Partnership with Delaware Tribe of Indians Moves Forward
Their visit to campus was preceded by a variety of campus interactions with Lenape tribal elder and indigenous peoples advocate John Thomas and his wife, Faye, who are Johnson’s in-laws.
Ursinus and PVSD are partnering with members of the Delaware Tribe of Indians to acknowledge and honor the history, culture, and legacy of the Lenape people at their respective institutions and in the surrounding Montgomery County, Pa., community. The Delaware Tribe of Indians is one of three federally recognized Lenape tribes whose name means “original people.” They were the original inhabitants of what is now eastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and southern New York.
Vice President for College and Community Engagement Heather Lobban-Viravong introduced KillsCrow and Johnson to a gathering of staff and faculty, and then recited the same land acknowledgement statement that was shared with the campus community on Indigenous People’s Day:
“We gratefully acknowledge the Lenape people and their elders—past, present, and future—on whose ancestral homelands we gather. Our community carries names derived from the Lenape language while the Lenape people themselves were systematically forced from this community over 250 years ago. This acknowledgement is meant to demonstrate a commitment to working together with the Lenape people to bring about healing, reconciliation, and restoration to all of our communities.”
Johnson shared information about the history of the tribe, which was landless until it received three acres of land in Kansas—the state where their last reservation was located—in 2020. “It allows us to operate as a truly sovereign nation from that area,” said Johnson. “We have a long complicated history; seven forced removals. We’re the most removed tribe in the United States.”
It was the first time that KillsCrow and Johnson, who currently reside in Oklahoma, have visited southeastern Pennsylvania and the surrounding region. Arriving to the area felt like coming home.
“I could feel my ancestors. I could feel their spirits,” said KillsCrow. “As a little boy living in Oklahoma, I always, always heard about this place. Always heard about the Delaware Water Gap. Always heard about New Jersey. Always heard about New York, Manhattan. We were missing that our entire lives. The elders talked about these places, and how sacred this place is and how much it means to our people. Yesterday was our first time here, and both Chief Johnson and I were both taken aback a little bit because we felt like, for the first time, we actually belong somewhere.
“It was an unbelievable time yesterday to be able to come back to this homeland, where all the ancestors once hunted, had ceremonies, lived, gathered … History has been unkind to the Delawares, and we ended up in Oklahoma. So part of our conversation was, ‘How do we get back out there? How do we get back to our homeland?’”
Faculty and staff shared suggestions for possible collaboration, such as engaging students; documenting the partnership for historical purposes; and incorporating tribe-recommended texts into the Common Intellectual Experience and the One Book, One Ursinus community-wide book club.
But it was a question that Patrick Hurley, chair and professor of environmental studies, shared from one of his students that had a particularly profound impact: What do the members of the tribe want students to know and learn?
“I’ve never in my life heard anybody ask the tribe what we want,” said KillsCrow. “It’s always us fighting for what we want. I just want to say thank you for that because it really meant a lot.”
“We haven’t been able to speak for ourselves for so long that I’m actually really impressed that was the first question [students] said: ‘What do they want?’ I really appreciate that question,” said Johnson. “We want to express ourselves and not have someone else tell who we are … I’m pretty overwhelmed with this space being created for us. I get emotional about these things because we’ve never been asked to speak for ourselves.”