Feature Transformation of Tribal Lands: Regeneration in the Village of Fork Branch

The half-acre plot of Tribal land in the Village of Fork Branch was easy to drive by and ignore.

Donated in the late ‘90’s by Betty Penrod, the half-acre site beside Little Union Church cemetery, slopes down through freshwater wooded wetlands into a stream just north of Cahoon’s Branch of the St. Jones watershed.

For decades it was a dumping ground for garbage, junk, and tires. With a dying canopy coupled with an understory dominated by the Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) — (one of the worst invasive plant species in North America), any hope of reforestation work seemed daunting.

That didn’t stop Chief Dennis Coker and his plans for regenerating the only Tribal land of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware.

“It’s a lot of work even with this half-acre because we are having to clean it and remove trash and concrete that was dumped in the past quarter-century.” Said Chief Coker, “We’re coming along nicely here, but there is still quite a bit of work to do.”

In an effort that started long before University of Delaware student interns arrived in the summer of 2019, tribal citizens, local community members, environmentalists, artists, landscape architects, and students have all contributed to decolonization and regeneration in the Village of Fork Branch. Volunteers have dug up everything from broken glass to full truck beds and have removed portions of the Ailanthus altissima while planting edible native plant species such as Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and the eastern American black walnut (Juglans nigra) trees.

The goal is to transform the tribal land into a sustainable area that reflects the culture and history of the Lenape while also being accessible to the public and the Lenape community.

A path to the stream was created, allowing for water to be moved by battery-powered pumps to other parts of the site where plants can be easily watered and taken care of. As the work continues, the tribal land in the Village has been cleared of invasive species, making it easier to navigate and restore the site, while also leading to more discoveries of native plant species.

Anna Wik, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences at the University of Delaware brings her two landscape architect interns Kenly Velasquez and Elizabeth Davis to help in the effort and learn about the Lenape.

She believes that every time she comes to Fork Branch, she finds a new native plant. “It seems like we uncover another hidden gem,” Wik said. “Whether it’s the Lizards Tail, Northern Sea Oats, or Hog Peanut, we always find something new.”

Anna, Jon Cox (President of ACEER Foundation, and an assistant professor in the Department of Art and Design at University of Delaware) help lead the restoration volunteer workdays in collaboration with Simon Purchase James. Since workdays take place once every month, maintenance of Fork Branch is essential. Each workday is thoughtfully planned out so that no time is wasted in the regeneration of the site.

“It’s really hard to maintain all the progress we’ve made on the site,” explained Kenly Velasquez. “Removal of the Ailanthus can be tricky because it grows back so quickly, and when we remove a lot of concrete that changes the landscape completely, so we are constantly editing the design of the site to accommodate for all of the changes.”

The team has been designing and constructing an edible forest garden and medicine wheel at the site. Medicine wheels have been used by generations of various Native tribes for health and healing.

“They magnify ideas that all of life is cyclical, and we all participate in these cycles of life,” explained RuthAnn Purchase, Cultural Mapping Program Manager in the Lenape Federal Census District.

Assistant Professor Jon Cox remembers all the progress made at Fork Branch since he started coming here. Every time he attends a work party he is filled with gratitude for the number of people who join.

“It’s really rewarding to work with such a diverse group of volunteers, community members, and students and witness the progress in such a short period of time,” he said. “The diversity of wildlife using the Tribal land is amazing and can be seen in the camera trap footage we captured.”

Post written by Donovan Aldridge, a senior at The University of Delaware, majoring in Spanish studies. Donovan is currently working as a student journalist and photographer. He may be reached at dwaldrid@udel.edu.

This was originally published on litde.net/new-page.

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