There are no Indians in Pennsylvania. That is the official position of the state government. And, historically, that is correct. For the most part, the Indian nations had all removed themselves westward prior to the War for Independence, though, for a time, the Seneca nation extended into the northwestern corner of the state. Yet, there are still self-proclaimed tribes and nations throughout the state.
Speaking only of the Lenape claimants, there have been eight or more groups claiming tribal identity in the last 50 years. I think there may be four remaining, though one has effectively removed itself to Ohio. I cannot knowledgeably speak regarding any group claiming tribal identity from another nation (e.g. Cherokee, Shawnee, etc.). And I cannot speak of any other state or location other than Pennsylvania. My time “playing Indian” has been spent among the Lenape of Pennsylvania.
The above cited statistic should speak volumes regarding the authenticity of such claims. The fact that the Thunder Mountain Lenape Nation and the Lightning Valley Village were both established in recent memory and have both subsequently passed out of existence ought to exemplify the fallacy of their claims. The acquisitions and mergers that underlie the present composition of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania should serve to cast a shadow on their claim. And so forth.
In short, the problem is that these groups never met the most basic criteria to support their claim to a tribal identity. They do not represent a long-standing community of Native people from a single nationality. They do not have a stable membership base. They lack a clear ethnic identity and shared genetics. They do not fit the description.
For the sake of my argument, I will enumerate the most egregious flaws in the claims of the groups with which I have had any association. I do not wish to attempt to enumerate them all. Three in particular will suffice.
An actual tribal group will have documentable origins that predate history, at least orally. The membership will be closely related genetically. (When Native people refer to one another as “cuzzin”, they are generally not too far from the truth.) They will have a long-standing history in the area in which they claim to be located.
A tribal group will have an established and stable membership base. There cannot be a revolving door on the membership. Leaving the tribe is not an option. You don’t have to attend any of the functions any longer, but you cannot divorce yourself from your tribal identity and assume a new one elsewhere. Again, it is a matter of shared genetics.
Finally, an actual tribal group will have an established and historically recognizable culture base. The language, spiritual practices, customs, mannerisms, and so forth will, in essence, have been established in antiquity. There should not be numerous instances of the establishment of a custom or ceremony within the memory of the membership, unless it is the reestablishment of a custom or ceremony from another related group (e.g. there are efforts being made among the state-recognized Lenape groups in New Jersey to recover elements of their culture from federally-recognized Lenape groups in Oklahoma, Wisconsin and Canada).
None of the Lenape groups in Pennsylvania meet any of these criteria, no less any other more minute criteria. Members come and go. Some hold dual memberships in one or more other “nations”. Close examination will reveal that the customs and spiritual practices are liberally borrowed from numerous other actual tribal cultures (e.g. Ojibwe and Lakota). And the origins of all the groups can be established to have occurred within the last 100 years.
There are no Indians in Pennsylvania, unless they have relocated from another region. Which means that their tribal identity and extended familial roots lie elsewhere.
There is one further feature of these groups that call themselves a tribe, band, village or nation that should be noted for the folly that it is: the attempt to emulate a tribal government. Perhaps it is not so evident in a group much larger than I was ever associated closely with, but my experience is that there are usually too many people with official titles. The expression “Too many chiefs and not enough Indians” could have been coined from watching these groups.
I offer two examples to illustrate this and some of the other points above: When I was a village chief, we set about to fill out the roster of governmental and social structure as we perceived it. So, with a membership of about 15, we selected a principal chief, a head warrior, a medicine chief, and a clan mother for each of the three clans of the Lenape (Turtle, Wolf and Turkey).
When we joined ourselves to the Munsee-Delaware Indian Nation the next year, we repeated the same exercise, adding a clan chief for each clan and a war chief. In each instance, by the time we were finished, nearly half of the membership had received one or more titles.
There are so many points of foolishness in these accounts, I hardly know where to begin. But I will summarize, rather than belabor each one. It should be remembered that both of these groups were largely populated with people who had decided to join themselves to Native culture. When an individual is able to ascend from novice seeker to any tribal office in less than five years, there should be a red flag set for any outside observer.
If the nation is not presently at war, there is hardly a need for a war chief (though many tribal meetings could use a sergeant-at-arms). If there is not a large warrior society, there is no reason to have a head warrior. If there is no medicine society, there is no need for a medicine chief. And, in short, there is seldom enough membership to warrant that many titled offices.
Often in these groups, titles are used as a means for manipulating the membership. Pliable individuals can be pulled closer to the group leader (the personality around which the cult is formed, regardless of their supposed position in the ersatz government hierarchy). Difficult individuals can be reined in and placated. And undesirables can be excluded.
A similar case in point: There was a woman I knew from a group other than any that I had belonged to. I met her at a gathering while I was the principal chief of a Lenape hobbyist group. She was identified to me at the time as a medicine person. I met her again a few years later, when I was participating in a powwow as a storyteller. If memory serves, in the interim she had assumed a different Native name, but now she was also a clan mother in the other group.
As an aside, the individual that had organized the powwow was an archeological field assistant with no particular ties to any Native group when he organized the powwow the first year. By the time the powwow was organized the second year, he and his wife had formed a village and joined themselves to the nation this woman was now a clan mother in.
A few years later, I saw the woman in a video that was filmed in the Southwest. In the discussion that ensued on the online forum where I saw the video, I was informed that she had “moved on” and actually relocated to the Southwest. Similarly, the individual who had organized the powwow has relocated his entire village to another nation that is more geographically convenient to him.
This begs several questions, the foremost of which should be: “How is this possible?” How can an individual assume an important role such as a clan mother (the matriarchal leader of an extended family association that represents a major portion of a village or nation) and then “move on”? Yet this typifies the transient nature of the membership and leadership of these “nations”; the only constant is the personality around which the cult formed.
I can only guess at what transpired. A difference of opinion. A better opportunity in another locale. Who can say? Yet this is hardly representative of the nature of federally-recognized, historical nations.
If you are born into an actual Native culture, you are stuck with it. You can move to the city, you can stop attending the tribal functions, you can shred your tribal ID card. But you cannot change who you are or where you came from. Among the hobbyist groups, you can just relocate to another group that more suits your interests or demeanor at any given moment and never look back.