Airport Hosts Roundtable Discussion for Native American/Indigenous Peoples' Heritage Month

In its continued commitment to exploring diversity in the workspace and within the airport community, the Division of Aviation acknowledged National Native American and Indigenous People’s Month by hosting a roundtable discussion on November 29.

The conversation was led by Adam Mitchell, PHL’s Deputy Chief Revenue Officer, and featured guest panelists Chief Dennis Coker,  Principal Chief, Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware; Erin Locklear from the Lumbee Tribe; and Sherry “Strong Sun Spirit” Caputo and Brandon Munson, both Nanticoke LeniLenape of New Jersey.

Guests offered honest insight into the customs of their tribes. Each were thoughtful in their views on what is meant to be an Indian - a term they embraced as opposed to being referred to as Indigenous People.

"Indigenous to where?," Chief Coker asked. "Italians are indigenous to somewhere; the English are indigenous to England. The Dutch are indigenous to the Netherlands. Describing us by using that term, in my opinion, is incorrect." Because of that, he continued, "I prefer to be referred to as Indian or a Native American"

The Lenape Chief added, "For that reason and because personally, I’ve never heard my grandparents or any of my elders refer to us in that way. I’ve never heard them use the term Native American either, but the term is fine with me, depending on the tone used by the speaker. I guess it’s politically correct.”

During the Q&A session, PHL’s Deputy Director of Aviation and Capitol Development Api Appulingam asked how one would address Native people as a group.  

Munson replied, “There is no word in our language that exists to refer to the Indian Nations as one. We don’t have a collective identity. That is a concept of the colonizers. I am of my tribe, I am Lenape.”

The Lenape Nation is native to Pennsylvania. When Europeans arrived, they often tried to bargain with the Lenape tribal chiefs in the same way that they would with neighboring tribes, like the Iroquois. But they misunderstood that the cultures were separate. For example, the Lenape had a culture in which was clan controlled versus a patriarchal controlled philosophy of the Iroquois (and the Europeans for that matter).   

It’s complicated understanding kinship terms that were commonly used by European settlers but had a very different meanings to the Lenape. "Fathers" did not have the same direct control over the family as they did in Europe. These added complexities in kinship terms made agreements with Europeans more difficult, which led to the eventual near decimation of tribal nations.

This panel discussion, while emotionally charged at times, was a powerful example of how dialogue between people with extremely different cultures can help us learn from the mistakes of the past. Mitchell said, “We are truly appreciative of the PHL Racial Equity Advisory Council and our executive sponsor and airport Chief Administrative Officer Delicsha Wilds for supporting our efforts to create these spaces for dialog and education. My hope is that mutual dialog will guide our path towards a building a culture of healing and empathy for the diverse communities served by the airport."

A special thank you to the panelists and their willingness to share their heritage.  


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Heather Redfern
Public Affairs Manager
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