The Mennonite Heritage Center in Harleysville, Pa., welcomed the Lenape (Delaware) tribe of Bartlesville, Okla., on April 12. After a potluck supper with local Mennonites, Chief Brad KillsCrow, tribal elder John Thomas, and tribal historic preservation officer Susan Bachor presented their request: land to bury their ancestors.
Since 1990, the Native American Graves and Protection and Repatriation Act has required that museums and universities return Indigenous human remains and funerary items after consulting with descendants and tribal organizations. As Indigenous groups receive the bones of their ancestors, however, some tribes face the next question: where to bury them.
Mennonites arrived in southeastern Pennsylvania in 1683 and now live on the Lenape ancestral homeland, which encompasses greater Philadelphia, New Jersey and parts of New York.
“We have no presence in our homeland,” KillsCrow said. “How do we put our ancestors back in the ground?”
The Lenape have already worked with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to bury about 200 ancestors at Pennsbury Manor, William Penn’s country estate in Morrisville, in 2022. But thousands still need burial space.
Addressing the crowd of 120 gathered in the Mennonite Heritage Center barn, KillsCrow said, “Our ancestors helped you. Your ancestors helped us. I humbly ask if there is anything you can do.” He suggested a few acres, preferably an open meadow in a remote location. The Lenape would like to bury their ancestors with traditional ceremonies.
The Lenape had considered burying their ancestors in Oklahoma, KillsCrow said, but tribal elders pointed out these ancestors never lived in Oklahoma. The Lenape settled there in the 1860s after gradual displacement from Pennsylvania by European expansion and then forced removal by the U.S. government. The Lenape want to honor their ancestors, whose bones have been kept in museums and other institutions, by bringing them home.
The event took place after a year of conversation between John Thomas, a Lenape tribal elder, and John L. Ruth, a noted historian of Mennonites in eastern Pennsylvania. The two men first met in 2022 at the Perkiomen Valley School District’s dedication of the Lenape Arboretum. The southeastern Pennsylvania school district partners with Ursinus College on the Welcome Home Project, which honors the history and culture of the Lenape people.
As Ruth and Thomas talked, they discovered they had common roots in southeastern Pennsylvania. Ruth’s Mennonite family has lived in the area since the early 1700s. Thomas’ ancestors lived on the same land for thousands of years before that. Eventually, Ruth said, “My people have been living on your land for 300 years. We didn’t run you off or kill you. We prospered here. We have freedom. What can we do to help you?”
Thomas responded, “We need a place to bury our ancestors.”
Ruth began to lay groundwork with Mennonites in the former Franconia and Eastern District conferences, now called Mosaic. In November, Ruth introduced Thomas and his wife, Faye, to about 80 people gathered at the Salford Mennonite meetinghouse. Ruth, John Thomas and Faye Thomas talked about Native American history and the Thomases’ dream to establish a footprint in their homeland. Ruth also gave a talk at the Mennonite Heritage Center about his own journey with Lenape history.
At the April 12 meeting, Bachor, the tribal historic preservation officer, said it is not appropriate for ancestors to be buried in Mennonite church graveyards. She also requested Mennonites not offer land with a known history. “We also have to look out for everybody’s historic preservation,” she said. Archaeological research is more expensive for lands with known histories.
The evening ended with John Ruth leading the group in singing “Blessed Be the Tie That Binds.” Executive director Joel Horst Nofziger announced a follow-up discussion was scheduled for April 25 at the Mennonite Heritage Center.