“History, history! We fools, what do we know or care? History begins for us with murder and enslavement,
not with discovery. No, we are not Indians but we are men of their world. The blood means nothing; the
spirit, the ghost of the land moves in the blood. It is we who ran naked, we who cried ‘Heavenly Man!’.
These are the inhabitants of our souls that lie…agh.”                                           -William Carlos
Williams (1925)

Since they first came into contact with each other the original Americans and
those who would later come to call themselves Americans remained strangers,
separated by a Great Divide of enmity and misunderstanding.

They did not get off to a good start. Columbus arrived at San Salvador among the
Arawak in 1492 obsessed with the futile pursuit of gold. He was blind to the
uniqueness and beauty of the land and the people he had stumbled upon. The
ensuing enslavement & slaughter of the native Taino he called “Indios”
established a pattern of ruthless expansion and dispossession that would define
European treatment of the New World for centuries to come.

By the time the last groups of Sioux had moved onto reservation following
Wounded Knee in 1890, this juggernaut had consumed an entire continent,
digesting everything in its path. Systematically stripped of their territories &
with casualties from warfare & disease in the millions, over 20,000 years of
indigenous civilization was swept away in the virtual blink of an eye.

Those who managed to survive America’s solution to what was called the “Indian
problem” were now essentially exiles in their own lands and wards of a state
which had little but contempt for them. Many were forced to assimilate and
jettison their time-honored traditions and languages in order to survive within
the dominant white culture. Those who did try to hold on to the old ways paid a
high price. Most sank into crushing poverty, forgotten and invisible.

History was not kind to them either. Much exploitation was carried on in the
name of ‘civilizing’ Indians, but for a long time this story was never told. Instead
textbooks, popular novels, and plays conspired to create caricatures that either
trivialized their civilizations, demonized or degraded them as exotic or primitive
savages, or else swathed their image in nostalgic fable. Once Hollywood westerns
came along these distorted & superficial stereotypes became imprinted upon the
national subconscious. America learned not about the rich legacy of societies
that had come before, or the brutality and misery that marked their demise, but
rather about myths of the heroic frontier invented to justify a manifest destiny.

The advent of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s exploded that
complacency. A younger generation began to challenge the attitudes which lay
behind mistreatments of the past. Institutionalized racism – its roots, its
rationalizations, & its ramifications, could no longer be ignored. On the front
lines of this movement was an appeal to the uneasy conscience of an American
idealism sensitive to the rights and dignities of every person. Blacks, women,
and other disenfranchised minorities came forth with an agenda that demanded

This new climate of tolerance opened the door to rebirth. Political activism
sprouted from the ashes of resignation. With a renewed spirit, tribes initiated
programs to improve social services and develop economic resources. Creating
schools, housing, and employment for their people, revitalizing Native languages,
and reclaiming the celebration of their unique cultures, many who had lost hope
were inspired to turn the tide on an inheritance of conquest.

For an entire race of peoples who had nearly seen the light extinguished, these
developments signaled significant progress. Yet issues of poverty and
discrimination still cast a long shadow. While a handful of tribes experienced
prosperity as a result of opportunities opened up by gaming revenues, a majority
of groups struggled.

To this day, misguided government policies continue to patronize them, denying
them self-determination, sovereignty, and respect. A long-running lawsuit
against the U.S. Department of the Interior alleging mismanagement of the
Indian Trust continues to crawl through the court system, as do tribal
applications for federal recognition, some of which have been pending for 20

Numerous generations of intermarriage have contributed to a crisis of personal
and cultural identity for which there are no simple answers. And although they
tend to be glamorized in the movies nowadays instead of demeaned, the Indian
image is still largely a fictional one, a product of fantasies and clichés designed
around the dictates of an entertainment industry more concerned with profit
and packaging than historical authenticity.

The result is that even after five hundred years of coexistence, America still
inhabits a vacuum of knowledge not only about its own first citizens, but also
about living Indian culture. The elements of this history are missing. Without the
Indian side of the story, it’s a history that’s only half told…


“The White man does not understand the Indian for the reason he does not understand America. The
roots of his tree of life have not yet grasped the rock and soil…the White man is still troubled with
primitive fears…”
- Luther Standing Bear (Sioux) 1868?-1939

Over 500 separate Native American groups populated pre-Columbian North
America. Although sharing a distant common ancestry, they were peoples with
greatly varying customs, languages, and experiences, as distinctive and diverse
as the geographical and climatic regions they occupied.

Yet except in a few areas (notably the Southwest) they are eerily absent from
most of modern America today. The visible, tangible evidence that they existed at
all seems to have simply vanished. Particularly with regard to the Northeast
Woodlands, the relatively few Native Americans still around belie their former
importance in shaping national development and character.

In fact Indian contributions to the early settlement of America were but essential
to everything from providing basic subsistence to the success of the early
colonial economy. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the case of the Lenape.
Among the leading people of all eastern Algonquians, known to relatives, friends,
and even their enemies as the Grandfathers, the Lenape occupied lands that the
heart of colonial America would eventually be formed from. These pristine
woodlands were also abundant with the wildlife whose pelts & skins the Dutch,
English, and French traders soon came to covet. Just how critical Lenape
hospitality, accommodation, and expertise were in the beginning would rapidly
become clear: 75 years following contact, nearly one-half of all exports from the
colonies of New York and Pennsylvania came from the fur trade.

This commerce, supplying a substantial European luxury goods market, not only
financed the expansion of key Atlantic coast settlements, but created vast new
capital reserves. The profits & investment base generated as a result would later
build a large part of the transportation, communications, and power supply
infrastructure for the Industrial Revolution. Ignored & forgotten now are the
skills and technology of the native men and women who trapped and processed
the furs that made America rich.

Lenape people not only played a crucial role in helping establish American
economic viability, but were center stage at the creation of the American
experiment as well. One of their Chiefs [Tamanend] was on hand to greet William
Penn when he arrived in 1682 to found Pennsylvania. Their hospitality was
rewarded by one of Penn’s sons, Thomas, who in 1737 defrauded them out of
lands with the backing of the Iroquois. The city of Philadelphia, arguably the
cradle of the American Revolution, arose on what was Lenape land and within 50
years became the second largest city in the British Empire.

Indian know-how thus provided a kind of root system for development, nurturing
a nascent European society that was then grafted onto an ancient (& indigenous)
stem. Today over 30 million people reside on lands that up until a few hundred
years ago had been the home territory of these Indians for thousands of years.
But how many would even recognize the language that has given hundreds of
names to such now-familiar places as Manhattan, or Hackensack, or

Because New York City so dominated and defined the 20th century its almost as
if it had no human history before Europeans came. The link to its earliest
inhabitants has been all but erased. But the ghostly campfires of the Lenape’s
ancestors sent shadows dancing across Staten Island hillsides while Northern
Europe was still covered by ice sheets.

And though people may be under the impression that somehow recognition of
Indian concerns has come a long way, that has not yet translated into
meaningful public support. While Americans have dutifully preserved every
single place George Washington ever spent the night, the Delaware are still
forced to fight pitched legal battles over the precious few remaining
archaeological sites from their past, struggling to keep sacred grounds from
being plowed under to make way for ball fields, parking lots, and hot dog


“The original owner of the soil, the man from whom we have taken the country, in order that we may make
of it the refuge of the world, where all men should be free if not equal, is the only man in it who is not
recognized as entitled to the rights of a human being.”                -New York Tribune, c. 1880

Indeed American Indians were pioneers of much important technology that
Europeans depended upon, even if the immigrants didn’t realize it. Their
botanical science & horticulture, egalitarian social structures, and specialized
knowledge of local resources were all advanced - and indispensable. But the
value that truly distinguished Indian life was not easily accessible to
understanding, for this involved an inner technology.

The Indian world was first and foremost a world of the spirit. This world, which
sought to integrate all life events into a single continuum, had at its core a
reverence for nature and an ideal that stressed reciprocity, not exploitation…. It
combined sophisticated concepts, beliefs, rituals, and prayers that under
structured leadership and teaching brought the group and each individual
together in meaningful harmony with the land, all life that lived, and the forces
& processes of nature. Birth and death, creation and eternity, and everything in
between were accepted with equanimity. They sought to respond to life with the
right gestures, to align themselves with nature’s central rhythms, and above all
to maintain the living spirit of the world and the right relation to living in it.

Europeans could not grasp the depth of this intensely religious worldview, or its
underlying principles of respect, community, and balance. It was not ‘practical’
to them; it was not ‘serious’, and at any event it was of little use to those who
came to plunder for personal gain.

The material Indian world, with its terrible fragility, was no match for European
adventurers, or the materialist industrial state that would soon arise. But their
spirit world and its silent influences have been surprisingly durable. It has
persisted. And in spite of all the oppression, displacement, and loss they have
suffered, the Indian has not disappeared.

Their still-unexplored civilization, though never taken very seriously in American
history, still has much to teach us. Perhaps in light of contemporary society’s
alienated condition – its homogeneity, impersonality, & haste; the reckless and
destructive attitudes towards life and the environment that seem out of control -
it may not be far-fetched to suggest that the wisdom of the Indian way is not only
a part of America’s past, but one still to affect its future.