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I was fourteen years old the first time I set eyes on my husband. I knew he was the man I was going to marry someday, and I did, when I was eighteen and he was twenty.
I was born Marion Doris Purnell on April 25, 1922, but my Indian name is "Strong Medicine." I was given that name about thirty years ago because I know a thing or two about plants and herbs, and because it suits my personality -- or so I'm told. People have come to me for advice, all of my life. They know I will give it to 'em straight!
I was born in Bridgeton, New Jersey, and I have lived nearly all my life here, on the same stretch of road. It's in the southern part of New Jersey, near the Delaware Bay. Most people don't even know this part of New Jersey exists. It's beautiful country, mostly farmland and marshes.
When my husband and I were coming up, our tribe was in hiding. We were a hidden people. You wouldn't have been able to tell because we went about our lives like other people. We dressed like white people, we had "normal" jobs, we went to church.
But we were Indian.
Even today, you probably would not recognize us because we wear regular clothing, live in houses, drive cars, and eat the same kinds of foods you do. We do not live on a reservation, and only at Powwows and tribal gatherings, or for special occasions, do we put on our feather headdresses, beaded clothing, moccasins, and face paint in remembrance of early life.
Of course, there are other differences. We live the Indian way, and always have. We have reverence for God and all living things. We are a very tight-knit group, and we help each other. We revere our children and our Elders. We don't live for the moment, the way many Americans do, and we are not as likely to be motivated by material things or by money. Integrity and honesty are extremely important to us.
Many white people have a very rigid idea of who Indians are. There is no "typical" Indian any more than there is a "typical" black person or "typical" Jewish person. But when people think of Indians, they think of the stereotype of the Plains Indians, riding horses and hunting buffalo. You know, the guys who killed Custer. They think we all live on a reservation somewhere. Well, it's simply not so. It's not really their fault for thinking that, though. There are so few books out there that tell the true story of Indians. Some of it's our fault because we don't like to talk to outsiders, so it's hard for people to get good, firsthand information. As for the movies, well, I will share my opinion about that later.
It's important that people understand that not all tribes are alike, nor do we look alike. Many of us, especially on the East Coast, have some ancestry other than Indian. That's because in the East we've been coexisting with white people -- and black people, too -- for almost four hundred years.
My mother, for example, was Lenape with a little white blood. My father was Indian, too, on his mother's side, but he was also part black. His great-grandmother was a slave in Maryland. If you look at my family tree, it's very complicated in terms of race. But I'm more Lenape Indian than anything else. And that's how I was raised.
My husband's name was Wilbert Gould, though most people knew him as "Wilbur Junior." His Indian name was "Wise Fox." He was Lenape but he had a small amount of white blood -- Irish. He had blue eyes!
People will say to your face, "Well, you can't be Indian if you have blue eyes" or "So-and-so's not Indian. He looks black, so he must be black!" People can be downright rude about it. We're a little tired of people trying to tell us who we are. Another thing we hear all the time is, "But there aren't any Indians in New York and New Jersey." Or they'll say we are extinct.
Maybe they think there was no one living here but rabbits and squirrels before white people got here and "discovered" the land. The truth is, we've been killed off, moved around, and more or less treated very badly for four hundred years.
What happened to another tribe -- the Cherokee -- is fairly well known. They were marched out west by U.S. soldiers to a reservation, and a lot of them died along the way. They called it the Trail of Tears.
What most people don't realize is that this happened to a lot of tribes. It happened to my tribe. There's a story told in our tribe that the last trainload of Lenape were sent out west to a reservation in 1924, when I was two years old. So you see why we kept quiet. We kept quiet in order to survive.
Being Indian was a secret, something you didn't talk about outside the family. If the government came around and asked questions, like when they did the census, the members of our tribe might not talk to them. Sometimes we would say we were "colored." That's a term they used in the old days for people who are not white. Well, the government workers were white and they didn't know what the heck we were. They thought we meant we were "black" when we said "colored." We let them think that. I tell you what, the United States census must be messed up, going way, way back, 'cause I'm pretty sure we aren't the only ones who did that.
See, you were better off being black than Indian. The government didn't take your home and land and make you go out west to a reservation if you were black. But they did that to Indians. They did it all the time.
Until four hundred years ago, when the white people came, Lenape land included Manhattan Island, New Jersey, and part of Pennsylvania, too, including Philadelphia. Hmmm. Maybe they should give it all back. Ha!
Now, I think that's funny. That's my type of humor. Hey, you have to laugh at yourself and things that go on around you. There are plenty of things that can make you sad, crazy, or angry, so you better find ways to enjoy this life. That is the secret of living well.Copyright © 2008 by Amy Hill Hearth