Editor’s Note: Housed at Lehigh University, the Nancy Shukaitis papers provide insight into the roles of women and indigenous peoples in the Philadelphia area conservation and environmental movements. A housewife catalyzed by federal threats to raze her home, Shukaitis found herself linked to Native Americans’ long history of displacement. How are some of the least-expected populations moved to resistance and to building coalitions? What are the issues that link people of different backgrounds?
Nancy Shukaitis: The Unexpected Activist
By Rachael Bucci and Berto Sicard, Lehigh University
In the 1960s, the United States federal government planned the construction of the Tocks Island Dam. The construction plan aimed to build a 37-mile barrier beyond the shores of the Delaware River to be utilized for drinking water, hydroelectricity, and flood protection. Congress and the four governors of the states belonging to the Delaware River Basin Commission — Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York — made up part of the large support network for the dam proposal. Despite the dam’s numerous projected benefits, it posed serious issues for many people. To construct the dam, the government planned to use eminent domain to acquire the property of approximately 1,200 people living in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Nancy Shukaitis was among the people who lost her land, but she refused to fade into the background while the government displaced people from their homes. Instead, she dedicated her time and efforts to fighting the Tocks Island Dam project as well as opposing industrial and commercial development initiatives of the natural land.
Shukaitis did not evoke the typical image of resistance in the 1960s. When the government developed the Tocks proposal, Shukaitis was a housewife. Her empathy and investment in the community sparked an activist’s spirit, despite it not being a traditional role for married white women with young families at that time. She began organizing by informing the public of the controversial nature of the project and promoting water conservation. She raised awareness through various platforms: corresponding with local, state, and federal political officials, holding public meetings to spread the word, and writing to newspapers. As she became more invested, Shukaitis worked in several environmental protection groups such as the Delaware Valley Conservation Association, Save the Delaware Coalition, and Lenni Lenape League to further raise awareness surrounding the Tocks Island Dam and water conservation.
Environmental impacts of the dam were nebulous at best. Several locations along the Delaware River were considered for construction, yet serious problems arose at each point. Because of unideal geological formations for hydroelectricity, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to destroy large scenic mountains in the Delaware Water Gap. Sediment accumulation threatened larger floods at the site of the dam. There was no guarantee water purity would be maintained, despite a prime incentive of building the dam being the exportation of water to Philadelphia and New York. Moreover, a large portion of the land to be flooded was home to priceless Native American artifacts.
The dam’s threat to destroy Native American artifacts motivated Native Americans to build coalitions with Shukaitis. The Lenape, also called the Delaware People, were indigenous to the proposed area. They protested the construction of the dam for over three decades to preserve their land and artifacts. Born in Smithfield, PA, in an area called “Shawnee on the Delaware,” and as a member of the Lenni Lenape League, Shukaitis’s local identity gave her another angle from which to combat the proposed construction. She joined the efforts of the Lenape Indians to protect the land and objects belonging to their ancestral roots.
Many asked Shukaitis why she had not stepped aside and let her husband take over the project. That option had never crossed her mind. Shukaitis and her activist colleagues gave testimony to the U.S. Congress in 1965 and succeeded in preventing development of 70,000 acres. On September 1, 1965, Congress established the land as the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area to manage lands surrounding the proposed Tocks Island Dam. Nonetheless, for several decades, various interest groups continued efforts to claim the land. As the first woman elected commissioner of Monroe County in 1967, Shukaitis was able to stop the construction of a luxury hotel soon after the land was protected. In 1978, Congress established the Middle Delaware National Scenic River, which blocked the construction of future dams.
Congress formally de-authorized the Tocks Island proposal in 1992, but threats to the land continued. In 2011, PPL Corporation proposed a $1.2 billion power line project through the park. Long retired from politics, Shukaitis helped citizens sue to protect the land and succeeded in preventing the project.
Nancy Shukaitis’s acts of resistance protected a scenic landmark from destruction, and her efforts can be appreciated more today than ever before. In the middle of the twentieth century, the impact of dams was not completely understood. Today, time and research have enabled society to understand that dams can irreversibly alter ecosystems and wipe out local species. Thus, while Shukaitis protected land that formerly belonged to her, she also helped maintain the harmony and ecosystem of the area in general for decades to come. Her persistence in activism on behalf of her community has inspired several generations, and she is still honored by local environmental and political foundations.
I ended part I of this two-part blog series with the question, ““[I]n 25 to 100 years, what will hold more weight to people looking back at this moment—viral, instantaneous postings, the next-day regrets of experienced journalists, or Nathan Phillips, an indigenous man, in his own words?” I wondered this because as I saw the confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial unfolding last month and thinking about how the acts of resistance and counter-resistance would be preserved and remembered, I was also thinking about Digital Paxton.
Launched in 2017, Digital Paxton is an online collection of nearly 20 institutions’ materials related to the massacre of the Conestoga Native American tribe in Lancaster, Pa., in December 1763. A mob of white settlers who came to be known as the “Paxton Boys” descended upon the Conestoga and murdered 20 unarmed Susquehannock Indians.
Though Digital Paxton boasts nearly 3,000 documents, “materials that give voice to Conestoga, Lenape, or Moravian Indians … are almost always mediated through colonial sources,” said Will Fenton, Director of Scholarly Innovation at Library Company of Philadelphia (LCP) and founder of Digital Paxton. For example, the Quakers often quote Lenape leaders verbatim in their minutes from conferences with the tribe.
We live in a time when historians understand representation matters to people of color, social studies teachers know the point-of-view of the winner isn’t an accurate overview of history, and when the most marginalized groups in U.S. history are exerting more control over the telling of their own stories. But how do Native peoples relay that history if the kind of primary sources archivists have put a premium on weren’t written by Native Americans?
Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial America attempts to step into that gap. Managed by LCP and funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, Redrawing History is a collaboration among scholars, artists, and tribal leaders that reinterprets the story of the Paxton massacre from the perspective of Native peoples and spreads the knowledge of it to a wider audience.
The project’s main method of sharing will be a graphic novel written by Lee Francis and illustrated by Weshoyot Alvitre, both of whom are Native American artists who have worked together previously on historicized fiction projects, such as Tales of the Mighty Code Talkers, a graphic novel that received the American Indian Library Association’s (AILA) 2018 American Indian Youth Literature Award for Best Middle Grade Book. Lee’s publishing company, Native Realities, published Mighty Code Talkers. He is also the founder of Indigenous Comic Con and owner of Red Planet Books and Comics.
The process of creating a graphic novel that’s also historicized fiction can be summed up this way: research, write, draw, revise, print. But the research step is complex, important, and detailed.
“I’m working with tribes that aren’t my own tribe,” said Weshoyot (pronounced Weh-shoy-o). Weshoyot is a member of the Tongva tribe, a nation whose land base was the greater Los Angeles area. She lives in California. Lee is Pueblo of Laguna and lives near Albuquerque, NM. Weshoyot feels some additional pressure to accurately represent the story of another nation, though she and Lee see parallels with many Native tribes’ respective histories.
Lee pointed to the Sand Creek Massacre in Colorado in 1864, when the U.S. Army killed 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians along Sand Creek. The Tongva, Weshoyot’s tribe, is not federally recognized, but was also the victim of genocide—initially by Spanish colonists (the land was part of Mexico until the Mexican-American War) and then by white settlers pushing into the West. The Tongva’s population dropped exponentially from an estimated 5,000-10,000 people in the late 1400s to 700 at the turn of the twentieth century.
“I think this [history of genocide] gives me a level playing field for handling [another tribe’s history] respectfully but also doing it with a backbone, giving a a voice that hasn’t been presented before,” said Weshoyot.
Genocide, however, is not the end of the indigenous American story. Weshoyot and Lee want to show a story of survival.
“Despite the massacres that tried to eliminate us, we still exist,” said Lee.
After Will Fenton reached out to Weshoyot and Lee, he connected them withmembers of the Native community in Lancaster and the Circle Legacy Center, a Native American nonprofit organization there. Redrawing History’s advisory board also includes prominent scholars (Daniel Richter at Penn), curatorial experts (e.g. Vilma Ortiz-Sanchez at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian), and indigenous ambassadors (Curtis Zunigha, co-director of the Lenape Center and member of the Delaware Tribe in Oklahoma).
With the input of the local indigenous community, historians of the Paxton massacre, and people whose ancestors survived it, Lee and Weshoyot “have worked backwards from the sense that Native people still exist. These were people who had agency, who stood up, who were heroes in their own right,” said Lee.
The murdered Conestoga men and women were also human. “The extent of their representation has been their names in history books, but I really want to flesh that out a little more,” said Weshoyot.
To reconstruct the humanity of the characters she’s drawing, Weshoyot reads and studies material culture “to find out what stresses people were under in colonialism. There’s a lot of psychological work, too, forensic work to flesh out who these people could have been. Their personalities, stresses in their lives with a culture coming in and pushing them out of their homeland, colonists coming in and building surrounding their hunting grounds.”
She’s also deep into research of Lancaster’s natural and physical environments so she can represent them correctly. “The trees are sky high—so different from what we have here,” she said, referring to the area of California where she resides. “I research how buildings are made architecturally, because I need to draw those in a 3-D environment. I have to tie in types of doors they would have used. There’s also the Native housing.”
In addition to setting, Weshoyot is considering costumes, props, clothing colors, prints on the fabric, and more. “It’s as detailed as making a film,” she said. “You may see one tenth of the research I’m putting into this right now.”
The details help solidify the fact that Native people had established a way of life prior to colonizers arriving—-a way that continues to be challenged today in situations like the fight over the Dakota Pipeline, when Native land is within the path of economic development.
In the jailhouse where the massacre occurred, Weshoyot sees a striking metaphor for colonization and continued environmental threats. “In Native cultures, rocks and land are just as important as people are,” but “a foreign entity came in and drilled out the [existing] stone to make it a jailhouse,” an act that represents how society is broken apart and put back together for something else, Weshoyot said. Today, the building is, somewhat ironically, a theater. Weshoyot pointed out that something dramatic continues to happen there, but the history of the building and the previous importance of the stone is disconnected from the rest of the land and from the people.
For Weshoyot, the construction of the jailhouse has helped her emphasize Native folks’ humanity.
“I try to imagine myself in the space. If you slow down time and put yourself in the perspective of anyone in this situation—it was in the wintertime. It was cold, it was snowing. They were already traumatized and were huddled together into the basement of a jail made of stone,” she said.
“Ithink the brilliance of what we can do with [a graphic novel] is to reconstruct how people would have reacted in those circumstances. … They died standing up. They faced their attackers eye to eye. That’s one of the things we can show with a little bit of historical amalgamation,” said Lee.
With regard to portraying a historical event in a fictive space, the Redrawing History team is inspired by Saidiya Hartman’s work on critical fabulation “as a means to creatively imagine what might have happened, ‘to imagine what cannot be verified … to reckon with the precarious lives which are visible only in the moment of their disappearance.’” For Lee, this means maintaining “a good, noble balance, a beautiful conflict to make sure we are telling the stories in a way that do honor [to those who were massacred] but project something positive into the world.” He and Weshoyot are also grateful to Will, LCP, and Pew for seeking out trends in Native pop and visual culture and for being open to finding new ways to represent Native voices.
While the vast majority of materials in Digital Paxton are written from the perspective of whites who were either allies or Paxton sympathizers, Lee has preserved the Lenape language in the script whenever possible and also has quoted lines directly from some of the political cartoons in the collection. He noted that Native people likely saw themselves represented in mass media and spoke out about how they were portrayed. In the media, Lee said, Native people were used as props.
“We wanted to place Native people at the center, to show their agency and that they were still people. A group of people were used as political cartoons, props, propaganda. We want to focus on the experience, and that has resounding current-day parallels,” said Lee. He compared the way Native people were depicted in the 1870s with how refugees from Syria or asylum-seekers from Central America are being portrayed today. They’ve become political tools, “but what about the people who are actually there, the people who have the agency because they choose to walk, even though they are herded into a place and facing their extermination?” he said.
Lee sees agency and heroism in many of the same ways we’ve heard listening session participants express it—“not chiefs or plains riders,” but in people the media didn’t cover at Standing Rock, like “our grandmothers, people who were cleaning latrines, cooking every day.”
When people finish reading the graphic novel, Lee said he wants them to understand three main points: 1) that the Paxton mob failed in its attempt to wipe out the Conestoga people; 2) that “there is a lived truth to the Native existence and identity in colonial America that is not based on war but on survival” and that “allows for agency of the people who were exterminated but have a voice in the present; and 3) “that we tell the story of a people you may not have heard about.”
For all the tragedy and sorrow in the American empire, America is a tapestry that is incredible in its depth, and that needs to be noticed and reconciled. … It’s truth and reconciliation that I can do in the way that I know how as an indigenous writer—through a comic book,” said Lee.
By now, you’ve probably seen at least one video of a confrontation at the Lincoln Memorial Friday, Jan. 18, between white male high school students and an indigenous elder. As mea culpas continue from journalists and other media personalities who accused the boys of racism and bigotry before videos taken from other angles appeared online, I find myself examining whose version is being accepted as the truth and wondering whose perspective will be preserved as such.
I hadn’t checked Twitter in a few days when a friend alerted me via text that Covington Catholic, a school between my hometown (Louisville, Ky.) and my friend’s (Cincinnati, Oh.), was trending. The first video I saw explaining why it was trending showed in its foreground a Native elder and a white boy face to face, probably no more than a foot away from each other. The elder was drumming and singing. The boy, wearing a MAGA hat, looked the man in his eyes and smirked. Boys in the middle- and background, all of them white and several also wearing MAGA hats, laughed, gawked, cheered, and raised their cell phones. One boy clapped along with the drum. (The Black Hebrew Israelites do not appear in the video at all.)
The first words I heard about the incident from a direct participant were those of Nathan Phillips, the Omaha Nation man in the video playing the drum and singing. Intermittently wiping away tears he recalled hearing the teens chant, “Build that wall!” He said, “This is indigenous land. We’re not supposed to have walls here. We never did. For millennium, before anyone else came here, we never had walls. We never had a prison. We always took care of our elders, took care of our children. We always provided for them. We taught them right from wrong. I wish I could see that energy of the young men … put that energy into making this country really, really great.”
Thank you to @VinceSchilling of @IndianCountry and many others who identified the proud Native man who is being harassed. He is Mr. Nathan Phillips. I’m reposting this video from “ka_ya11” on IG. This man’s words pierce my heart. The grace. The wisdom. The hope. pic.twitter.com/BKOA40SVq5
My initial reaction was threefold: unsurprised at the behavior of the teens, moved by Phillips’ tears, and smugly satisfied that a Native American elder gave a first-person account and that his account was the one the media ran with. His voice was the voice of the incident, and his voice was heard all over Twitter. He owned the story.
Then came Monday.
There were new videos from new angles and different timeframes. Then came the relief that this young group of Trump supporters couldn’t possibly have been disrespectful (at best) and were, in fact, the victims of overzealous retweeters—relief masked as retractions and analysis that the scene was more complicated than originally understood. Then came the Today show interviewing Nick Sandmann, the smirking teen, Wednesday morning. Thursday morning, nearly one week after the confrontation, Today returned to Phillips.
But I want to stay on Saturday for a minute, because in the historical record, in the pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides, and political cartoons preserved from the Colonial, Revolutionary, and post-Revolutionary eras, it is extremely rare for an indigenous person’s perspective to be the first or main story the broader public hears, and rarer still for that voice not to be filtered through whites—whether they were combatants or allies.
Nathan Phillips got the chance on Friday and Saturday to tell what happened, but he wasn’t reduced to a narrator of the viral footage. He was an elder, an activist, and someone who felt led to use prayer and a blessing song to navigate the racial tension he observed between groups of black and white males at the Lincoln Memorial. His humanity remained intact. A full picture of Native folks’ humanity, too, is rare to find when looking for Native voices in the historical record.
In a digital age, however, a conversation, story, or family history that ordinarily may have been passed down orally might appear on Twitter or Instagram as video. (Quick sleuthing suggests the video I saw in director Ava DuVernay’s feed was reposted from Instagram user ka_ya11, a user who identifies as a member of the Dakota nation. Notably, social media platforms often are the way people of color amplify one another’s work and perspectives.) These digital platforms are their own archive, and traditional news platforms turn to them to find and substantiate news and opinions.
Monday through Wednesday of this past week, news outlets returned to privileging voices, experiences, and accounts that were white, male, and—given that the students involved attend a private school—wealthy. Did the media simply give a more balanced view by giving Sandmann a chance to share his side of the story? In a world where colonialism, genocide of Native peoples, and their imprisonment in religious schools never happened, yes. In the world we live in, the world where it did, the media simply rushed to absolve young white men (and their chaperones) of collective responsibility and individual malice. From an archival perspective, they repeated mistakes of collectors of the past, even when they didn’t have to. That is how ingrained within America’s DNA white supremacy is.
The Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in Western Pennsylvania was formally dedicated in September, 1966. Intended for flood control and power generation, the dam and the reservoir it created led to the displacement of 160 Seneca families from their ancestral lands and the condemnation of 10,000 acres of land on the Allegheny Reservation. The United States recognized these lands as part of the Seneca Nation through the signing of the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, or the Pickering Treaty. The Kinzua Dam was a direct violation of this treaty.
Advocates of Native rights, environmentalists, and social activists banded together to oppose the Kinzua Dam, or to promote alternative strategies and locations such as the Conewango-Cattaraugus project. Quaker & Special Collections at Haverford College has extensive documentation of this activism and protest in the papers of Theodore Hetzel, a Quaker involved with the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Indian Committee. Philadelphia Quakers had a long relationship with the Seneca dating to the 18th century, and were present at the signing of the Pickering Treaty. During the fight against the Kinzua Dam, Philadelphia Quakers lobbied representatives in Washington, worked with Native leaders, and helped to publicize the issues surrounding the dam.
Although many of the materials in Hetzel’s papers come from and represent the voices of the Quaker community, there are also materials which document Seneca voices. These include letters from Seneca leaders, newsletters published by the Seneca Nation, and news stories which include Native voices. Other materials include photographs, letters from politicians, news reports and letters to the editor, and documentation of actions carried out by Quakers. While the efforts to stop the Kinzua Dam were ultimately unsuccessful, they provide important documentation of a struggle which is not obvious to those familiar only with the dam itself, and not its history.