Skip to content

The Original People – A Brief Overview of Pennsylvania’s Native Tribes + Native Americans in America Today

Benjamin Wolf, Contributing Editor


Stories of the indigenous peoples of this land are often spoken in the hushed tones of the past tense. As though the Native peoples of America aren’t a living, breathing, vibrant part of this country. Today, 40% of Americans are convinced that there are no Native Americans left in the United States. This lack of recognition by the public, and ongoing governmental neglect at State and Federal levels, has resulted in horrendous outcomes for Native Americans at large.

II. Native Americans in Today’s America

Today, there are roughly 900 federally recognized and unrecognized tribes in the United States made up of over 6.5 million people. Due to forced removal by the US government over the past 500 years, the majority of Native Americans live on reservations in the western half of the country. These reservations and their social services are mostly funded by the Federal Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA); an agency originally founded to force Native Americans to assimilate to US cultural norms. The BIA is chronically underfunded, seen as ineffective in providing housing and education, and has even been sued for mismanagement of Native American funds. Modern day government negligence combined with hundreds of years of state sanctioned violence has led to disheartening outcomes for Indigenous Americans.

Native Americans experience higher rates of heart disease, cancer, liver disease, and suicide than any other group in the country. From an economic standpoint, they have the lowest median household income, highest unemployment and poverty rates, and lowest levels of educational achievement in America. Over 80% of Native women report having experienced violence in their lifetime, and nearly 60% have been victims of sexual violence; a shocking 96% of perpetrators were members of other racial or ethnic groups. This collective trauma has played a part in Native Americans having a life expectancy 5.5 years lower than the national average.

II. The Original People: Philadelphia’s Native Tribe

For Philadelphia, and Pennsylvania as a state, the treatment of its Native Tribes has aligned closely with the rest of the United States.

The Lenape tribe, also known as the Delaware, are the original people of Philadelphia. They inhabited the land we now call Pennsylvania for roughly 10,000 years before the arrival of Europeans. Their society was agrarian in nature with farming, hunting, and foraging as the main sources of sustenance. The tribe shared the same language and cultural traditions, but were not a unified political entity. In the year 1600, the roughly 20,000 Lenape lived in villages and towns run by local democratically elected councils and headed by various chiefs. Their territory spread across modern day Pennsylvania, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York. Due to an onslaught of disease, exploitative treaties, and genocidal massacres at the hands of European colonizers resulted in a decrease of the tribal population to only 4000 people at the time of Philadelphia’s founding 1682.

The relationship between the city’s founder, William Penn, and the Lenape was initially cordial. Due to Penn’s beliefs as a Quaker that there is something of God in all people, and that all people are equal in the eyes of God, Penn worked with the Lenape to purchase the land that is now Philadelphia rather than through the use of military force. The Lenape and Penn agreed to the selling and purchasing of additional land in 1682 with the signing of the Treaty of Goodwill. Fifty years of peace between the Lenape and European settlers ensued, with no further land purchases or breaches of the treaty occurring in the Philadelphia region.

Penn’s death in 1718 ushered in an era of mistreatment of the Lenape. Penn’s sons acted against the precedents set by their father, swindling the Lenape out of vast swaths of land in 1737. That year, Penn’s children brought forth a document they claimed was a deed to land north of Philadelphia, signed by a long dead Lenape chief. The document could not be verified, and no historical record of Penn signing such a treaty has ever been produced.

According to the deed, the amount of land due to the Europeans was to be measured by how far they could walk in a day and a half starting from a pre-determined location. The Europeans ensured they would secure as much land as possible by having brush, trees, and other obstacles removed from their path prior to the day of the long walk. Three European runners, taking advantage of the smoothed terrain, took 1.2 million acres, the majority of their land in the region, from the Lenape.

This loss of land, in addition to an increase in acts of violence by the European colonialists, forced the remaining Lenape to flee their homeland, with most settling in states further to the west such as Oklahoma and Kansas. Today, roughly 16,000 Lenape live in the United States.

As of this writing, Pennsylvania remains one of the only states that does not contain reservations, does not officially recognize its Native Tribes, and is the only state without a university-level Native American studies program or cultural center.

III. How Can We Do Better?

#1. The first step for those of us is who are not Indigenous is to listen and learn. Because Native American history in US public schools is often presented in an inaccurate and narrow context, the sad truth is that most Americans know very little about modern Native Americans or their cultural traditions.

We encourage you to access these educational resources—start learning today!

#2. As is true in most cases: monetary support is always helpful. Purchasing products and services from authentic Native American sources, as well as donating to charitable organizations, is one concrete way to immediately make an impact.

#3. Outside of education and financial support, you can take steps to protect Native property and land in a myriad of ways.

Pivedite Team

Leave a Comment

Sign-Up Today!

Please sign up for our email list to get alerts on our next blog posts and for the latest Pivedite news!