Native Americans gather in Philadelphia for a powwow at the site of a historic treaty with William Penn

Three hundred and forty years after William Penn and the Lenni-Lenape Indians allegedly exchanged vows of brotherhood on the banks of the Delaware River, Indigenous people from two dozen tribes gathered Sunday for a traditional powwow at the same location. They came to Penn Treaty Park from across town and country to dance, share stories, see friends and affirm their continued presence in this land.

“They thought they had moved us all or wiped us all out,” said Frank Adams, chief of the Upper Mattaponi tribe, who traveled from Virginia to attend the powwow. “The Lenape tribe signed a treaty and received a bunch of land and property in that area which has now all been taken from them because the treaty was broken.”

The day-long powwow to commemorate the 1682 Treaty of Shackamaxon began with the grand entrance. Dancers and dignitaries in formal dress entered Penn Treaty Park carrying flags representing their nations, while an Aboriginal drumming group called the Red Blanket Singers played. Powwow badges convey information about both the person wearing them and the tribe they represent, said Cory Ridgeway, one of the dancers. Each dance style requires different clothing items.

Ridgeway herself dances in the women’s fantasy style, which requires a shawl over her shoulders; his children jokingly describe it as “if Jane Fonda had a dance style”. The family spends many weekends from April through November going to powwows, Ridgeway said. It’s a chance to connect with friends and relatives, to laugh, to eat – but it also has a deeper purpose.

“It’s a way to help our family and our children stay grounded in our culture,” said Ridgeway, who is part of the Nanticoke Tribe from Millsboro, Del. “They danced as soon as their feet could touch the ground. They got their first badges as newborns.

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In addition to the social element, the powwow aimed to educate attendees about some of the most pressing issues facing Native Americans today. To that end, red dresses hung from the trees in a corner of the park, calling attention to missing and murdered Native women.

“Our people are never found, because they are never wanted,” said Cornelia Dimalanta, executive director of the Native American House Alliance, the nonprofit that organized the powwow. “That’s why we’re doing this – to symbolize that we’re here.”

“Our people are never found, because they are never wanted. That’s why we’re doing this – to symbolize that we’re here.

Cornelia Dimalanta, Executive Director of the Native American House Alliance

The Alliance, founded in 2019, provides social services to the more than 6,000 Indigenous people living in the Philadelphia area today. In addition to direct services, the organization is pushing Philadelphia to establish a commission for Native Americans to fund job development, education and housing, Dimalanta said.

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After the grand entrance, Mayor Jim Kenney addressed the assembly.

“A lot of time has passed since they called this land Shackamaxon,” he said. “The name and reputation of brotherly love lives on in the spirit we see and feel here today.”

As the day progressed, Ridgeway’s 8-year-old son, Sahkakwenao, ran down the center of the prairie with the other kids for the “Tiny Tots” dance; when the drums started, he shivered and shook with the other children, his badges glistening in the sun.

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