Shelley DePaul grew up with a deep appreciation for nature, particularly the Delaware River.
It was all a part of growing up as a member of the Lenape tribe of Native Americans whose people settled in the Lehigh Valley more than 13,000 years ago.
“It’s our sacred river. We don’t believe in owning land. We believe all the trees and the water all are relations,” DePaul said. “So we have a great respect and we see ourselves as caretakers.”
Now in her sixth year as chief, DePaul continues to share her tribe’s appreciation for the river. They will spend the first week of August as they do every four years: traveling down the river, renewing a peace treaty with the communities that have since settled along the banks of the Delaware.
The tradition was started in 2002.
“We started partnering with other people along the Delaware River who were conservation groups and that sort of thing,” she said. “Then we got the idea to make it a more formal partnership and to start a treaty.
“We thought it might be a good way to bring things full circle, get rid of the animosities of the past and work together.”
And it’s been growing.
“We started out with 19 treaty-signers and now we’ve got over 30 organizations and over 150 individuals that signed last time,” she said. “We’ve made so many partners that we’re having various treaty signings down the river.”
As the number of participants has grown, so has the variety of the groups.
“Every four years, we take on new treaty-signers and we develop more relationships with partners all the way from Hancock down to Cape May,” she said. “Not just environmental groups, but also church groups and historical societies.”
One such historical society is the Northampton County Historical & Genealogical Society. Barbara Kowitz, the society’s executive director, sees great value in celebrating the history of the Lenape Nation.
Kowitz says it’s a way to connect to the deep history of the region. It’s also a way to celebrate it.
“Our shared mission is to protect, preserve and showcase history,” she said. “I think we’ve learned how easy it is to lose the stories and it’s important to carry on that tradition to pass those stories down from generation to generation.”
The society provides a space for the Lenape Nation Cultural Center in Easton on the second floor of the Bachmann Publick House.
“It’s been a very long relationship and very fulfilling from our end, especially,” Kowitz said.
This partnership is an example of one of the types of treaties the nation will renew on its journey.
“We actually worked it out the native way, which is to barter,” DePaul said. “I curated the exhibit that they have at the Sigal Museum on the Lenape.”
DePaul hopes to pass the Lenape’s history and values to local youth. Each year she invites local scout troops to join her tribe.
“They’ve been with us since 2006 and they’re a great help,” she said. “It’s really great to watch their transformation on the river. The relationships get very deep very quickly when you’re depending on each other.”
For DePaul, the journey is also about losing all sense of the modern world and connecting with nature.
“I’ll be totally off the Internet for 17 days,” DePaul said. “There is no such thing as time on the river.”