Lenape Elder John Thomas Visits Westtown

On Wednesday, October 11, Lenape Elder John Thomas of the Delaware Tribe of Indians visited Westtown School. This visit was a milestone in Westtown School’s work of healing and reconciliation with the Lenape. For thousands upon thousands of years, the Lenape people lived in New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, as well as parts of New York and Delaware. While the Lenape to the North spoke a Lenape dialect called Munsee, the southern Lenape, including those who lived on what is now the school’s land, spoke Unami. The Lenape were driven off this land by European settlers in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds and experienced a series of eight forced removals between that time and the mid-1800s. As they became further removed from their homelands, other groups referred to the Lenape as the Delaware (in reference to their origins in the Delaware River Valley), and they eventually adopted Delaware nomenclature for themselves. While the Munsee-speaking Delaware ended up in Wisconsin and Ontario, the Unami-speakers settled in Oklahoma. 

Today, a number of different groups of people claim Lenape heritage, from communities in Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario to communities in New Jersey, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. These communities have different types of recognition–some are recognized at the federal level, others at the state level, and still others are pushing for recognition as tribal entities. Following a process of discernment, Westtown School is primarily engaging with the federally recognized groups, beginning with the Delaware Tribe of Indians, which is based in Bartlesville, Oklahoma. The Delaware Tribe of Indians is one of five federally recognized Lenape nations, which also include Delaware Nation (Oklahoma), Stockbridge-Munsee Community (Wisconsin), and in Ontario, Delaware Nation of Moraviantown and Munsee Delaware Nation. 

Elder John Thomas’ visit included assemblies for our fourth through eighth graders and our Upper School students. He spoke about the traditions and history of the Lenape people, including gender roles in a matrilineal society, Lenape emphasis on respecting the Earth, and Lenape customs around storytelling. He talked about his own upbringing, including the time he spent in a residential boarding school geared towards assimilating Indigenous children into mainstream U.S. society. With Upper School students, Elder John spoke passionately about some of his work with the American Indian Movement in the 1970s. He also discussed his current work on NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which focuses on the reburial of human remains that have been in the hands of museums, universities, and private collectors. He spoke, too, about current efforts in the Delaware Tribe to keep Lenape culture alive through teaching traditional language and crafts to Lenape youth. 

Five Indigenous Middle and Upper School students and one Indigenous faculty member joined Elder John for lunch. Elder John also met with Head of School Chris Benbow for conversation and a walk to the lake. On the way, Elder John pointed at a few tulip poplars and remarked, “I see you have a few canoes growing here!” He graciously received several gifts from community members, a few of which included letters from some Upper School English classes that are studying Indigenous literature, and a beautiful book of cyanotypes of native flora, created by Middle Schoolers and Middle School art teacher Marta Willgoose Salo. 

Elder John left campus emphasizing his delight and gratitude for the hospitality of the Westtown community. At Westtown, we are eager to continue building relationships with the descendants of the original inhabitants of the land.  ~Louisa Egan Brad, Dean of Equity, Justice, and Belonging