Joining forces to restore ancestral lands to Nanticoke and Lenape tribes

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The Nanticoke Indian tribe in southern Delaware has been leasing land for its annual  powwow. (Courtesy of Nanticoke Indian tribe)

The Nanticoke Indian tribe in southern Delaware has been leasing land for its annual powwow. (Courtesy of Nanticoke Indian tribe)

The Nanticoke Indian and Lenape Indian tribes in Delaware have long sought to reacquire some of their ancestral lands.

But purchasing the 41 acres the groups were after proved difficult, however, in large part because the Native American tribes lacked the money.

But three entities whose mission is preserving land — the state of Delaware’s Open Space Program, the northern Delaware-based Mt. Cuba Center, and The Conservation Fund in Arlington, Virginia — have joined forces financially and logistically to restore the properties to the tribes and restrict them from residential development.

The first deal provides 30 acres in the Millsboro area of Sussex County to the Nanticoke tribe. The state approved a $325,000 payment in June to create the conservation easement on the land that protects it from development. The Mt. Cuba Center and Conservation Fund did not disclose what they spent on either deal, but Mt. Cuba Center executive director Jeff Downing said the previous owner had listed the property at more than $1 million.

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The Nanticoke Indian tribe is getting back 31 acres of ancestral lands near Millsboro. (The Conservation Fund)

The second deal secures 11 acres in the Dover area of Kent County for the Lenape tribe. The state spent $238,000 to remediate soil contamination on the land that previously was home to the state police shooting range. The conservation easement was approved Wednesday by the state’s Open Space Program and the purchase will be finalized in the coming months.

Blaine Phillips, senior vice president for The Conservation Fund that handled the real estate transactions, said the deals were long overdue.

“This transaction represents a restoration of tribal rights,’’ Phillips said of the Nanticoke deal in a statement. “The Nanticoke were here long before us, and now at least part of our land records will reflect that. There’s more to it than just buying a piece of property. It’s about restoring culture. It’s about honoring their ancestral rights.

Noting the widespread construction of housing developments in the areas near Delaware’s beach towns in the last two decades, Phillips said that “getting the land is also crucial to preserving some of the ‘fragile coastal area’ from the intense development around it.”

Nanticoke chief Natosha Norwood Carmine said her tribe did not have to pay for the purchases or easement, and is “honored” by the largesse of its new benefactors.

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“I believe that it’s something that our future generations will appreciate as they have now witnessed our having received this land,’’ Carmine said. “It’s something that will be history for them to be able to share with their youth and generations to come.”

The land sits near a one-room schoolhouse for Native American children that closed in the 1960s after about 40 years in operation.

Carmine said the land will be used for an array of Nanticoke activities, including hiking, lacrosse games and its annual powwow celebration.

“We renew and refresh our spirits,’’ Carmine said of the powwow, which has been held on leased lands. “We remember our ancestors. We share our culture and customs with the public, and we have tribal communities that come together with us.”

The Nanticoke tribe’s annual powwow is a celebration of its culture and customs. (Nanticoke Indian tribe)

An official at The Conservation Fund said the bulk of the money for the deals came from Mt. Cuba Center. Known for its botanical gardens on a former du Pont family estate a few miles from President Biden’s home, the nonprofit also focuses on land conservation.

Downing said the properties “were two parcels that were of great cultural and historic significance to our Delaware tribes.”

Restoring the lands to the tribes “just seemed like such a great way to give back to the community,’’ Downing said. “Part of our mission is conserving or fostering biodiversity because it enhances resilience. So it just seemed like helping to support Native American communities was one way that we could help support the diversity of our community.”

Dennis “White Otter” Coker, the principal chief of the Lenape tribe, recently told The Washington Post they might turn part of the 11 acres into an “edible forest garden” that would include berry-producing plants, along with shad and spice bushes that were once used by Native Americans and are native to the area.

Saturdays just got more interesting.

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