Invisible Indians: Native Americans in Pennsylvania

By Minderhout, David; Frantz, Andrea | Human Organization, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Invisible Indians: Native Americans in Pennsylvania


Minderhout, David, Frantz, Andrea, Human Organization


Native Americans are an invisible population in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania is one of a few states that neither contains a reservation nor recognizes any native group within its borders. State officials steadfastly assert that there are no Native Americans in the state. Yet, according to the U.S. Census, approximately 18,000 Native Americans live in Pennsylvania, and a minimum of 11 different organizations represent them. The authors have surveyed nearly 300 Native Americans within the state and conducted extended ethnographic interviews with 70 others. A chief concern is obtaining state recognition, but bills to grant recognition have failed in the state legislature for nearly 20 years. A significant barrier to recognition is Native Americans' inability to work together. Given the history of Pennsylvania, claims to Native American heritage are difficult to verify, which leads to disagreements over authenticity of identity. This article reviews the efforts to win state recognition, while comparing the circumstances of Pennsylvania's native peoples to similar groups on the East Coast, such as the Abenaki, the Pequots, and the Wampanoags.

Key words: Lenape, state recognition, native peoples, forgotten history, official denial

Invisible Indians: Seeking Recognition in Pennsylvania

There are no Indians in Pennsylvania.

This statement, attributed to a former governor of Pennsylvania, was one we heard repeated often as we began our research. If there were Native Americans in the state, public institutions certainly did not admit their existence. Pennsylvania is one of a very few states that neither contains a reservation nor officially recognizes any Native American group within its borders. This is ironic, because Pennsylvania was one of the first places where Europeans came in contact with Native Americans. Pennsylvania cultures heroes like William Penn and Conrad Weiser are known in large part because of their interactions with native peoples. For a time in the 18th century, Pennsylvania was a sanctuary for Native Americans from all over colonial America, and Tuscaroras, Conoys, Nanticokes, and others migrated into the area. In time, however, the press of European settlement and the spread of smallpox both severely reduced the number of Native Americans and drove them westward. Available texts, such as Kent (1984), Wallace (1981), and Weslager (1972), treat Pennsylvania's Indians as if they disappeared entirely from the state by the late 1700's; the occasional exception to this will be a discussion of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which closed in 1918 (see Richter 2005).

Yet we knew that this could not be true. According to the U.S. Census (2004) 18,348 people in Pennsylvania indicated they were Native Americans in 2000, an increase of 20% since 1990. (Another 34,302 persons identified themselves as "part-Indian1"). Barely a weekend went by without a scheduled powwow or gathering somewhere in the state. There were occasional newspaper stories about school programs or patriotic celebrations featuring local Native Americans. But most of all, we knew people who claimed Native American ancestry-not many, to be sure, but a few nonetheless.

In September 2004, we began crisscrossing the state of Pennsylvania, attending tribal councils and powwows and talking to Native Americans wherever we could. Initially we circulated questionnaire surveys to find out what Native Americans knew about their statuses and what issues they thought were important; 281 usable surveys were returned to us. In April 2006 we began conducting in-depth ethnographic interviews with a sample of the people we contacted; to date we have interviewed 70 Native Americans in tape-recorded sessions lasting 30 minutes to three hours. In the process, we learned a great deal about what concerned Pennsylvania's Native Americans the most, and among the questions of greatest interest was obtaining official state recognition. …

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