What's in a name?
I have started to do a little research on the Native history of the county in which I live in an attempt to learn more about the people who lived here before being displaced by the colonists. I am not very far into my research, but already I am reminded of two challenges that every historian faces and needs to keep in mind while researching:
(1) sources always have a bias because everyone tells their story from a specific perspective and cultural location
(2) names are indicators of perspective/bias, and so the naming (and re-naming of things) can be very telling
I'd encourage you to start thinking about the names of the streets, rivers, towns, cities, etc., where you live and try to find out when/how/why they came to known by those names. I live in what's now called Montgomery County, which is next to Philadelphia County. The town is known today as "Ambler."
Ambler was named after Mary Johnson Ambler in 1888 (because, apparently, she helped provide medical aid to a ton of people at the so-called Great Train Wreck of 1856), but before that the area was known as the Village of Wissahickon, after the Wissahickon Creek. The name of Wissahickon Creek, which runs through the town now called Ambler where I live, is thought to be a corruption of a word from the Unami dialect spoken by the Lenape: wisameckhan ('catfish stream').
At least, that's the etiology for "Wissahickon" that I found in articles that linked to The Buried Past: An Archaeological History of Philadelphia, and their source is Donehoo's book from 1928, Indian Villages and Place Names in Pennsylvania. I haven't come across anything yet that contradicts this, but these are not Native sources, and even the way the information is phrased sounds like it's someone's best guess. My question (to which the answer is still pending) is: Is this what the Native peoples who lived in this area called it?
questioning the sources
I share this example of Wissahickon Creek not because I think I've yet learned much about the history of Native peoples in the area (I haven't yet!), but because it illustrates the potential issues with "official" mainstream sources and access to accurate information. I hope my reflections on source issues will help you in your own study.
I started my search (like any good academic) with Wikipedia, knowing that as I narrow my search, I will find that much of what I learned initially is inaccurate or only partially true. My knowledge of the history of this continent (even its history since the founding of the U.S.) is very limited, and I knew the quickest way to find out what Native peoples inhabited the corner of the world that I now inhabit would be Google. Google delivered: the Lenape's historical territory included present-day New Jersey (where I was born) and eastern Pennsylvania (where I live now).
I vaguely remembered reading the fictional story Dickon Among the Lenapes by Harrington as a kid. I don't remember much of what was actually in that book, but I do remember just taking everything at face value as an accurate depiction of Lenape life and culture. At that point in my life, I thought of history as a series of facts, not realizing that how a historian/storyteller chooses to tell the story (what they include, what they omit, how they name things, etc.) has a perspective on the events embedded within it. There is no such thing as unmediated, unbiased history.
That in mind, it's a good rule of thumb that to realize that for every perspective you come across, there will always be another (if not several) other perspectives. This is especially important to keep in mind when you are aware that there is an overabundance of sources from dominant culture perspectives but you have to dig to find perspectives from marginalized communities. This doesn't mean that there won't be any true facts in the dominant sources (I'd be surprised if William Penn's Own Account of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware Indians included nothing factual at all), but that these sources represent the perspectives of the colonizers that needed to justify their colonizing. William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, is not in the best source for understanding Lenape culture of the 17th century.
I haven't read yet this book On Records: Delaware Indians, Colonists, and the Media of History and Memory that I found when I Googled "problems with Dickon among the Lenapes" (expecting to find articles with footnotes to sources that discuss the book's level of historical accuracy). But I suspect that there's quite a bit of truth to what the author says in this section (pp. 44-46ff) about Harrington, Longfellow, and other writers who saw themselves as preservers of Native culture, but ended up with works that bore little resemblance to the actual peoples they sought to depict.
Having figured out that the Lenape occupied the region where I live now, my next question was: Where are they now?
the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe I didn't discover
The perspective I got from my history textbooks in high school was that Native American tribes were mostly (if not completely) peoples of the past. I know my education in this regard isn't an anomaly--this is the dominant perspective presented in the mainstream history texts.
But it's also patently false. With a little more Googling, I came across the website for the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe--because of course they still exist! The tribe's website provides a link to a free e-book by Rev. Dr. John R. Norwood (Kaakluksit Pedhakquon(m)achk(w) [Smiling Thunderbear]) tellingly titled: We Are Still Here! The Tribal Saga of New Jersey's Nanticoke and Lenape Indians.
The website gives a very brief history of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe that includes these introductory paragraphs:
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.
When I read that, I knew I'd found my sources. This was the best place to begin. I downloaded We Are Still Here! onto my Kindle. In the preface (p. 5), Rev. Norwood writes:
Much more can be said, and has been said, about the history of the Nanticoke and Lenape people who are now spread throughout North America. However, my task is to provide a brief, but comprehensive, summary of the historical information pertaining to the Nanticoke and Lenape people remaining in three interrelated tribal communities in Southern New Jersey and Delaware, with particular emphasis on how the legacy of the Lenape and Nanticoke ancestors in each community continues among the people called “Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians” in New Jersey. All too often, remnant tribal communities along the eastern seaboard have been overlooked and forgotten after the main body of their people migrated away. A lack of awareness of the history of such tribal communities is not merely unfortunate; frequently, it results in their being oppressed, mislabeled, and isolated. There is a persistent resistance to merely accepting their ongoing existence. Such opposition is sometimes for political and economic reasons; but, often it is because of racial bias and institutional arrogance based upon ignorance.
It's my goal to work toward the removal of my own ignorance, and help others cultivate awareness of the history of such tribal communities as the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape. To this end, I'd like to invite you (especially if you were born in or live in New Jersey, Delaware, southern New York or eastern Pennsylvania) to read We Are Still Here! along with me and/or form a book discussion group with a few friends who live near you.
You might also consider becoming a member of the Friends of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians, which has as its goal "to encourage support of the tribe by people who are not eligible to join the tribe, but are interested in our well-being." The organization "furthers tribal resources and networking, and also encourages positive interaction between the tribe and the non-Native community."
Will you join me?