and remembered with a memorial “represented as a bronze marker on a boulder right in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with very appropriate and interesting exercises on Sept. 5, 1925, in the presence of and unusually large gathering of residents in this section nearby” (MEMORIAL TO INDIAN HANNAH). She was chosen to be remembered as a poor, homeless woman who relied on the kindness of West Chester locals and as the last of her people. Her story has disappeared with time. Her identity has been forgotten as have her people. Cursory research shows that she was, in fact, not the last Native American in Chester County, and many people of Lenape descent are still here: not only in Pennsylvania but in New Jersey and Maryland as well. While Hannah may represent an unfortunate fading of the Lenape and other Native American lifestyles in contemporary times, she is not the last of us, and her story will not be twisted in my research. As a Native American woman myself, I refuse to let her be reduced to just another dying Native whose life was defined not by her legacy or culture but by white savior narratives. I refuse to let her tribe and their land fade away in the background of what we now know as West Chester University, Chester Country, Delco and Longwood Gardens. She has a story — and so do the Lenape — and it’s time we talk about it. Her story will be told right, just as I would want my ancestor’s and my stories to be told.

The Lenape (Leh-NAH-pay) Indians were the first known settlers of the area that we all know as Philadelphia. Lenape Indians occupied the Philadelphia area almost 10,000 years before Europeans came to the region. Those settlers renamed the tribe, calling them the Delaware Indians because they had trouble pronouncing Lenape. Before the “Delawares” were forced off the land, they inhabited the region that is now New Jersey as well as the area along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and the Hudson Valley and New York Harbor in New York (Brooks). The three clans or phratries are known as the Wolf, Turtle and Turkey clan. Many Americans seem to imagine Native American Indians as only existing in a mid-western regional context, thanks in large part to the “trail of tears,” and the forcible relocation of many indigenous groups to the Midwest and Southwest. Needless to say, this is not the case. In fact, eastern tribal interactions with European colonists happened far before the formation of the United States by about 250 years (Norwood 6), yet there is such a lack of knowledge, recognition and understanding of their presence and many other tribes as well. Native American’s of all tribes are still here, and it is time we learn their history and recognize their place in this country and society.

Amidst my research, I found it difficult and laborious to find some reliable resources on the Lenape. Even an interview I conducted with an expert in the field was the opposite of reassuring. The lack of awareness we see surrounding not only the Lenape, but several other Native tribes, is not a coincidence. I see this often within my own life. This unfortunately frequent occurrence results in the oppression, mislabeling and isolation of our Native communities. There is a persistent push to resist the ongoing existence of these peoples. Such opposition is sometimes for political and economic reasons, but often it is because of racial bias and institutional arrogance based upon ignorance (Norwood 5). Even if, for political or economic reasons, I still have to ponder the question why the ignorance and erasure of race, history is the answer; I have to assume that, since the history and literally current living and breathing people are here, it is a choice to erase and blatantly ignore the racial identity, culture and physical people we see standing before us. In order to finally see some recognition, we must push back and demand what shouldn’t even need to be demanded, which are basic rights or even the simple recognition of our Native people as legitimate.

West Chester University sits on Lenape land. I only recently found this out from a land acknowledgment placed in all of my Women’s and Gender Studies syllabi. So I thought, let’s expand on this. If my major can provide some recognition, let’s really look into the connection WCU as a whole has to this tribe and see what they do to represent, acknowledge and/or to thank them. Unfortunately, I was unable to find a real connection between the Lenape and WCU, aside from a picture on the main website when you search “Lenape” with only a brief description and a blessing during the Kente graduation ceremonies that I have only heard about by word of mouth. I was shocked. My family is from a reservation known as Kahnawake in Canada. The whole area is designated as sovereign land, hence it being reservation. I was even more shocked to find out that “Pennsylvania is one of a handful of U.S. states that neither contains a reservation nor officially recognizes any native group within its borders. Pennsylvania appears to be the only state without a university-level Native American studies program or cultural center” (Licht, et al.). To think something so minor as basic recognition, legitimacy and indigenous literacy programs in state schools is nonexistent in Pennsylvania is puzzling to me.

Referring back to my “expert” interview, I was so eager to conduct it since I thought I would get help from someone as passionate about this work as I am since there is such a lack of other easily accessible resources. I was instead informed by this person, whose name and pronouns I have chosen to leave anonymous, that the stories of the Lenape on and around campus are anything but true, and that the institution isn’t required to acknowledge “myths.” This interviewee also let me know that any Lenape in the area that did not present a proper genealogy for ancestry claims in the area were illegitimate, and that they had no time for or to believe their stories. It is well known in this country that minority groups have less access to legal resources, a lack of power and a lack of monetary sources to be able to produce or procure information that would be considered “legitimate” for scientific or historical studies. Nevermind the fact that for many tribes and indigenous individuals, the whitewashing of our history, the abduction of children, the forcible theft of land and property and at times the theft of our very names prevent the production of socially recognized forms of legitimacy and tribal sovereignty. Therefore, listening to stories and hearing what others have to say is also crucial for our research, and these oral histories should also be considered primary documents. In my family, stories have been told for years that tell me who I am and what my culture is to me. I did not have to fact check their stories on charts and legal records. After all, textbooks and online sources weren’t always here, and oral history is what made our textbooks and resources what they are today. Interviews, stories, legends, discussions at kitchen tables, whispers at bedtime, whether considered “legal” or “legitimate,” should still be conducted. Therefore it is important to hear, to understand and to believe these stories.

Needless to say, this just sparked a larger flame inside of me to do this work and to tell everyone here how important this work is. I am here to gain attention from you, West Chester University students, to understand and recognize that this sacred land that we learn on would not be available to us without the Lenape. A tribe that IS STILL HERE. Land recognition is more than just accountability and adherence to forms and legal jargon; it is remembering those who worked hard to provide us places to learn and work. It is about valuing the work put in to give us resources they didn’t have. I continuously support and talk about my family and our history, so people know and value me and my culture. I feel West Chester University can and should do the same and has an opportunity to set a thoughtful and concerted standard here in Pennsylvania.

On May 15, 2014, Longwood Gardens hosted a rededication ceremony for the Indian Hannah monument in its new location on the grounds of the Longwood Meeting House, just outside the main entrance to the gardens. The ceremony was a recreation of the original Sept. 5, 1925, ceremony with the modern-day counterparts. It is now in a location that is accessible to the public without entering the Longwood grounds, is highly visible and is situated next to the visitor center, which ensures that Indian Hannah’s story will be available to more people than ever before (Remembering Indian Hannah). In order to uphold my beliefs, this research and the Lenape, I have decided to start this work with a petition. By signing this petition, you, too, will recognize that the Lenape are still here and that West Chester University should more formally acknowledge and be conscious of the land that this university operates on. Just like Longwood Gardens was able to provide a better way to recognize Hannah and the Lenape, WCU can also make a change to better recognize the Lenape and integrate this rich cultural tradition into the story of our institution. In this petition, I simply present the idea that the land acknowledgment that was in my syllabi, or something similar to it, be present on the WCU main website. With this, people who go onto the website and see the location of WCU will also see that we, at the most fundamental level, respect and are thankful for those who were able to provide them this land that we all know and love as our university. This petition, however, is more than just a symbolic gesture of recognition. I would like this petition to begin the process of recognizing and valuing oral history as a primary way of understanding and legitimizing indigenous history and culture. This article is just the start, and I hope everyone reading can also see that more work needs to be done to respect and honor those who provided us this land and this history we have built our lives off of. SIGN THE PETITION:


Kelsey Rose Kahsonnanowro Diabo is a fourth-year student majoring in women and gender studies. 

Author profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *