Essay - Decolonizing the Archives by Teresa Vega
My third cousin Andrea and I have been working hard to decolonize the archives and uncover information about our ancestors, but we've faced numerous challenges along the way. Researching enslaved ancestors, navigating racial categories, surnames and languages affected by the British takeover of New Amsterdam/New Netherlands, and encountering biased documents about African and Indigenous people have all been obstacles we've had to overcome. Additionally, we've found that African and Native women are often left out of historical records.
Despite these challenges, we've made important discoveries and learned about our ancestors' lives through their own words. Our research is of utmost importance due to the misrepresentations made by David S. Cohen in his 1974 book "The Ramapo Mountain People" regarding our ancestors and cousins. Cohen's legacy has fueled Indigenous "hatekeepers" who refuse to acknowledge the fact that the Lenape of PA, NY, NJ, and DE chose to remain in Lenapehoking, while the Oklahoma Delaware Nation, after signing The Treaty of Easton, relocated to other regions such as NY, Ontario, Wisconsin, and Kansas before eventually obtaining federal recognition, which granted them the right to settle on Cherokee-owned land in OK in 1867.[i] These individuals have gone so far as to employ tactics from the settler colonial playbook by denying our long, continuous existence in Lenapehoking due to paper genocide. This is sad because the OK Delaware Lenape have always been welcomed by the Lenape of PA, NJ, NJ, and DE. We are aware that the British colonial government, followed by the United States government, reneged on the promises made to our ancestors when they signed the Treaty of Easton in 1758. This is a stark example of settler colonialism.
Photographs above from the Laura Louise Thompson Line
While Andrea continues to research, I have started writing a book to tell our ancestral stories. For example, our Peterson ancestors lived on both sides of the Hudson River from Westchester County to the Ramapough Mountain region. Samuel Piggery and Elizabeth Dee had a daughter named Eleanor (c.1790-?) who married Solomon Peterson (1787-1873). In an April 19, 1910, New York Times article, it was reported that
"A century ago, it was common knowledge that the Indians of which [Robert S.] Peterson's father was a chief worked in a silver mine in the Ramapo Mountains. The elder Peterson was the last of his tribe and the last who had knowledge of the silver mine. On his death, he left his son a deed, written on buckskin, to the lands now in the Harriman estate.
The son tried to get the title to the land, but failed. He said he believed he knew the location of the mine, but was pledged to never tell the secret to a white man. Large sums were offered to him to disclose the location, but he never would so.”
Robert S. Peterson (1839-1910) is our 1st cousin 4XR. His father, Chief Solomon Peterson, was born in New York, and died in Ramapo, Rockland County, NY. However, Solomon was definitely not the "last of his tribe," as previously believed.
Moving to the other side of the Hudson River to Westchester County and Greenwich, CT, our 2nd great-uncle, Rev. Thomas Green (1835-1908), married Emeline Peterson (1829-1927), who was the daughter of William Peterson (1811-?). William Peterson's ancestry can be traced back to John Jacob Peterson/Patterson (1746-1850) who later moved to Peekskill, NY, whose father, according to our oral history, was of African descent and born in the West Indies, and whose mother was a member of the Kitchawanks people who were part of the Wappinger Federation living then around Croton Point, Westchester County. Although it is unclear on what side of the Hudson River John was born, he and his brother Samuel Peterson/Patterson were Black Patriots from New York. Samuel was also the father of Chief Solomon Peterson.
We have many more stories to tell that we uncovered using traditional genealogy techniques and DNA testing. It is important to remember that DNA is not culture, and DNA testing cannot link you to a specific Native American tribe. Ethnic inheritance is also not a given since DNA is randomly inherited. It is possible to be Ramapough Lenape, or a descendant of any other tribe, without having Native American DNA. However, DNA testing can link you to your living Indigenous DNA cousins provided that you have a paper trail that directly links you to them. We only turned to DNA testing to break down brick walls that paper genocide erected
When my maternal grandfather moved to Massachusetts and married my grandmother, whose family had ties to the Mashpee Wampanoag,[ii] our family lost contact with some of our Ramapough Lenape relatives. However, despite these disruptions, some of our relatives like Cousin Helen always remembered their roots and heritage. While my immediate family was not raised as Lenape, we can still be welcomed back to the tribe. Despite claims that the Ramapough Lenape Nation is growing through "suspect" means and is a "Corporation Posing as an Indigenous Non-Profit," I disagree. Under the leadership of Turtle Clan Chief Vincent Mann, the Ramapough Lenape are revitalizing themselves by protecting their sacred Lenapehoking and reclaiming their place in history through social and environmental justice causes. It is essential to teach Lenape culture and language to every generation of Ramapough Lenape, including those who have lost contact with their people. I believe that my ancestors chose Andrea and me to lead other Ramapough Lenape descendants back home by setting an example. Our family history is not unique, and many ancestral stories are still waiting to be told.
Photographs above of the Thompson-King Cousins Yvonne Chandler, Eleanor and Esther Mire
A Case Study in Paper Genocide: The Wampanoag and Ponkapoag Wixon Family of Southeastern Massachusetts
I asked my aunt, Helen Singh, to send me some photos from her youth that were related to our Native roots. I was raised by her parents and remember hearing about family gatherings, parades, powwows, etc. when she and my mom were younger. We were also close to my grandmother’s cousin who had married into the Wampanoag tribe. My aunt sent me the clipping below. She said the clipping was from The Brockton Enterprise, our hometown newspaper, and she said it must have been written in the mid-1960s before I was born.
She then added this oral history:
“The man on the far left was Clinton Wixon,[iii] son of Princess Starlight[iv] who lived across the street from us. Nanaweta Sterling[v] lived on the 2nd floor where they held meetings for the Eastern Indian League.[vi] Both Grandad and Nana Fischer[vii] signed the charter.
Princess Starlight used to make tiny beaded pouches with a prayer sewn inside and taught me how to sew beads. They kept me out of mischief in the early teen years marching in parades with regalia on…your mom, too…and powwows. Nanaweta taught me how to dance.
Clinton’s brother, Clarence “Red Blanket”[viii] was active with the Mashpee folks.
Princess Starlight had kinky hair. Clarence resembled her. She was a descendant of a known Ponkapoag family, but definitely mixed with Black. They were direct descendants of Massasoit through their father who was married to Princess Starlight.”
Who were these people? My grandfather and maternal great-grandmother signed the charter? What was this organization? So many questions popped in my head.
Indigeneity Erased on Paper….
I didn’t know who these people were so I researched their names and was surprised to learn about their Indigenous ancestry that traced back to some of the first Native people to have met the Puritan settlers in 1620. However, if you look on paper, their Indigeneity is hidden in official documents. For example, if we trace how Lucretia “Princess Starlight” Tinkham’s “race” is recorded over time, we see that, she is listed as being “Black” in the 1900 census, “Mulatto,” in 1910 census, “White” in 1920 census, “Indian” in 1930 census, “Negro” in 1940 census, and Negro” in the 1950 census.[ix] This is a very good example of how official documents do NOT show a person’s Indigenous identity, especially in census records between 1790 and 1950 when racial designation was determined by census enumerators.
[ii] My maternal grandmother, Mildred Fischer Green’s first cousin, Mary Julia “Sweet Grass” Lopez, was married to Vernon Norris “Chief Silent Drum” Lopez, the sachem of the Mashpee Wampanoag who transitioned onward.
[iii] Clinton Neakeahamuck “Chief Lightning Foot” Wixon (1931-2003) was a Wampanoag and Ponkapoag Indian. He was an 11th generation direct descendant of Chief Sachem Massasoit (Ousamequin) who greeted the pilgrims in 1620. He also descends from Chief Chicatawbut of the Massachusetts Tribe who deeded the land that is now Boston to the Puritans in 1630. Chief Lightning Foot lived in Brockton, MA between 1950-1970. He was a well-known Native American activist and culture bearer who dedicated his life to educating Wampanoag and Ponkapoag young people about tribal traditions, culture, and language. He was also the last fluent speaker of the Wampanoag language. Chief Lightning Foot helped organize the National Day of Mourning at Plymouth starting in early 1970s.
[iv] Lucretia “Princess Starlight” Tinkham (1899- 1980) was the mother of Chief Clinton “Lightning Foot” Wixon. She was a 10th generation descendant of Massasoit (Ousamequin)and she was the last true known Wampanoag fortune teller. Her husband, and father of her 2 sons, was Clarence Manter “Chief Sagamore Red Shell” Wixon. Sr., one of the leaders of the reorganization of the Wampanoags in the 1920s and 1930s.
[v] According to my aunt, Nanaweta Sterling was from Maine, but her son and his family lived in Whitman, MA. She was mostly European, but also had Native ancestors. Her granddaughters were my aunt’s age so they all hung out at Nanaweta’s apartment.
[vi] Chief Lightning Foot founded Native American organizations like the Algonquin Indian Association and the United Indian Tribes of America. In the 1960s, he joined with Native American tribes from Maine to Florida and formed the Federated Eastern Indian League to advocate for the restoration of Indigenous land and rights.
[vii] My Nana Fischer was my great-grandmother, Helen Mitchell Fischer. Her sister, Anna Lee Mitchell Stanley had a daughter, Mary Julia “Sweet Grass” Stanley, who married Vernon Norris “Silent Drum” Lopez. He was a Wampanoag activist and cultural bearer who went on to become the sachem of the Mashpee Wampanoag.
[viii] Clarence Manter “Chief Red Blanket” Wixon, Jr. (1934-1990), brother of Chief Lightning Foot, was chief of the Nemasket band of the Wampanoag. He was an ardent Indigenous activist and culture bearer. He educated others about Indian folklore and culture, and developed educational programs geared to Native Americans. He led the Algonquin Indian Association and was a member of The Boston Indian Council and Bristol County Indian Council.
[ix] Year: 1900; Census Place: Middleborough, Plymouth, Massachusetts; Roll: T623_674; Page: 1A; Enumeration District: 1135.
Year: 1910; Census Place: Middleboro, Plymouth, Massachusetts; Roll: T624_612; Page: 50B; Enumeration District: 1226; Image: 530.
Year: 1920; Census Place: Middleborough, Plymouth, Massachusetts; Roll: T625_727; Page: 5A; Enumeration District: 121; Image: 37.
Year: 1930; Census Place: Middleborough, Plymouth, Massachusetts; Roll: 940; Page: 23B; Enumeration District: 79; Image: 632.0.
Year: 1940; Census Place: Middleborough, Plymouth, Massachusetts; Roll: m-t0627-01639; Page: 4B; Enumeration District: 12-126.
United States of America, Bureau of the Census; Washington, D.C.; Seventeenth Census of the United States, 1950; Record Group: Records of the Bureau of the Census, 1790-2007; Record Group Number: 29; Residence Date: 1950; Home in 1950: Boston, Suffolk, Massachusetts; Roll: 4327; Sheet Number: 5; Enumeration District: 15-225.