From Housewifery to Coalition Building to Holding Office

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

Collage of materials relating to the opposition of Nancy Michael Shukaitis to the Tocks Island Dam. Lehigh University Library.

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.

 

 

Sisters in Freedom Screening at Paschalville Library Recap

Seven people, all women of color, joined us for another screening of Sisters in Freedom on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. The post-film discussion went quickly to resistance after one viewer remarked that women are still out knocking on doors and getting petitions signed.

A few of the women had canvassed for political campaigns and all said they were informed voters. They lamented the apathy they perceive among most people today. From their perspective, Philadelphia’s racial inequality persists in education, income, wealth, and housing, but they don’t see anyone in younger generations resisting these challenges. They cited the threat to raze Bartram Village, a housing project in Southwest Philadelphia, as an example. According to the viewers, residents of the projects and of Southwest Philadelphia have accepted that Bartram Village’s demolition is inevitable and that poor people will be displaced from their homes.

The amoebic discussion centered around the erosion of community structures that in the past kept people informed and able to form a more united activist front. Housing integration led to white flight and middle-class black flight. People used to learn about political issues at churches, but church attendance has declined. Parents on the block knew one another because their children played together, and mothers watched each other’s children; now children go to daycare and don’t play with their neighbors. Incarceration has taken away too many fathers. High property taxes, imminent domain, and gentrification have pushed longtime residents out of their homes in South, Southwest, and Kensington. The women noted that their neighborhood library is the closest thing they have to a community gathering space and is where they’re most likely to learn about social issues.

The women noted that the female abolitionists had rallied across racial lines for a common cause. They thought similar alliances would be formed today, if women could find a common cause. They felt this was unlikely, however, as everyone seems to have a different issue that’s important to them. Some care about the environment, some education, some wage equality. Viewers saw how some of these causes could be linked. They believed, for example, that if the minimum wage were raised so high that public assistance was eliminated, more people would demand accountability for how their taxes are spent, particularly in education.