This op-ed first appeared in the Morning Call newspaper of Allentown, Pa., on Aug. 22.
By Dan Barker
The cross on the Lehigh County seal, in addition to its overt Christian message, signifies historical racism. The fate of my people in this region demonstrates that fact.
After the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained about the seal, the Lehigh County Board of Commissioners replied: “The cross, one of more than a dozen elements, was included to honor the original settlers of Lehigh County, who were Christian.”
But that is historically wrong. The original settlers of Lehigh County are the Delaware Indians (actually the Lenni Lenape, which means “original people” or “real people”), who were “living in greatest numbers on both banks of the Delaware River” in the 1500s and 1600s, according to the definitive “History of Lehigh County, Pennsylvania,” by Roberts, Stodt, Krick and Dietrich.
Centuries earlier, the Lenape had traveled from the west and camped for a while on the Mississippi River before settling in what today is Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Manhattan.
We were the first tribe to sign treaties with the colonists and the U.S. government. We were also the first to have a broken treaty. I say “we” because I am an enrolled and voting member of the Lenape tribe.
In the year 1900, there was a council of the Delaware tribal leaders in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma) to conduct a census of the tribe, which had dwindled to about 1,000 individuals. My grandfather was 5 years old at the time, and his father, John Curtis Barker, one of the “leading members” of the tribe, was on that historic council.
Why were we in Oklahoma, far away from our ancestral homeland around Lehigh? It is because we had followed our own trail of tears — a more northerly trail involving six migrations — after being expelled from our land by the invading Europeans who arrived with a weapon in one hand and a bible in the other.
And “expelled” is the precise word. The first (alleged) treaty between the American Indians and the European colonists was the 1737 “Walking Purchase” between the Penn family and the Lenape, encompassing what’s part of Lehigh County today. The Encyclopedia Britannica describes this transaction as a “land swindle.” We were forced to vacate our land, which, after being purchased from Thomas Penn, became part of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The Christians who colonized this continent believed God had given it to them, blessing the removal of the original settlers. This attitude of “manifest destiny” comes right out of the bible. It commands, for example: “You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods … and thus blot out their name from their places.” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3)
Talk about “blotting out” all remembrance. The Lehigh County seal contains no depiction of the original settlers. The dozen elements the commissioners boast about are exclusively images of the European usurpers, including the Latin cross, the preeminent symbol of Christianity. The only ghost of the original settlers on that seal is the word “Lehigh,” a corruption of the Lenape word “Lechauweki,” meaning “the place where there are forks in the river.”
There certainly were forks in the tongue of Thomas Penn and other Christian settlers. “Drive out all the inhabitants” and “do not let them live in your land,” the bible commands, and the invaders complied.
I am certain most current residents of Lehigh County are good people. But as a non-Christian who is a descendant of the original settlers, the county seal is to me an exclusive symbol of white colonialism and Christian supremacy.
Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently allowed the Christian cross to remain on the seal, overturning a 2017 district court ruling declaring it to be unconstitutional.