Ten generations ago, Denise Low’s Delaware ancestors began a forced journey from their eastern coastal homelands near modern-day Manhattan to escape encroachment and persecution from the amassing Europeans.
The diaspora of the Delaware people would spread them inland, a disaster for keeping the people together and whole.
“After several hundred years of resistance, from the 1500s to the mid-1700s, they were overwhelmed but not finally defeated,” Low writes. “Dozens of Delaware communities continue to exist from the Atlantic Ocean to Idaho and from Canada to the southern plains. Two federally recognized tribes are in Oklahoma and one in Wisconsin. State-recognized Delawares are in Delaware, New Jersey and Ohio. Others meet regularly, including the Kansas Delaware Tribe of Indians near my home in Lawrence.”
By the time the later generations of Low’s family settled in Kansas, a state with a then-prominent Ku Klux Klan presence, a tacit public denial had begun. Not calling attention to Native heritage at the time also meant children would not be removed to boarding schools. The silence was practical, but as with all secrets, reaped consequences.
Low documents her journey through the family’s past and the Delaware diaspora in her book released this year, The Turtle’s Beating Heart: One Family’s Story of Lenape Survival.
The title evolved from a story told by an Arikara woman, whose grandmother fed her the heart of a freshly killed turtle. A turtle’s heart beats long after it is separated from its body.
“I love that image of survival,” Low said. For her, it illustrated well how the heart of the Delaware people continues to beat.
“All of them adapted to many different conditions,” Low writes. “All are survivors like my family.”
The former Kansas state poet laureate, Low also serves as adjunct professor for the master of liberal arts program at Baker University and is the former dean of Arts and Humanities at Haskell Indian Nations University.
She has written a dozen books of poetry, but this family memoir, which focuses on her grandfather, Frank Bruner Jr., her mother Dorothy Bruner and herself, presented different challenges.
“I rewrote it maybe four times completely. I am grateful to Kimberly Blaeser, Ojibwa, and Matthew Bokovoy, who are editors of the University of Nebraska Press.”
Low found several stories to tell, both the history of the Delaware people and the history of her own family. She tried, too, to insert poems, but finally, after one revision, her editor gave her some sound advice.
“The reader’s mind was ping-ponging back and forth between lyrical and prose and textbook history,” Low said. “The last version, consulting with my editor, he really recommended that I write with one voice. I tried that, and it finally felt right.”
The voice she chose was that of her own history. She follows the trials of her grandfather, his wanderings and chronic pain from a work-related head injury, self-treated, Low surmises, with alcohol.
As his grandchild, the youngest in her family, Low saw only a witty and warm grandfather. The experience of growing up in the household was different for her ambitious and talented mother. Her mother’s dismissal of her Native heritage became a rejection, perhaps, of her fractured family.
Low discovered the family’s Delaware heritage during her years-long family research, and she links the denial of that past with problems that persist today. She tries, though, not to judge others’ decisions, especially those made without the benefit of a strong tribal community.
“I can’t judge my mother or my grandfather … on any of the choices they made,” Low said. “My mother and my grandfather didn’t have the strong cultural practices that many tribal nations have been able to offer their members to help shore them up.”
In Kansas at the earlier time, any difference could bring hatred, and Low pointed out one. “My friend John Berry tells the story of his mother.”
When his mother was 10 at school, the children were asked to tell their heritage. John’s mother said, “We’re Choctaw.”
“And that night,” Low continued the story, “somebody drove by and shot up their house.”
In the book, she summarizes another more subtle coercion. “Our parents worried so much about keeping up appearances that it stifled everyone. Official narratives of our family are like the crisp white sheets our mothers ironed weekly, without design or color. We cousins discussed how part of the Midwestern ethos is based on fitting into community, at no small cost to individuals. We discussed the American Indian heritage in our family, how it was suppressed and what that denial cost us to this day.”
Low consulted with her siblings and cousins as part of her research. She felt the weight of her family’s history and that of the Delaware people. “I did pray every time I sat down to do the book. I did offer prayers, and I hope that I represent things as well as possible.”
The book harkens to the Delaware diaspora, and there is another book to be made, Low knows, with all the history and stories that she has gathered.
“It’s important to me to try to articulate some of these historic moments that are lost, pretty much, certainly lost to national consciousness. … There are a few decent Delaware history books that are important sources, but the daily lives of Delaware people, you just don’t hear about.”
By the time Denise Low began to investigate and uncover her own history, she would find in this current era of blood-quantum criteria, pressure for tacit denial of heritage may now come from Native rather than non-Native sources.
“I’m not an enrolled member,” Low said. “Tribal membership is a separate issue from family heritage. If I say I have British Isles heritage, nobody blinks.”
She looks at her grandchildren and wonders what identity they will be allowed to hold. Her husband is an enrolled member of the Menominee of Wisconsin, but with each generation, that “blood quantum” diminishes, even if the ties to their community may not.
“I’m in awe of all Native nations who have sustained their identities and communities for hundreds of years,” Low said. “We are going to need all the strength we have for the next 10, 20, 50 years.”
She knows how that communal strength would have enhanced her family’s own story. “The more you understand about yourself, you’re a more whole person. It has helped me a great deal to find that whole family history. That is the most important thing that I can claim.”
It is a wholeness she hopes to pass on to the next generations.