STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
“We’ve been called eclectic,” said Kristin Lapos, assistant curator of the Museum of Indian Culture.
Located in a farmhouse that was built in 1796, and is surrounded by the Little Lehigh Parkway in the City of Allentown’s parks system, the Museum of Indian Culture has quietly built its collection since 1980 in the name of curating and preserving some of the epic saga of the indigenous people that lived here way before William Penn, or even the Swedes, set foot here.
“The great thing about a small museum like this is all the tours are guided,” said Lapos, noting that the museum offers on-site and off-site educational programs for all ages. According to Lapos, the museum attracts an average of 1,200 visitors annually.
For having just two rooms of display space, there’s much to look at. The Northeastern Woodland Room includes a striking diorama that illustrates how the hunter-gatherer Lenape/Delaware people dressed before and after European contact; a woodcarving depicting ancient indigenous people hunting a woolly mammoth; beadwork; wampum; basketry; pelts; hammer stones and stone axe heads; reproductions of a fire-starter and an at-latl (an Aztec name for a spear-throwing device); arrowheads (some thousands of years old) from collectors such as the Crevelings and the museum’s head curator, Lee Hallman; as well as a study of a remarkable local discovery from the 1940s — the Broomall Rock Shelters.
Three amateur archeologists stumbled upon two rock shelters that contained pottery shards, arrowheads, and a human female skeleton that was buried only 10 cm. below the ground. The University of Pennsylvania Museum was called in to take over the excavation of the shelters, which were believed to have been used for centuries. Some of what the Penn Museum found was returned in the 1960s to Frank Sterling, one of the men that made the discovery. After Sterling died, his wife donated the finds to the Marple Township Library. The library donated the artifacts to the Museum of Indian Culture in 1991.
The museum’s Inter-Tribal Room features dolls, and other donated items, that represent tribes as diverse as the Navajo, Seminole, Inuit and Cherokee people. On display is a selection of pottery found (and pieced together) by Hallman along the Mississippi River. A selection of 1902 photographs by Carl N. Wertz of the residents of Hopi and Apache reservations is haunting.
By the way, only approximately 20 percent of all Native Americans today live on a reservation, Lapos said.
One of the museum’s major public events, the 34th annual Roasting Ears of Corn Festival, which takes place from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 16-17, demonstrates that Native American culture is still very much alive. Activities include Native American cooking and craft demonstrations, atlatl and tomahawk throwing, children’s crafts, dance and drum performances, Native American recording artist Arvel Bird, and more. Admission is $7, $5 for seniors 62+ and children 8-17.
Since it has nothing to do with India, why is it called the Museum of Indian Culture?
“Both (Native American and American Indian) are correct and both are used by Native Americans (to refer to themselves),” said Lapos.
What happened to the Lenape?
Besides eastern Pennsylvania, the Lenape also lived in New Jersey, southeast New York and Delaware. In the 1700s, most moved west to the Ohio Valley, Lapos said. One event that put the westward migration in motion was the notorious “Walking Purchase.” According to Lapos, when William Penn died, he left his sons with “tons of debt.” They had little recourse but to sell land off to settle their father’s debts, and the Lenape/Delaware were forced off the land. Some Delaware Indians of that time embraced Christianity and lived at the Moravian missions, Lapos said. Today many of their descendents can be found in either Oklahoma or Ontario, Canada. Officially there are three federally-recognized Lenape/Delaware groups; however, none of them are in Pennsylvania or New Jersey.
Do American Indians approve of the museum?
“We do have a relationship with the Delaware peoples in Oklahoma,” Lapos noted. The museum has a Native American Advisory Board that includes members of the Oneida-Iriquois, Micmac and Kiowa tribes, among others.
A gift shop in the farmhouse’s former summer kitchen features items made by Native Americans.
What’s the story behind the stone farmhouse that the museum is in?
The building and the grounds are owned by the City of Allentown and the non-profit, all-volunteer museum rents it. The French-German Bieber family (ancestors of the founders of Bieber Tours) lived on and farmed the land — and even operated a sawmill there for a time — until Harry C. Trexler purchased it and donated it to the city. In 1979 the house, which still didn’t have running water at that time, was in poor condition and slated for demolition when an organization, which was then called the Lenni-Lenape Historical Society, persuaded the city to let them turn it into a museum. Centuries-old artifacts found in the basement and on the grounds are highlighted in one of the display cases.
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Museum of Indian Culture.
WHERE: 2825 Fish Hatchery Road, Allentown.
HOURS: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays through Sept. 7; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays through Sundays Sept. 12 through June (except holidays).
ADMISSION: $5, $4 for seniors and children, free to children under 12.
INFO: Call (610) 797-2121, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.museumofindianculture.org or www.facebook.com/Museum.Indian.Culture.