By Alison Mitchell
The mighty Delaware River flows for 330 miles, from its source in the Catskill Mountains of New York to its mouth in the Delaware Bay between New Jersey and Delaware.
The river provides drinking water for 13 million people, abundant scenic beauty, a corridor for trade and commerce, and habitat for diverse wildlife.
Many people love the Delaware, but perhaps none more than the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, the descendants of the original people who lived along the river for thousands of years before European settlement.
“The river is very sacred to us; we say it’s our lifeblood,” said Barbara Bluejay, secretary of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, which draws members from all four states along the river and beyond.
Every four years, the Lenape Nation celebrates its ancestral lands and seeks peace and healing through a unique tradition: a month-long canoe paddle down the Delaware, with stops along the way for public signings of a ceremonial friendship treaty.
This year’s “Rising Nation River Journey” began on July 20 in Hancock, N.Y., on the upper Delaware, and concluded on Aug. 20 in Cape May. Treaty signings were held in 10 locations, including Milford, Frenchtown, Lambertville and West Cape May in New Jersey.
The river paddle emphasizes the Lenape Nation’s spiritual connection to the river and nature.
“We want people to take care of the river and take care of the Earth, because the Creator gave them to us,” said Bluejay. “I did the river trip in 2010 and it was a magical experience. You should see the eagles that followed us, and the dragonflies.”
The friendship treaty that was signed along the route commemorates the spirit of the original signing of a 1683 treaty between William Penn, founder of the colonial Province of Pennsylvania, and Chief Tamanend, a local sachem or leader.
The treaty holds that Europeans and Native Americans would live together in peace as long as the creeks and rivers run, and the sun, moon and stars endure. The treaty reflected the belief of Penn, a Quaker, in making honest agreements of consent with indigenous peoples.
As history shows, Penn’s ethic was rarely upheld. Most Lenape people were forced off their ancestral lands and many were relocated to other states.
But some Native American families remained along the Delaware and assimilated into the new society established by the colonists.
Staying came at a cost, noted Bluejay, who said, “Our people hid. They cut their hair and some married into German families.”
Their Native American heritage was usually kept secret and their traditions and culture withered.
The new treaty tradition aims to heal old wounds by restoring Lenape languages and culture.
The first friendship treaty ceremony was held in August 2002 in Bucks County, Pa., and has been renewed every four years since. The treaty has been signed by many organizations, including environmental groups, churches and historical societies, as well as by committed individuals.
The treaty states: “In the spirit of Chief Tamanend and in the spirit of William Penn, we, the undersigned, do openly recognize the Lenape Indian Tribe as the indigenous stewards of their homelands, and also as the spiritual keepers of the Lenape Sipu, or Delaware River.”
Signers pledge to support the Lenape people through actions like hosting cultural or educational programs, partnering as caretakers of the Delaware River and Lenape homelands, assisting in Lenape language revival projects, helping protect sacred land sites, or helping raise awareness of Lenape history and values.
The treaty, Bluejay said, helps fulfill the Prophecy of the Four Crows.
As Lenape legend goes, the first crow flew in harmony with the Creator, but the second became sick and died. The third crow became frightened and hid, but the fourth restored harmony with the Creator.
The first crow represents Native Americans as they lived for more than 10,000 years before Europeans arrived, and the second and third crows represent their fate afterward. The fourth crow, the Lenape believe, foretells a revival of their culture and customs.
According to Bluejay, the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania does not wish to hold onto bitter feelings about the past, but would like to ensure a better future for coming generations.
Alison Mitchell is a co-executive director of the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, Far Hills.