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Amid Racial Tensions at Rutgers, a Lenape Friendship Dance Offers a Moment of Release

Three members Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Red Blanket Singers (from left: Duncan Munson, Carl Green, and Hassan Ridgeway) at the Rutgers MFA opening, March 4, 2016 (still from video by and © Ardele Lister)
Three members Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Red Blanket Singers (from left: Duncan Munson, Carl Green, and Hassan Ridgeway) at the Rutgers MFA opening, March 4, 2016 (still from video by and © Ardele Lister)

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — Most amateur historians of New York and the tri-state area are aware of the Lenape as the region’s first inhabitants. But how many know they are still active and engage with them as neighbors? It was partly with this in mind that three young Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape drummers from Bridgeton, New Jersey, were invited by a graduating MFA painting student to perform in his thesis show at Rutgers University on March 4 in the Mason Gross School of the Arts galleries, marking the first such performance by people of Native descent at a studio program on the East Coast, and by the traditional people of the particular area.

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape are the fusion of two historically intermingling tribes, the Nanticoke and the Lenni-Lenape: the latter name meaning “original people,” the former a Delaware-based Algonquin group whose autonym means “people of the tidewaters.”

Jason Baerg, himself Cree Métis from Toronto and in his final months in the Rutgers MFA painting program, found and contacted the Red Blanket Singers of Bridgeton, a city in southern New Jersey, to present song and dance music in the middle of his installation of six paintings, a free-standing sculpture, and a digital projection. Carl Green, Duncan Munson, and Hassan Ridgeway vocalized and pounded out a welcoming tune and a warrior dance song in their native tongue, and offered translations. They then invited all the spectators in the room to get involved — and within minutes, graduate, undergraduate, and visiting students, professors, administrators, even the dean of the school, George Stauffer, were giddily hopping around the large central room of the gallery in two concentric rings, holding hands. The friendship dance, Green explained to me, is a social style of dance formed in a particular culture where men and women weren’t allowed to socialize and, like the best celebrations the world over, is usually accompanied by food.

Students, staff, and faculty during the friendship dance; Jason Baerg is on the far right in the hat and scarf (still from video by and © Ardele Lister)
Students, staff, and faculty during the friendship dance; Jason Baerg is on the far right in the hat and scarf (still from video by and © Ardele Lister)

The program, conceived with Baerg, was a “Welcome to Territory” ceremony: traditional protocol for Native and aboriginal tribes when a group of individuals entering another’s traditional territory (language area) would seek permission from the stewards of the other group, and they would be welcomed to the area with an opening ceremony. On March 4, it was the Rutgers community that was being received by New Brunswick’s traditional people.

The Friday evening event was especially meaningful for the Big Ten state school. Last fall, Rutgers’s chancellor openly acknowledged that the school was built by slaveowners on Lenape land, and the school’s 250th anniversary in November was met with protests demanding greater inclusivity and diversity, reflecting the struggles going on at several other schools including the University of Missouri and Yale. Currently, Rutgers’s New Brunswick campus, with a student population of 38,000, enrolls only 21 students of Native descent. And whereas the number of young scholars of Asian descent at the school is impressive, Latino students make up 12% and black students 7% of the student population. The low figures are likely self-perpetuating; Monica Torres, of the Rutgers Native American Cultural Association, said that her ethnic group suffers particularly from lower retention and higher drop-out rates.

Although a task force on inclusion and a study committee on the school’s history have been formed, in this politically charged atmosphere the “Welcome to Territory” ceremony by the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Red Blanket Singers proved particularly integrative. Louis Andine, a Mason Gross senior from Red Bank, New Jersey, whose paternal grandmother was from an Algonquin tribe in Quebec, did not grow up in a traditional culture and has done much of the research about this heritage on his own. He said the event “seemed like a blessing for everyone there because there has been a lot of stress going around the school” and that the friendship dance “opened everyone up, and I felt my anxiety and insecurity melt away.”

Ardele Lister, director of Mason Gross’s undergraduate program and a New York-based media artist, concurred, saying that the performance was “very grounding and compelling” and, after a day of admissions interviews, “woke everyone up.” Lisett Clark, a graduating senior in her early 40s who is one quarter Mapuche, was also present and said the performance was “a total surprise.” In addition to being “heartfelt and beautiful,” she found it particularly resonant, reminding her of her Chilean upbringing — in a fishing village in the middle of that country — where music is an integral part of life and no hierarchy exists between the musical genres. For Baerg, the performance was significant because it activated his work in an important way and was “helpful for the faculty and fellow students to understand culturally where I was coming from.”

The original Lenape territory, Lenapehoking, divided by dialect; note the place names still in use today (via Wikimedia Commons)
The original Lenape territory, Lenapehoking, divided by dialect; note the place names still in use today (via Wikimedia Commons) (click to enlarge)

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape are a state-recognized confederation, and their story is extraordinary. Members survived disease, encroachment, broken treaties with white settlers, and forced migration to Midwestern states like Oklahoma and to Canada, by converting to Christianity in part and adapting to the white economy, all while maintaining their own institutions in the face of blatant discrimination. A second Lenape group, also recognized by the state, is the Ramapough Lenape based in the Lenape-named Mahwah. Powhatans and the Taino make up the other indigenous groups in the state, the latter group having immigrated from Puerto Rico to work the farms of South Jersey.

In many ways, the unifying effect of the Red Blanket Singers could have been expected. The Lenape were known as the “ancient ones” by other Native tribes and were famous even among white settler leaders for their mediation talents as well as their skills in battle. They successfully held sovereignty in a multi-ethnic Delaware Valley during a time when nearby European outposts like Virginia and New England were expanding rapidly. The March 4 event seems to show that sometimes a solution to a pressing contemporary problem was there all along within us, but it took the inclusion of neighbors who survived more violent struggles, and their ways, for us to access it.

A teach-in with a panel discussion on Rutgers University’s colonial legacy organized by the student group Reclaim Revolution will be held on March 30 at 7:00 pm at the school’s Student Activity Center (613 George Street, New Brunswick, New Jersey). Jason Baerg’s work will be included in the Rutgers MFA exhibition at the Invisible Dog (51 Bergen Street, Cobble Hill, Brooklyn) from May 11 through 22.

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