Nanticoke Indian Tribe acquires land of their ancestors

Wednesday, November 24, 2021: Article excerpt & photo by: Jon Hurdle-Delaware Public Media

an open field of land in Delaware

A 31-acre cornfield on the edge of Millsboro doesn’t look very different from any other piece of Delaware farmland but its transfer to the Nanticoke tribe is a historic step that for the first time gives the community ownership of an ancestral parcel that was privately owned for generations.

The tribe took ownership of the land in October after it was purchased by The Conservation Fund, a land-preservation nonprofit, and then donated to the community. The land was seen as part of the tribe’s heritage because its previous owners have Nanticoke ancestors but it has never before been owned by the community.

Now that the Delaware-based tribe is the official owner, it has high hopes of turning the parcel into a place where native American culture can thrive, and where members of the community can strengthen ties with each other.

The size of the land, adjoining the Nanticoke Indian Center on Route 24 near the Indian River, represents a big increase over its current parcel of about an acre, where a former schoolhouse is now a community center.

Blaine Phillips, Mid-Atlantic Regional Director for The Conservation Fund’s Conservation Acquisition program, declined to say how much the fund paid for the parcel but noted that the agreed price was less than the $999,000 listed. “We didn’t pay full value but it gives you an idea of the range we were working in,” he said.

Funding was provided by Mount Cuba Center, a nonprofit botanical garden in Hockessin, and the Delaware Open Space Council, a state panel that advises the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control on land preservation.

There were two competing bids, at least one of which came from a developer of residential real estate, said Lisa Horsey, a Keller Williams agent who represented the sellers – the Harmon and Draine families. Her clients eventually accepted a bid by The Conservation Fund that was slightly lower than the competition because they wanted to protect the land by transferring it to the tribe.

“The family was very concerned about protecting it, and the Nanticoke tribe had been trying to purchase it since it was listed,” Horsey said.

Competition for the lot increased the urgency of trying to acquire it in an area that is being rapidly eaten up by new residential subdivisions, leading to “astronomical” land prices, Phillips said.

“This was not a negotiation in a vacuum; this was a real market, and we were trying to make sure the property got protected quickly,” he said. “The development pressure is intense, especially over the last few years, with people moving down to the beach to work remotely. It feels like every square inch is under threat.”

Even though the tribe hopes to build on the land, its plans won’t conflict with an easement imposed by the State of Delaware that is specifically crafted to allow tribal activities but permanently prevents residential development if the tribe ever decides to sell the parcel, Phillips said.

The Nanticoke approached him in March 2020 when it learned the land was for sale, and he quickly learned that the tribe didn’t have much property to call home.

“This started for me by attending meetings of the Nanticoke, and realizing that they really didn’t have much of a physical presence in our state,” he said. “Before this project, they were leasing lands to conduct their annual powwow and other gatherings.”

“It’s part of their ancestral lands, and made obvious sense to extend their activities and their footprint,” he said. “We recognized a need, and an opportunity, and we really just had to put together the resources to buy the land.”

The Conservation Fund has acquired “numerous” other parcels for native American tribes elsewhere in the U.S. but never before in Delaware, Phillips said. Early next year, it expects to close on the purchase of 11 acres of near Dover where the Lenape tribe have a burial ground and – like the Nanticoke at Millsboro – a historic school.

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