Immigrants took land from Native Americans in Delaware. They want some of it back.

(Rob Tornoe/for WHYY)

(Rob Tornoe/for WHYY)

In today’s heated political environment, it’s hard to avoid chants from anti-immigrant activists calling on foreigners to go home or pushing incorrect — and often racist — claims about migrants stealing our jobs or diluting our culture.

Where were they 400 years ago?

In the late 16th century, the Lenape were a powerful Native American nation thriving in Delaware and all along the Delaware River, spanning all the way north into present-day New Jersey, Long Island and the Lower Hudson Valley.

Unfortunately, we know all too well what happened next. European immigrants gradually pushed the Lenape out of their ancestral homes, aided by the diseases they brought with them across the ocean, including smallpox, cholera and influenza.

Some Lenape groups were forced out of what’s now Delaware, and they headed west, ultimately ending up in Oklahoma where several tribes currently reside. Some, who had relocated to Ohio, served as solders in the Continental Army (though the Lenape were divided, and some tribes decided to side with the British).

And some tribe members assumed Christian names, bought land in Delaware and ultimately relocated to present-day Cheswold where, amazingly and against all odds, 560 or so still reside, according to recent U.S. Census numbers.

And now they’re looking to reclaim a small portion of the territory that once belonged to them.

The Lenape are trying to reclaiming historic land in north Dover and establish their sovereignty, according to the News Journal. The land includes area that once housed the old Lenape Indian schoolhouse, the Little Union Church and a small cemetery where the ancestors of Chief Dennis Coker are buried.

In recent years, Delaware State Police have used the area as a firing range, and Coker told the News Journal “some mistakes were made” regarding the property and its use.

“It wasn’t in my mind an ideal spot for a firing range,” Coker said. “I guess our ancestors are deceased, so it didn’t bother them … but it certainly wasn’t a sensitive thing to do.”

The Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware was officially recognized in 2016. But regaining even a small piece of the land it once owned has been a slow process, mostly due to pollution by possibly hazardous substances.

Fortunately, state Sen. David Lawson, R-Marydel, a retired state trooper who was in charge of training at the range, is working to help Coker and his tribe. The EPA is working to draft a plan to assess the condition of the soil and groundwater, and the state Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control told Delaware Public Media it hopes to have that completed in the next few months.

“Our goals are to, possibly, create a community center there,” Coker said. “And have our families and our children have access to the property in an intimate relationship — you know, playing and rolling around on the ground and stuff like that.”

Based on its history, there’s probably no other group in this country that has more reason to be dubious and angry than Native Americans. But time and time again, it’s Native Americans such as Coker who remain positive and take the high road, siding often with those most threatened by the hateful rhetoric attempting to paint everyone who crosses the U.S.-Mexico border as someone unworthy of joining our country.

“Today, we live in a county of immigrants. We welcome you, as we have welcomed generations of immigrants to these shores, since even before this great country was founded,” Ray Halbritter, a representative of the Oneida Indian Nation in upstate New York, recently wrote at TheHill.com. “In the words of the great Chief Joseph, we have always known that all people ‘were made by the same great Spirit Chief.’”

America first, indeed.

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