Powwow affirms a
tribe's culture and its religion
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
"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
"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