One of the first things Iz Balleto did when he moved to Delaware from New York was look for signs of Indigenous culture.
Balleto, who serves as the community engagement specialist at the Delaware Art Museum, grew up with strong ties to his Quechua heritage, tracing his ancestors back to the Incas in South America. But in Delaware — which is home to multiple Native tribes — Balleto found that outside of the tribes themselves, most Indigenous culture was relegated to small museum displays and often forgotten history.
“What about the people that have lived here for thousands of years?” Balleto said he wondered. “What about their representation? What about their presence?”
He wanted a way to share the rich history and culture of local tribes with the community at large; at the same time, he wanted to make sure he could do so in a way that showed love and respect to these traditions.
On Saturday, Balleto’s vision became a reality.
Members of the local Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe gathered with other Indigenous peoples from the region to host a powwow in the atrium of the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington. Non-native people were invited to attend and, in some cases, participate in the cultural celebration. They were also encouraged to support local Indigenous artists who came to sell jewelry, shawls, bags and even bows and arrows.
“This is not something to exploit,” Balleto said. “We just wanted to build that bridge with the tribes that have been forgotten here in Delaware.”
Social powwows are important to Indigenous peoples, Nanticoke Chief Natosha Carmine explained. They’re an opportunity to see family and friends, as well as to provide education on their tribe’s history and customs.
“We get to express ourselves through our culture with dance, with fellowship (and) with comradery,” Carmine said. “Those things are important to a community.”
Before each dance was performed at the powwow, Keith Colston, a member of the North Carolina-based Tuscarora and Lumbee tribes, shared the significance. He explained how the number of “hard strikes” in the drumbeat identified whether the drum circle was playing in Northern or Southern style; the cultural significance of grass dance, which is believed to have come from a tradition of flattening and blessing grass for a ceremony or battle; and how the materials worn by each dancer reflected what region they were from.
“There’s history being kept alive,” Colston said.
Both he and Carmine emphasized the importance of Native cultures being passed down to future generations, both within and outside of the Indigenous communities. In the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe, Carmine said she is working with a linguist to revive their language so that future generations can use it. She is also helping to educate non-Natives, who often aren’t taught much about this part of Delaware’s history — if they’re even taught it at all.
“Very few students know that there are tribes in Delaware that are indigenous to us,” said Herman Jackson, a member of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe.
He said he believes this lack of mainstream knowledge stems from a desire to forget the “bad” parts of history — namely, the damage and displacement wrought by European colonizers when they arrived in Delaware in the 1600s.
“Our history is our history,” Jackson said. “Good, bad, indifferent. And to me, doesn’t make sense to eliminate it, hide it or change it.”
Preserving this history by adding it to the archives was one of Balleto’s main reasons for joining the art museum staff.
“I want to make sure we never get erased ever again,” he said. “I want to make sure that it’s etched into their books.”
Balleto also helped to curate an exhibit of Navajo artist Will Wilson’s work, which combines photography with augmented reality. Wilson also photographed local Indigenous peoples for a connected exhibit called “Indigenous Faces of Wilmington.”
Both will be on display in the museum through Sept. 11. The public is also invited to the annual Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape powwow in Milton that same weekend.
“Native Americans are still in Delaware,” Jackson said. “We always have been (and) we always will be.”
Send story tips or ideas to Hannah Edelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more reporting, follow them on Twitter at @h_edelman.
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