Dover, Delaware – Late morning on Saturday, Oct. 9, underneath a blue hat and beads of sweat, Principal Chief Dennis Coker of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware stood with a shovel in hand, as he looked out towards the half-acre plot of Tribal land in the Village of Fork Branch. Over 30 volunteers from Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania came to help plant 200 native species of trees and berries.
“I’m ecstatic and thrilled at the turnout today, this is by far the most people we have ever had,” Chief Coker said. “I’m very grateful that this is materializing right in front of our eyes. Every time we come back, there seems to be a renewed feeling of regeneration.”
The goal is to transform the Village of Fork Branch into a sustainable area that reflects the culture and history of the Lenape, while also being accessible to the public and the Lenape community.
The half-acre site beside Little Union Church’s cemetery, slopes down through freshwater wooded wetlands into a stream just north of Cahoon’s branch of the St. Jones watershed. For decades, the Village of Fork Branch was a dumping ground for garbage, junk and tires. The site was dominated by the Ailanthus altissima or “Tree of Heaven,” one of the worst invasive plant species in North America.
The regeneration of the Village of Fork Branch “is the literal definition of decolonization,” Simon Purchase James, coordinator for the volunteer work parties, said.
“Decolonization is not only returning the land back to its Indigenous peoples, but also to the Indigenous plants and animals,” James said.
Over the past several years, volunteers, university students and professors have helped remove the invasive Ailanthus altissima, while also digging up broken glass and full truck beds that were half buried in the ground. This has allowed for many native species such as spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and eastern American black walnut (Juglans nigra), maidenhair ferns (Adiantum pedatum), cardinal flowers (Lobelia cardinalis) and ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) to be planted.
After being a dumping ground for so many years, “it is so meaningful to get to see [Village of Fork Branch] come back to life,” Kenly Velasquez said. Velasquez, a landscape architecture student at the university, has been working at the site since the beginning of the year.
Velasquez and fellow landscape architecture student Elizabeth Davis work with Anna Wik, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. Together, the team has designed and constructed an edible forest garden and medicine wheel at the site.
“We get to see so many people come out and help and bring the Lenape Tribe’s vision come to life again,” Velasquez said. “We will get to see all the hard work pay off now and in the future with all the planting we are doing.”