Native leader takes Pa.’s Santorum to history class: ‘Our history helped to shape the current U.S. government’

Former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. (Photo via WikiMedia Commons)

A week after comments he made at a conference for young conservatives landed former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., in hot water for dismissing the role and contributions of Native American people and culture in the founding of the United States, members of the Delaware Tribe, which once called the mid-Atlantic region home, responded with a history lesson. 

“We have a history and presence that predates current historical record keeping except for the oral traditions that have been passed down to tribal members to this day,” Jeremy Johnson, tribal council member for the Delaware Tribe of Indians said. 

At the Young Americas Conference last week, Santorum told conference attendees: “We birthed a nation from nothing; I mean, there’s nothing here. I mean, yes, we have Native Americans but candidly, there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture.”

Santorum’s remarks were the subject of a swift backlash. And on Monday night, Santorum, who is a senior political commentator for CNN, appeared on the network to discuss the comments he made. Santorum said that he “misspoke,” but offered no apology for his dismissive remarks. 

Historians and tribal experts agree that native peoples were present on the East Coast of the United States, specifically in present day southern New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania, long before the arrival of the first European settlers and had a great deal of influence on what was to come. 

The region, first known as and still referred to as “Lenapehoking,” by the Delaware Tribe, was home to an estimated 8,000 to 20,000 people at the time of contact with European settlers. 

By 1750, nearly 70 years after King Charles II of England signed the Charter of Pennsylvania on March 4, 1681, officially proclaiming the colony “Pennsylvania,” the population of native people in the region had declined sharply due to disease, war and alcohol. 

Photo courtesy of the Delaware Tribe of Indians.

“The Lenape (also referred to as Delaware) have a strong and rich cultural, traditional and linguistic influence within Lenapehoking and the areas that we were forced to migrate in later years,” Johnson told the Capital-Star. “We were considered the grandfather tribe in the northeast woodlands and respected as such.”

One well-respected Lenape leader was Tamanend or Tammany, who in the 1680s, met with William Penn on several occasions to negotiate the sale of Lenape lands through the trade of guns, tobacco, clothing and other goods. 

According to the Monroe County Historical Association, Tammany was a “great leader” who believed he could provide for his tribe through his relationship with Penn. Penn’s interest in purchasing the lands and his relationship with Tammany earned him respect within the Lenape tribe.

In fact, Penn and Tammany “visited each other’s homes, shared in feasts and traded goods,” according to the historical association. 

Today, May 1 is recognized as St. Tamanend Day, a day symbolizing peace and recognizing the contributions of Chief Tamanend, whose friendship with Penn established peaceful relations between Native Americans and English settlers (Penn’s children would not share the same approach as their father and consequently, relations between the Lenape and European settlers would soon be severed). 

Tamanend statue on the corner of Front and Market streets in Philadelphia. (Google Earth screen capture).

In 1995, a statue of Tamanend debuted in Philadelphia facing the iconic statue of William Penn atop City Hall. The inscription reads: “Tamanend was considered the patron saint of America by the colonists prior to American Independence.”

Philadelphia City Hall (Image via pxHere.com)

“Our history helped to shape the current U.S. government and the actual landscapes of Manhattan, Southern New York, New Jersey, Delaware and eastern Pennsylvania,” Johnson told the Capital-Star in an email. 

“The Lenape peoples, along with the over 500 other tribes currently residing within the present-day United States, continue to have an impact on local, state, and national issues. We will always remain on these lands and our cultures, traditions and linguistic histories will continue to shape the past, present and future of this nation,” he said.

Cassie Miller
A native Pennsylvanian, Cassie Miller worked for various publications across the Midstate before joining the team at the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. In her previous roles, she has covered everything from local sports to the financial services industry. Miller has an extensive background in magazine writing, editing and design. She is a graduate of Penn State University where she served as the campus newspaper’s photo editor. She is currently pursuing her master’s degree in professional journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In addition to her role at the Capital-Star, Miller enjoys working on her independent zines, Dead Air and Infrared.