Neon monument to Philly’s Indigenous history glows again

'In Perpetuity' by Duane Linklater, at Penn Treaty Park.  (Steve Weinik/Monument Lab)

'In Perpetuity' by Duane Linklater, at Penn Treaty Park. (Steve Weinik/Monument Lab)

Rev. John Norwood finds constant reminders of the Lenni Lenape tribe and its erasure from Philadelphia’s history.

On a walk through Penn Treaty Park during Indigenous People’s Day at on Saturday, it was hard for the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape councilperson to miss them.

A dark blue Pennsylvania historical marker describes the Philadelphia park as the “Traditional site of a treaty between William Penn and the Indians” — generalizing the native tribe who lived on Shackamaxon.

And while there’s a large sculpture of William Penn at the entry to the park, there’s no dedication to Lenni Lenape Chief Tamanend. The chief, who brokered the Treaty of Shackamaxon that stewarded the creation of Philadelphia, is instead honored at Front and Market, far from the park.

That’s why Norwood took note when the organizers behind the Monument Lab public art history project brought in Duane Linklater, an indigenous artist from Canada, to Penn Treaty Park in 2017.

Linklater’s mandate? To represent Lenni-Lenape history where it happened.

In Perpetuity” uses bright red neon to spell out a translated quote from Chief Tamanend.

“As long as the creeks and rivers flow and the sun, moon and stars endure,” the neon sculpture says.

The words come from the Treaty of Shackamaxon. They refer to how long the “Treaty of Friendship” — as the agreement between Penn and the Lenapes is often called — would last.

Linklater assigned the task of writing Tamanend ‘s words to his daughter, Sassa Linklater, passing down this history and tradition to the next generation.

“People come here to the park and they play and they walk their dogs and they jog, but rarely do they understand what is happening here and the significance of where they are,” Norwood said. “Having those words also calls us to consider how we are supposed to be trying to live together to live out that promise of togetherness.”

Linklater’s piece was supposed to be displayed along the banks of the Delaware River for two months. But that 2017 installation was cut short due to vandalism that shattered some of the neon lights.

Norwood was disappointed that the installation was designed to be temporary and even more disappointed when it came down prematurely.

But now when Norwood visits the Penn Treaty Museum where he is a board member, he’ll get to see the quote from his ancestor glowing once again.

The museum dedicated to the 1682 treaty fixed the neon sign and relit it Saturday night in honor of Indigenous People’s Day.

But the message of the relighting was bigger than just the holiday — the museum wants to find a way to get it back to its original location across the street at Penn Treaty Park.

A lack of accurate indigenous representation in Philly’s public art

Stephanie Mach, Indigenous anthropologist gives Indigenous Peoples’ Day participant a tour of Penn Treaty Park with a focus on the Lenape, who lived there for ten thousand years before colonization. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Stephanie Mach is an anthropology doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania. She focuses her work on how indigenous people are represented in institutional spaces like museums.

She hosted art walking tours on Indigenous People’s Day, exploring how the area and its native history are represented in and around the park.

Mach, who is Navajo, said when she first moved to Philadelphia, she spent a lot of her time walking around the city looking for monuments or other artistic representations of indigenous people.

“To be honest, there’s not a lot and where there is representation, it’s very historicizing, focusing on the past,” said Mach, who is also a member of the community organization Indigenous 215. “I think we are all familiar with these images of indigenous people as typically male, typically bare-chested, maybe wearing moccasins and probably wearing large head dress that is not of this region.”

Mach points to East Passyunk Avenue’s manhole covers which depict a stereotypical Native American wearing a war bonnet, as an example of problematic representation.

“[They’re] not entirely respectful as you’re literally treading over someone’s face,” Mach said.

At Penn Treaty Park, the Lenni Lenape references are minimal beyond a small turtle sculpture. But one piece of art that Mach made sure to show during her indigenous art tour was Bob Haozous’ steel sculpture, which stands directly outside of the park facing Delaware Avenue. Haozous is an indigenous artist from New Mexico.

Bob Haozous, a Chiricahua Apache and Sante Fe based artist, designed the steel sculpture at Penn Treaty park, which depicts a Quaker and a Lenape person holding hands. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The 1991 piece visualizes elements of the wampum belt given by the Lenni-Lenape to Penn to show their peace, along with depictions of nature and technology.

“In that sense, it’s collapsing time and also reminding us of the erasure of indigenous history that we still have to see in this Philadelphia landscape,” Mach said.

Mach said what she loves about Linklater and Haozous’ artwork is the way they tell the story of this land.

“Neither of them are figural representation,” Mach said. “They’re not people but they represent people in history, they represent indigenous past, present and future and they don’t do that through the standard monuments of the colonizer.”

Norwood said having Linklater’s piece permanently back at Penn Treaty Park would compliment Haozous’ sculpture to the treaty — the more indigenous art by indigenous artists at the site, the better.

How a temporary monument to indigenous history was relit

After Linklater’s piece was damaged, the issue became where to store it when the artist lived thousands of miles away.

That’s when Penn Treaty Museum Director John Connors was approached by Mural Arts Philadelphia — a Monument Lab partner — to hold on to it as to prevent further damage.

As one of the largest collections of Penn Treaty history — and directly across the street from the park— it seemed to be the most appropriate solution. However, as a small, volunteer-run museum, the only space available was the gravel backlot on Columbia Avenue, which is where the piece has sat unlit and damaged for the past two years.

But when the museum heard earlier in the year that Indigenous People’s Day Philly was hosting their celebration at Penn Treaty Park on Oct. 12, they felt it was the perfect time to raise funds, repair the piece and have it relit.

Luckily, much of the materials used for the artwork was purchased in Philadelphia. Len Davidson of Davidson Neon and Richard Cohen of Cohen Metals Group once again offered their materials, and also assisted in getting the heavy sign on top of two shipping containers in the backlot — so passersby on Columbia and Delaware avenues can see the work as it lights up the lot.

“We just want people to see it and say, ‘Wow, this is a really special piece of art by a native artist, which is fantastic,’” said Connors, who has been with the museum since its founding in the late ‘70s.

Connors also hopes displaying the sculpture helps get it back to a place more appropriate — like Penn Treaty Park. He thinks Linklater’s work can really tell the whole story of what happened during the Treaty of Friendship, despite how history eventually played out as native residents were further and further displaced from Philadelphia land.

“It’s a wonderful story that has never gone out of fashion because humans have had a hard time getting along with each other since the beginning of time,” Connors said. “And it’s as relevant today as it was 300 years ago.”

The roadblocks to moving it back to Penn Treaty Park

Connors says it won’t be easy to get the public art project permanently displayed in the Philadelphia park.

He said it would first have to be approved by the city’s art commission, and then Philadelphia Parks & Recreation would want to be sure that there’s an available maintenance fund — especially since the neon artwork is highly sensitive and susceptible to damage. And then there would be the question of how to illuminate it at night.

Ken Lum is the co-founder and chief curatorial advisor of Monument Lab.

He said despite the impact many of the monuments made during their time displayed across the city, it wasn’t difficult to take them down at the end of the two-month project.

“We didn’t have the means to render them permanent and so everyone knew that,” Lum said. “In a way, it’s as it should be because people and voices are still ignored, there’s still dominant narratives at play.”

But Lum said he’d still be happy to see it “In Perpetuity,” come back to a place like Penn Treaty Park. He said one of his proudest accomplishments of the Philly Monument Lab project was how it engendered trust in the neighborhoods in which the monuments were on display.

‘In Perpetuity’ by Duane Linklater: “In Perpetuity” uses bright red neon to spell out a translated quote from Chief Tamanend who negotiated the Treaty of Shackamaxon. ‘As long as the creeks and rivers flow and the sun, moon and stars endure,’ the neon sculpture says. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

One of his favorite aspects of Linklater’s work was its effectiveness at nighttime, when the park is empty.

“It has a spectral element of coming into being at that point because it’s the history that’s not said, so it should come out when people are asleep and in their dreams,” Lum said.

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