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Delaware Nation

Delaware Nation

By Brandon King

Photo provided by Curtis Zunigha

In March of 2016, members of the Delaware Nation in Anadarko, also known as the Lenape, faced an existential choice: tradition or tribal progression. 

Amendment A -- a measure that would end blood quantum requirements for Delaware Nation citizenship -- was on the voting ballot. On March 16, the amendment passed with 170 yes votes and 107 against.

Since the vote three years ago, the enrollment of the Lenape, a word that means “the people,”  has risen from 1,459 to 1,580 and is growing. This is due in part to allowing tribal members with low blood quantums to join rather than relying on blood lineage alone. The previous percentage requirement for potential tribal members was one-eighth. In modern Delaware Nation law, one simply has to prove an overall ancestral link to the Delaware people. 

“We wrote this amendment in order to preserve the tribe from going extinct,” said Deborah Dotson, president of the Delaware Nation, based in Anadarko. “The Delaware Nation is not as large as some of the other tribes in Oklahoma. We simply couldn’t count on a blood quantum to maintain our heritage in the long run.”

A blood quantum, according to the Association on American Indian Affairs, is the amount of verifiable indigenous blood someone must possess to qualify for tribal citizenship. The Delaware Nation leaned on traditional blood lineage rather than linear heritage, or ancestral proof of tribal citizenship, until the declining population numbers forced them to act. 

“I will tell you this, the vote for lineal descendancy was a controversial and hard-fought decision; but one that was necessary,” Dotson said. “Ask any Lenape and they’ll tell you that tradition is sacred, tradition is everything. It’s tough, but if we have to make these decisions for our future, so be it.”

Despite the rise in population, some within the Delaware Nation saw the measure as a step back from the community’s culture. 

“They don’t like to talk about it too much because some often see the amendment as an abandonment of tradition,” said Wesley Boone, public relations officer for the Delaware Nation. “But we had to fight, otherwise our nation faced extinction. We had no other choice.”

Records of the Lenape population are scarce due to forced migrations throughout the northeast Delaware River Valley and into areas such as Ohio, Texas, Oklahoma, and Ontario, Canada. With every relocation, the population dwindled through tribal separations throughout the country until the second to final tribe settled in northeast Oklahoma near present day Bartlesville. The other set of Indigenous people relocated in Anadarko, Oklahoma. 

In a contract between the U. S. government and the Oklahoma Cherokee in 1867, the Delaware tribe was given two options: relinquish Delaware citizenship and become part of the Cherokees or pay the U.S. government for 160 acres.

Tribal members were divided between those that settled with the Cherokee out of necessity and those who wished to be independent. The latter took their people to present-day Anadarko. Over 100 years later in 1999, what was called the “Western Delaware” would be called the “Delaware Nation”, located in Anadarko. Those who remained in Cherokee territory would form the Eastern Delaware Tribe of Indians in the late 1990s. Those who stayed were considered Cherokee until the courts declared them a sovereign nation in 1998. 

“We didn’t have many people when the ancestors came out to the Anadarko area,” Boone said. “All we had was our traditions and our ways of life. That’s why we clung to each other. We’re all about community, but it’s also about survival.”

Brandon King is a reporter with Gaylord News, a reporting project of the University of Oklahoma Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication.