Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
May 30, 1988
Powwow affirms a tribe's culture and its religion
 "We have a feather down," the master of ceremonies, Ezra Fields Jr., announced after the dancing had stopped. "A white eagle feather. Please check your regalia."

This was more than a public-service announcement, Fields explained to the non-Indians who watched yesterday as a clutch of Native American dancers stood over the fallen feather, staring at it.

"Eagle feathers are held in high spiritual regard," he explained. "They come from the most skilled hunter, the eagle, who represents a way to send messages to the Creator. That's why, when a feather falls in our arena, we must do something to retrieve it."

After the owner of the feather was identified, the Indians performed a dance to restore the spirit that had fallen with the feather.

For those participating in the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribe's annual powwow yesterday in Bridgeton, N.J., the dancing demonstration was more than theater.

"It comes from my heart," said Bart "Hawk Eye" Cartright, whose buckskins were soaked in sweat after he performed an impassioned dance with his eyes darting from side to side.

"My mother died last year, and it has broken my heart," said Cartright, 29, a Lenape tribesman who lives in Yardley, Pa. "When I dance and I glance to my side, I can see my mother."

To the Indians, the dancing is an expression of their religion. Many of them professed their faith only clandestinely until recent years, when they began holding public powwows to increase public awareness of the fact that the tribe, which settled the region long before William Penn arrived, still lives in our midst.

"This is one of the ways we have of showing the non-Indian public who we are," said Lewis "Gray Squirrel" Pierce, a tribal councilman who lives near Bridgeton and works as equipment manager in the Cherry Hill Township garage.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape are the descendants of several tribes of the Delaware Nation, most of whom moved west as New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware were settled by Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Some of the Indians - they prefer to be called Native Americans - went underground and assimilated into the "dominant society." They assumed European names.

Karen "Spring Rainbow" Mosley, a member of the tribal committee, said many Indians identified themselves as blacks because emancipated slaves were accorded more rights than Native Americans. "We weren't even granted citizenship until 1924," she said.

As the Indians became more conscious and proud of their ancestry in this century, the Nanticoke people, who originally lived in Delaware, united with the Lenni-Lenape of New Jersey. In 1978 Congress passed a law upholding Native Americans' right to practice their religion.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Indians of New Jersey Inc. has a membership of 550 families. One must prove Indian ancestry to join. About 1,500 members live in Cumberland County, where yesterday's celebration was held.

"And those numbers are growing as people are reclaiming their heritage," said Mosley. Tribal members are given an Indian name.

"In the past, we kept our Indian culture within the family," said Richard "Quiet Thunder" Gilbert, tribal chairman. "Outside the home, it caused us problems at school or at work."

Now the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape are working toward buying land where they can practice their religion in private. Proceeds from yesterday's powwow, which was attended by about 300 people, will go to a land-acquisition fund.

"We need a land base," said Gilbert. "Spiritually, we need a forest and a stream, because this is the church that the Creator gave to us."

There, the Indians hope to restore the sense that humans and Mother Earth are inexorably tied and to renew a spirit that they believe has fallen, like a feather to the ground.

"This is the spiritualism that is missing from a lot of cultures today," said Gilbert. "This is what we're trying to revive." home page   
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