Last week, Conner Prairie invited descendants of Indiana’s 18th and 19th Delawares to travel back to Indiana from their present homes in Bartlesville, Oklahoma for an annual fall educational program, now in its 21st year. The relationship goes back centuries.
William Conner, a white man who built a trading post along the White River on the site of what has become Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, was married in 1800 to Delaware/Lenape Chief Anderson’s daughter Ma-cun-chis. A permanent living Lenape Camp at the park replicates life in 1816 when Indiana gained statehood from being known as Indiana Territory.
Lenape Camp reenactor Michael Pace is a direct descendant of Chief Anderson, whose Indiana legacy remains in the city bearing his name. “What’s easier to make and use, an arrowhead-blade knife or a steel-blade knife?” he asked a group of schoolchildren during the Woodland Indians: Art and Culture program, held Sept. 29 to Oct. 4.
In unison the class opted for steel. That is why the Delawares traded with Europeans, Pace explained. “How did Delawares use this knife in the 18th and 19th centuries?” The answers ran the gamut from carving to skinning.
“What do you think I now use this knife for?” Pace continued. He paused, his eyes twinkling, then said, “to make my peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” The students were delighted.“Delawares, like everyone else, move forward with changing times,” he summed up.
In 1820, the Delawares were forcibly removed from their villages along Indiana’s White River to Missouri Territory. Ma-cun-chis and her six Conner children had to go. William Conner chose not to leave.
The wrenching aftermath of Removal remained so intense it was not spoken of for years, explained Dee Ketchum, Chief of the Bartlesville, Oklahoma Delaware Tribe from 1998 to 2002. Most on that trek by foot across Indiana and boat across the Mississippi River did not survive the hardships of moving from a sustainable woodland way of life to a very different plains habitat.
Through her program of storytelling, Dee Ketchum's wife, Annette, brought forward the way elders pass on the culture, expected behaviors and values to the next generation. “Stories are our textbooks, our classrooms. We’re not a dead culture, we’re alive and keep evolving,” she explained. “Our stories are special to us and give us strength and pride in who we are, just as your stories of your ancestors make you special and should make you proud.”
A ripple went through the class. This was different concept: seeking out personal heritage and passing it on through stories. Will this transfer to classroom and home life? Annette hoped it would; it’s a gift from her people, she mused.
“This is our homeland. We didn’t come here from someplace else. America is where we’ve always been,” she said. More to chew on for the students, whose vision was being rearranged about what it means to be an American.
Music, like storytelling, is integral to Lenape/Delaware culture. Todd Thaxton first came to Conner Prairie in 2006. He had been learning from the Oklahoma-based elders the traditional songs for all aspects of Lenape life cycles. After assisting Chief Ketchum for two years, he now presents on his own, starting with the assumption that every kid likes to bang on a drum.
He tempers that urge by showing the sacred place the drum holds in Lenape life as a sacred way to give thanks, show honor, celebrate an important event and enjoy a social time. Students who gathered around the drum last week got a special feeling as it resonated to their touch.
By day’s end, the children carried home essential words — “Wa-nee-she” [thank you] and “I-saw-me” [you are welcome] — they'd learned during the program.
When a student asked how being called the Delawares came about, Annette explained, “Even though we called ourselves Lenape, Delaware was given to us because the place where we lived originally was named by the British for their Governor de la Warr. It’s just the way things happen sometimes.”