Two Native American tribes in Delaware — with the help from an environmental group, a private funder, and the state — are buying back land that was once part of their ancestral homelands.
The Nanticoke tribe acquired 30 acres off John J. Williams Highway near Rosedale Beach in Millsboro this fall, and the Lenape tribe is expected to close early next year on a deal for 11 acres near Fork Branch Nature Preserve in Dover. The land deals are partnerships between the individual tribes, the environmental nonprofit Conservation Fund, the state, and a private conservation group called Mt. Cuba Center near Wilmington.
The lands will be held under conservation easements with the state so they can't be developed into housing, according to officials with the Conservation Fund.
"There's more to it than just buying a piece of property," said Blaine Phillips, a senior vice president for the Conservation Fund who helped put together the deals. "It's about restoring culture. It's about honoring their ancestral rights."
For the tribes, the deals are significant because the land was once part of their ancestral homelands and the plots sit near properties that have historical significance. Each of the tribes once had small schoolhouses for tribal members on lands near the newly acquired properties. Leaders of both the Nanticokes and Lenapes said they had tried for years to buy the parcels, but they either couldn't make the deal come together or they didn't have enough money. Tribal leaders said they're grateful to be able to secure the properties, which have long been privately held.
Natosha Carmine — chief of the Nanticoke tribe, which has about 400 enrolled members — said getting the land was significant because it “enables the Nanticoke to have a place to come together as a community and to build a stronger community.”
Known as the “People of the Tide Water,” the Nanticokes had their traditional homelands in the Chesapeake Bay area and Delaware, and traded beaver pelts with the English. The tribe said it had “first contact” with Captain John Smith in 1608.
The tribe's history tells of how they "cautiously watched Smith's ship from the shore, climbing into the trees for a better look. When Smith approached the shore in a boat, the Nanticoke answered with arrows."
By the end of the 17th century, the Nanticoke were one of only a few tribes still along the Eastern Shore of Maryland. At one point, some 3,000 acres was set aside for the Nanticoke in the Broad Creek area of Somerset County in Maryland, but their land was eventually sold, according to Sterling Street, the coordinator for the Nanticoke Indian Museum.
Some Nanticokes moved from the area to Pennsylvania, New York, and Canada. Others who stayed in Delaware took on jobs in the late 1700s working for colonists as seafarers on fishing boats, or as tenant farmers and hunters. Street said some Nanticokes took on European last names because “nobody knew how to translate” their native names.
The land the Nanticokes recently acquired sits near a former one-room schoolhouse for Native American children that opened in the 1920s and closed in the 1960s.
Carmine said plans for the land could include a walking path, a pavilion, or fields for lacrosse games. She said the tribe may also hold its annual fall powwow there instead of leasing land elsewhere.
Street said it is "heartwarming" to see his tribe buy back its land.
"The younger generation doesn't know how we had the land in the first place," Sterling said. "Now they'll know, and to have it back is really exciting."
Ann Rose, board president of the Mt. Cuba Center, which provided financial assistance for the land deals, said the group was drawn to help because the project "works in harmony with our mission." Mt. Cuba Center, a botanic garden that specializes in conserving native plants, is the former home and family estate of Lammot du Pont Copeland and his wife, Pamela. Copeland was president and chairman of DuPont, one of the largest chemical companies in the world, in the 1960s.
Rose said it was a chance to do a deal with "people who are already pro-Earth-friendly" and want "to do land management," plus it "gives tribes land for cultural practices."
Leaders at the Conservation Fund said that since the fund was founded in 1985, it has worked with dozens of Native American tribes across the country to help them buy land or restore environmental areas.
Phillips, of the Conservation Fund, said the land for the Nanticoke tribe was listed for sale at roughly $1 million. He said he couldn't disclose the final sale prices for the two properties due to confidentiality agreements.
Getting the land, Phillips said, is also crucial to preserving some of the "fragile coastal area" from the intense development around it.
"Prices are high and the market is hot," Phillips said, so the tribes "never thought they'd have the resources to do it, but we joined forces and got the funding."
For Dennis “White Otter” Coker — the principal chief of the Lenape tribe of Delaware, which has about 225 enrolled members — getting the property was important because it is his tribe’s ancestral homeland and the parcel is near a former tribal school, cemetery, and church.
"We, the Indians, had free run of the state of Delaware before contact with Europeans," Coker said. "All of this land was ours." But he said, it was slowly taken or sold off to private owners.
The Lenapes’ property has a creek on it, meadows, and some wooded areas.
Coker said he has ideas to turn part of the land into an “edible forest garden” that would include plants that produce berries, along with shad and spice bushes that were once used by Native Americans and are native to the area.
“We want to transform it into an ecologically sound piece of property. We want to show we are good stewards of land,” Coker said. “For us, there’s a significance and relationship between all plants, animals, and humans ... We want to honor that and honor our land.”
In the 1600s, Coker said, the Lenape tribe numbered between 4,000 to 5,000 people, and they could be found as far as southeastern New York and in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware. But after European contact, and disease, war, and the takeover of their land, their population plummeted 90 percent, according to Coker. Gradually, Coker said, many Lenape left the East Coast because of “pressures from colonizers” and relocated to Oklahoma, Michigan, and Canada.
Still, many Lenape “never left” Delaware, and buying back their ancestral homeland gives them a sense of the “Native spirituality that emanates from the place we once lived,” Coker said. “The Delmarva Peninsula was Native land until it was transformed by colonization.”