National Inquirer 3/2022: These Native American women came to Philadelphia to see their ancestral land. They found apartments and a parking garage.
Louise Mommabear spoke, ”There certainly seems to be a feeling of erasure intended to remove any spirit that would imply that we were once there."
Six women from the Iroquois Confederacy in upstate New York traveled to Philadelphia recently to reconnect with a patch of tribal land. They came to retrace the footsteps of ancestors, to feel under their feet the earth that was deeded to them by colonial leaders centuries ago.
Instead, they found themselves walking amid cracked marble and crumbling slate near 2nd and Walnut Streets in Old City.
“I anticipated a park in a natural pristine state. Like any other park, it would have trees, grass, water,” said Louise McDonald (Native name Wa’kerakátste), a Mohawk Bear Clan Mother from Akwesasne, N.Y. “I was frozen for a minute because I felt it had been choked and that it wasn’t a true representation of the original intentions of the space. It just seemed to be purposely buried with a cover-up narrative. There certainly seems to be a feeling of erasure intended to remove any spirit that would imply that we were once there.”
Instead of the bucolic setting the women envisioned, they stood in an urban canyon enclosed on three sides by apartment buildings, the historic Thomas Bond House, and a multilevel parking garage. The space, called Welcome Park, was created as an open-air attraction in 1982 by the Friends of the National Park Service to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Pennsylvania by William Penn. But the women found nothing welcoming about it. For while the park walls listed Penn’s accomplishments, there was no mention of Native Americans and their ties to the land.
The plot had been given to the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations from the Iroquois Confederacy) in January 1755 by John Penn, William Penn’s grandson. In the 1700s, Native American groups often visited Philadelphia for diplomatic and trade meetings. They sometimes numbered in the hundreds and visited so frequently that John Penn asked the Provincial Council of Philadelphia to consider setting aside a piece of land for these gatherings. The delegations often refused to negotiate treaties until they could stand on their own ground and build a council fire.
Philadelphia’s Department of Records researched the site, at the request of The Inquirer, and found that if the land "was located somewhere between Walnut Street, South 2nd Street, Sansom Street, and South Hancock Street, then it’s safe to say that no part of it currently belongs to the Iroquois Confederacy.”
In an email, the records department said that “every inch of ground between those streets is now owned by either the United States of America or by the condominium owners at the Moravian Condos.”
History tells a different story of the Native Americans’ long association with the tract.
The Haudenosaunee were given a strip of land behind the Slate Roof House, a home William Penn once rented. The property, deeded with a wampum belt and presented to 12 visiting chiefs “in perpetuity for the conduct of Native diplomacy,” was referred to as the “Wampum Lot.” Its size is in question. According to The Quaker in the Forum by Amelia Mott Gummere (published in 1910) and Haudenosaunee tradition, it was roughly one square city block. Other sources describe the lot as 15 by 47 feet. Today, it appears to sit under a portion of the Moravian condominiums and the southeast corner of Welcome Park and behind what had been the famous Bookbinder’s Restaurant.
Haudenosaunee ownership of the tract was acknowledged by the city well into the 20th century.
After the demolition of the Slate Roof House in 1867, the Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce tried but failed to negotiate a deal with the Iroquois to purchase the land to expand the Commercial Exchange Building constructed in its place. In November 1922, the Wampum Lot was rededicated by five visiting chiefs, along with William Penn descendant William Penn-Gaskell Hall, Philadelphia Mayor J. Hampton Moore, and Pennsylvania officials. A pipe of peace was smoked on the spot where they believed John Penn originally deeded the land.
In the late 1970s, the Commercial Exchange, which had become the Keystone Telephone Building, was demolished. Welcome Park would arrive a few years later.
It’s unclear how ownership of the land was viewed by the city when it made a portion of the property available to build the park. The city records department, citing the demands brought on the coronavirus, said it was not able to further research decades of property records.
In 2015, a group of Native leaders, including Chief Sid Hill, Tadodaho of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, gathered with members of the Society of Friends and local residents in the Wampum Lot.
For the six women, their day in Philadelphia last month, which included a private tour of Independence Hall, was bittersweet. It was a reminder of how powerful their confederacy was during colonial times, and how it inspired the United States form of government. The U.S. Senate acknowledged the confederacy’s contributions in a 1987 resolution honoring the bicentennial of the Constitution.
“We almost became the 14th colony,” said McDonald.
“We gave our government structure to the United States,” said Michelle Schenandoah (Native name Kaluhyanu:wes) of Syracuse, the lone Oneida in the group. “We were a very highly evolved people with a highly sophisticated form of government. We know about democracy. … This form of government and this form of democracy is over 1,000 years old and is based on principles of peace, and it still exists to this day.”
The important thing, and the thing I walked away from it with, is that there is a deliberate erasure of our history,” said Schenandoah. “Why is this history not known to the public? Yet within our oral history we still have these pieces of information, living history. We still keep those stories very much alive."
“The minimalization of true history — it just seems to capture one point of view’” McDonald agreed. “It misses the richness of other people present. There has to be some sort of concerted effort to bring it back.”
Before the group left Welcome Park, they burned sage to cleanse themselves and the area. They gathered in a circle, said an ancestral prayer, and shouted a few cheers as a reminder their people were alive and had returned.
“We will be back, and we won’t be alone. We are going to bring many people with us,” McDonald said later. “We are shaping up a letter to the Mayor of Philadelphia,” seeking an explanation of what has occurred on their land and recognition of its historical significance. They hope to hand-deliver it in June.
"This was a sacred site, a place of convergence,” said McDonald. “We would like to see it returned to its earthly state, a place to have a fire, to have a historical marker to explain the history, and a place for us to return to so we can carry forward the memory in our children and grandchildren.”
In the Haudenosaunee tradition, women have the final say in tribal land sales. “When the women show up, it gets serious," she said. “We are here to recall the memory. We are here to reassert and to authorize. We don’t like to call ourselves feminists. We like to call ourselves ‘Ladies of the Law.' ”
Six Haudenosaunee women from upstate New York came to Philadelphia to investigate a piece of land given to the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations from the Iroquois Confederacy) in 1755 by John Penn, William Penn’s grandson. The land was granted to the Haudenosaunee as a place to meet, to camp and discuss treaties. That piece of land is now part of Welcome Park and under a portion of the Moravian condominium building (in background). L-R: (seated) Fallan Jacobs (Teiohontathe), Louise McDonald (Wa'kerakátste), Alexandra David (Karakwiiostha); (standing) Michelle Schenandoah (Kaluhyanu:wes), Tsiotenhari:io Herne, and Chelsea Sunday (Tiawentón:ti).
B Charles Fox
Updated March 25, 2020
Full Credit-Attribution for Educational Purposes: Philadelphia Inquirer
Author: CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
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