PHILADELPHIA -- Six women from the Iroquois Confederacy in upstate New York traveled to Philadelphia recently to reconnect with a patch of tribal land. They came to retrace the footsteps of ancestors, to feel under their feet the earth that was deeded to them by colonial leaders centuries ago.
Instead, they found themselves walking amid cracked marble and crumbling slate near 2nd and Walnut streets in Old City.
"I anticipated a park in a natural, pristine state. Like any other park, it would have trees, grass, water," said Louise McDonald (Native name Wa'kerakatste), a member of the Bear Clan from Akwesasne, N.Y. "I was frozen for a minute because I felt it had been choked and that it wasn't a true representation of the original intentions of the space. It just seemed to be purposely buried with a cover-up narrative. There certainly seems to be a feeling of erasure intended to remove any spirit that would imply that we were once there."
Instead of the bucolic setting the women envisioned, they stood in an urban canyon enclosed on three sides by apartment buildings, the historic Thomas Bond House, and a multilevel parking garage. The space, called Welcome Park, was created as an open-air attraction in 1982 by the Friends of the National Park Service to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the founding of Pennsylvania by William Penn. But the women found nothing welcoming about it. For while the park walls listed Penn's accomplishments, there was no mention of Native Americans and their ties to the land.
The plot had been given to the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations from the Iroquois Confederacy) in January 1755 by John Penn, William Penn's grandson. In the 1700s, Native American groups often visited Philadelphia for diplomatic and trade meetings. They sometimes numbered in the hundreds and visited so frequently that John Penn asked the Provincial Council of Philadelphia to consider setting aside a piece of land for these gatherings. The delegations often refused to negotiate treaties until they could stand on their own ground and build a council fire.
Philadelphia's Department of Records researched the site, at the request of The Philadelphia Inquirer, and found that if the land "was located somewhere between Walnut Street, South 2nd Street, Sansom Street, and South Hancock Street, then it's safe to say that no part of it currently belongs to the Iroquois Confederacy."
In an email, the records department said that "every inch of ground between those streets is now owned by either the United States of America or by the condominium owners at the Moravian Condos."
History tells a different story of the Native Americans' long association with the tract.
The Haudenosaunee were given a strip of land behind the Slate Roof House, a home William Penn once rented. The property, deeded with a wampum belt and presented to 12 visiting chiefs "in perpetuity for the conduct of Native diplomacy," was referred to as the "Wampum Lot." Its size is in question. According to "The Quaker in the Forum" by Amelia Mott Gummere (published in 1910) and Haudenosaunee tradition, it was roughly one square city block. Other sources describe the lot as 15 by 47 feet. Today, it appears to sit under a portion of the Moravian condominiums and the southeast corner of Welcome Park and behind what had been the famous Bookbinder's Restaurant.
Haudenosaunee ownership of the tract was acknowledged by the city well into the 20th century.