November 24, 2020
By Vincent Banko, Seasonal Naturalist at Killen Pond State Park
Colonization is the act of appropriating or establishing control over an Indigenous population’s land. It isn’t a comfortable subject of discussion, and it shouldn’t be. But unfortunately, the topic of colonization is deeply intertwined with Indigenous history. It’s important to note that information about European colonization is mostly Eurocentric – what we know was relayed by white colonizers. To put it bluntly, the Lenape people who experienced colonization were wiped out, and unable to tell their story.
The catalyst for colonization globally was the Doctrine of Discovery, alternatively known by the modern Lenape as the Doctrine of Domination. Pope Alexander VI issued this Doctrine in the mid-1400s, giving European monarchs the right to find and Christianize new land – using extermination if necessary. The religious backing gave colonizers justification for their deadly actions, as they viewed themselves as “saviors” looking to “bring Indigenous populations to a Christian God.”
Smallpox further hurt the Lenape, allowing Europeans to colonize the area with ease. Henry Hudson arrived in America in 1609, and through trading with the Unalatchtigo clan, spread smallpox to the entire Lenape nation. There were six major outbreaks of smallpox – one every 15 years – and as the Lenape weren’t previously exposed to this disease, roughly 90% of the Kent County Lenape population was killed. Smallpox wiped out the Lenape elders – the keepers of knowledge and history – and the children – the next generation. The concept of “selling land” became used during this era of disease; because the Lenape couldn’t fight back against the European colonizers, they were forced to resort to rarely beneficial “deals” for their survival.
The first Europeans to colonize the area were the Dutch, in 1631. In 1830 – 50 years after the Declaration of Independence declared all men created equal – the Indian Removal Act was put in place, removing Indigenous land rights east of the Mississippi River. Boarding Schools were established in 1860 to force Native Americans to adopt a more “Christian” – i.e., white – lifestyle. It wasn’t until 1879 that Indigenous peoples were counted as persons within the meaning of the law, and they weren’t granted citizenship until 1924. Even being a citizen didn’t come with all the privileges such status should entail; in the late 1970s, Native Americans were finally given religious freedom.
To quote Chief Dennis Coker of the local Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, “It’s hard to wipe out a culture that’s 10,000 years old.” Lenape Native Americans are still around today, with federally recognized tribes in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Canada, and a state-recognized tribe in Kent County, DE.
The damages done to Indigenous populations by colonization are far from healed, but progress is being made. There are currently efforts to encourage the current Pope to finally disavow the Doctrine of Domination, and the United Nations recently ruled that Indigenous populations had land rights that were violated. The atrocities committed against the Lenape and all Indigenous people are intertwined with their own history, as well as the history of how people of European descent spread across the globe.
To again quote Chief Coker, we can’t “get to a healing point unless we have these discussions.” History isn’t something that should be censored or chosen based on preference to a certain group’s perspective. We encourage you to continue learning and further the conversation towards healing. The goal is to reconcile acknowledgment of the crimes of the past with the respect we are capable of showing today and create a better world for all of its residents.
Thank you to Chief Dennis Coker and the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware for their aid and support. For more information, click here.