In order to fully understand the various racial, ethnic, political, and personal issues related to the Washington Redskins name change debate, I’ll need to start with a stronger historical background. My prior knowledge of Native American history and culture is greatly limited, mostly stemming from my elementary school education. In order to supplement this knowledge with deeper and more nuanced information, I’ll be starting with some basic online research. Depending on the resources I find, this may be supplemented by print materials (books, magazine articles, or academic journals).
To start this exploration, here is a summary of the information I’ve found so far:
The Lenape have lived in parts of what are now New Jersey, Delaware, New York, and Pennsylvania for over 12,000 years. When European settlers began to arrive in the mid-1600s, the Europeans began encroaching on Lenape territory. There were some initial efforts to stop this encroachment, including the creation of the earliest Indian Reservations in the 1700s. Despite these efforts, they were eventually pushed out, and many of them later migrated west and settled in Wisconsin. The Lenape living in New Jersey today (approximately 3000 in number) are the descendents of those who either remained behind or eventually returned to their ancient homelands.
Names are a big part of the debate over the Washington Redskins, and the “Proud to Be” video created by the National Congress of American Indians focuses on the types of names Native Americans embrace for themselves. Because of this, I think that understanding the history behind some of these names is also important. I found that the name “Lenni-Lenape” means “Men of Men” or “Original People.” Rather than using these names, however, the European settlers called them “Delaware Indians.” I find this historically significant since it represents a similar issue to the one being faced today: present-day Americans of European descent are still using names of their own choosing, rather than using the names embraced by the Lenape themselves.
What seems to make this even more significant is the fact that the Lenape are also referred to as “grandfathers” or “ancient ones” by other Native American tribes. According to the website listed above, the Lenape are a tribe that has existed longer than many of the other tribes, and even spawned a number of them. I can’t help but think of these names in relation to the fact that the Lenape were the original inhabitants of North America, long before European settlers arrived. This dimension gives the name a multi-layered meaning; the Lenape were both the “original” tribe that spawned many of the others and the “original” inhabitants of the lands before European settlement.
The Lenape have been involved in many conflicts, both as warriors and as diplomats. There were times when they helped to mediate disputes between European settlers and other Native American tribes.
I already previously knew that there were a number of violent conflicts between Native Americans and European settlers, but I also learned that there have been some alliances. First, the Lenape (along with the Seneca and the Shawnee) sided with the French during the French and Indian War. The conflict began between British colonists and the French, over who would control the Ohio River Valley. The Lenape at the time didn’t want the British to continue settling in their lands. They sided with the French because of the trade agreements they had that benefited both the Native Americans and the French, and because the French had no interest in settling the disputed lands.
Later, during the American Revolution, a treaty was signed between the new American government and the Lenape. The treaty “allowed American troops to pass through Lenni Lenape territory. In addition, the Lenni Lenape agreed to sell corn, meat, horses and other supplies to the United States and to allow their men to enlist in the U.S. army.” The American government offered statehood to the Lenape, which would have included representation in Congress. However, these promises were not kept. There was also division among the Native Americans, some of whom didn’t wish to get involved in the war. American soldiers later broke the treaty and engaged in several massacres of Native American people during the war.
In later years, Native American soldiers fought as part of the United States military in the War of 1812, the Civil War, World War I & II, and beyond. This included more than 12,000 Native American soldiers in WWI, and more than 40,000 in WWII. The above linked article describes Native Americans during WWII as having “an intense desire to serve their country” and that they “were an integral part of the war effort.”
Citizenship and Rights
The American government didn’t recognize Native Americans as citizens of the United States until the “Indian Citizenship Act of 1924”. Then it wasn’t until 1978 that the “American Indian Religious Freedom Act” gave them the right to practice their religion and cultural practices without interference.
All of this information is just scratching the surface, but after reading all of the above articles, I definitely have a more detailed understanding of some of the major historical events. This should serve as good background for future research.