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What defines “Identity?” What, or who, defines yours? Do you? Do the people around you? The many variables that affect racial, ethnic, and cultural identity are complicated and nuanced. This fact is true of everyone, but the identities of the indigenous people of North America has been even more complicated by a history of legalized violence through genocide, involuntary relocation, and assimilation, by colonial powers, including the United States government. Tribes have been forced apart and their members spread far from their ancestral lands. Native land is coveted. So, in the past, and still in the present the “right” to those lands and Native identity is both desired and demonized by white settlers.
It has been my goal, over these eight weeks of my Sumer Fellowship, to understand – through all of this – what it means to be “Native,” and specifically, what it means to be Lenape. The Leni Lenape, also known as the Delaware, are the original inhabitants of Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and parts of New York and Delaware. I am trying to understand how identity is defined and passed on within the Lenape diaspora. How do the members themselves create, foster, and understand their individual and community identities? Physical distance, federal recognition, specific tribal affiliation, practicing of cultural tradition and ancestry all affect what being Lenape means to each of the tribes’ members. Through this research, and further research in the future, it is my intention to understand when these factors are barriers and when they are bridges.
Using ethnographic data such as interviews and participant observation, and theories of “settler colonialism” – coined by scholars such as Patrick Wolfe and Lorenzo Veracini – I have come to a few preliminary conclusions. A) There are several variables that go into someone’s personal identity, as well as how they identify others as part of their ethnic, or tribal group; these include the practicing of and exposure to cultural traditions, the tracing of lineage, and how those that lineage is traced to interact with, accept, or reject that heritage. B) Federal systems of power that exist to this day in the Americas, which are created upon the ideals and goals of settler colonialism, have created divisions among those people that identify themselves as Lenape, and C) it is this history of colonial violence that makes the “proving” of heritage, and the verification of personal identity necessary for the survival of the tribe and its culture; but those whose claim to identity is not validated by the larger community feel abandoned by and separated from it by that colonial influence.
Gurganus, Emily, "The Colonization of Identity and Oral Culture Within the Leni Lenape" (2022). Anthropology Summer Fellows. 6.
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