“It’s good to see spring. We’ve made it through another winter,” Marjorie Wheelock says, sitting at her kitchen table, stacks of tribal documents, newspaper clippings and family photographs splayed out in front of her.
With spring comes another birthday for Marjorie, a member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, who turned 90 in April.
“In the winter time, it got dark early and they would make a big fire. I can’t imagine how cold it must have been, but that was a time that they sat around and told stories,” she says about her ancestors, who called themselves the Lenape, translated as “the common people” and also “first man.”
This penchant for storytelling is a trait Marjorie seems to have inherited from the generations that came before her. As is her humor, which often causes her to chuckle at the stories she tells.
“To start with the history of my tribe we have to go back to the Eastern Coast,” Marjorie says. “We were eastern woodland people. We were on the shore when the first traders came. And that’s where people say we made a mistake by saying, ‘Welcome.’”
Originally from the Delaware River Valley, the Lenape were the first tribe to sign a treaty with the fledgling government of the new United States of America in 1778, but they were continually pushed westward, the promises of their treaties continuously broken. First they were moved into Ohio, with a small group moving north from there into Canada with the Iroquois, while another went south to Missouri, each step of the way settling near large rivers, always controlled by the new American government.
Marjorie can trace her ancestry back to Kansas, where the Delaware lived before being pushed into Indian Territory (modern day Oklahoma) after the Civil War.
“In those days they made rolls of the Indians. They didn’t have it correctly and they gave us English names when we moved from Kansas,” she says. “People [ask about] my maiden name and people think it was Running Fox or something like that, but it’s Newcomb. And they say, ‘That’s not an Indian name,’ and my only response is, ‘Well, the government gave it to us.’”
A strong maternalistic culture, she follows her mother’s lineage: Her maternal grandparents both migrated to the area around Bartlesville, Oklahoma, where what is now known as the Delaware Tribe of Indians has its headquarters. It’s also where Marjorie grew up.
“My ancestors, that’s why I am who I am today,” she says, before diving into her own history.
Marjorie was born in a home delivery on the family farm in 1928, just a few years after American Indians were granted U.S. citizenship. Her mother called for her maternal grandmother, a known herbalist in the area, who had attended to multiple births. Her father went to get the area’s single doctor.
“Our baby has a twisted foot,” her grandmother told the white doctor. “Well, we’ll have to watch that,” he responded, so the story goes. But this wasn’t a satisfactory response, and the next morning Marjorie’s grandmother brought a little pan of herbs that she heated on the wood stove before massaging them into the baby’s foot. Then she wrapped it and waited.
“I don’t know how long it took, but it straightened out,” Marjorie says, who to this day doesn’t know which foot was affected. When she was older, and heard the story from her sister, Marjorie asked her mother about it, who responded, “I’m not going to tell you because you’ll soon be saying, ‘Oh, my foot hurts.’”
Her maternal grandparents both passed away when Marjorie was three, but she still remembers visiting her grandmother and being offered chocolates from a box, leaving a young Marjorie unsure of what to do with the paper wrapper.
“Those funny things are in my mind, and there’s these memories that bring back all these things that happened all those years ago,” she says.
Her family lived on a farm with two gardens during the Great Depression, World War II and the years that followed.
“I can see my mother yet putting on this big old straw hat and going down to the gardens and picking vegetables. And then she’d do a lot of canning and we always had food,” she says. “It was a good time, we always lived off of the land.”
When Marjorie wished for store-bought bread, her mother baked it at home instead. When her mother sent the boys out to fish for dinner, she’d remind them to catch a frog for young Marjorie so she wouldn’t choke on fish bones.
At dinner, “I’d say, ‘Pass the fish’ but I didn’t know the difference and they’d pass me another frog leg,” she says. “It’s considered a delicacy, but I didn’t know that.”
It’s no wonder Marjorie says her mother was the most influential person in her life.
The family always had enough leftovers to feed people traveling across the country by train; the Newcomb house marked a safe place to stop. “I think they used to call them hobos,” Marjorie says. “And they would just sit down on the porch and she’d bring out some food. That’s just the way it was in those days, you know.”
Growing up, Marjorie’s parents spoke primarily in English, a language her mother didn’t learn until the age of seven, when white people began moving to the area. By the time Marjorie went to school, she was the only Indian in her small class of 17. Her parents used their native language rarely, mostly when they didn’t want the children to understand what they were saying. “I’ve heard that if you lose your language, you lose some of your culture, and I believe that,” she says. “I used to say if I wanted to see an Indian, I’d look in the mirror.”
Still, she says, her Indian culture is innate, something she never questioned growing up.“It’s just in our hearts,” she says.
It was at Haskell, a longstanding Indian school in Lawrence, Kansas, that is now Haskell Indian Nations University, where Marjorie first encountered people from other tribes and dove deeper into her own history.
“As I became an adult, then I began to become more interested in what was happening in the tribe,” she says. For centuries, the tribe’s status with the federal government has been anything but stable. Their forced migration from the East Coast lasted generations, as they were continually forced to give up their lands. In Indian Territory, the tribe lived among the Cherokee Nation, and for the last half of the 20th century did not have their own federal tribal recognition. Moving back to Bartlesville, Marjorie joined the Delaware Tribal Business Committee, where everything had to be approved by the Cherokee.
“We acted like we were independent, but we did have to run everything through the Cherokee,” Marjorie says. “Everything had to go through them, and I don’t think there was a big problem with them saying no, it was more the government telling us, ‘This is how it’s set up.’”
She met her husband, Charles Wheelock, while working at Phillips Petroleum Company — he in the research department, she in personnel. From a dairy farming family in upstate New York, Charles, “would say he took a job in Oklahoma and was captured by the Delaware,” Marjorie says, chuckling. “We kinda laugh about that in our family.”
The couple was married almost 50 years before he passed away in 2005. They moved to Boulder in 1967, after Charles got a job at IBM, and the couple raised their four kids here.
“Our children were the center of our lives. So dear to us,” Marjorie says. A proud mother and grandmother, she easily brags about the accomplishments of her kids and three grandsons.
“Everything has a story behind it,” Marjorie says, walking around her living room. There are family photographs, ancestors dressed in tribal wear, her husband’s patents, the framed sketches one of her grandsons drew. Plus, a plethora of Indian artwork — rugs, landscapes, beadwork, a dreamcatcher. The traditional tribal mask hanging above her fireplace came from an auction. As did the painting of Tishcohon, a Delaware chief from the early 18th century. An embroidered purple dancing shawl hangs nearby.
A large photo of Tom Hill hangs above the TV, the famed scout holding a peace pipe. “He was Delaware and he was my great-great, well I don’t know how many greats, grandfather,” Marjorie says, smiling. The photo was featured in a 1977 National Geographic, and several of his artifacts are held at the Cultural Resource Center at the National American Indian Museum in Washington D.C., which Marjorie visited a few years ago.
“The young woman [at the museum], she was so delighted that she met someone of his family because she had all of these things. She pulled out these drawers…” Marjorie says. “They gave me gloves to wear, and I actually got to hold that peace pipe, and I was so delighted. I felt like I was holding history, so to speak.”
She explains the Lenape seal, which is circled by 12 prayer sticks, symbolizing the 12-day tribal meeting, with a mask in the middle, a cross, peace pipe and fire starter next to it, representing traditional spirituality as well as the significance the Christian religion came to have in the tribe. There’s also a wolf paw, turtle and turkey claw to represent the tribe’s three clans. Marjorie proudly says she’s of the turtle clan, often wearing turtle earrings and displaying turtle souvenirs around her home.
“Not too long ago, kids were calling each other turkey, and my kids would tell me, ‘I’m so glad we’re not of the turkey clan,’” Marjorie says with another laugh.
After leaving Oklahoma, Marjorie continued to represent her tribe as part of the Native American Consulting Committee for the Presbyterian Church. She traveled across the country with members of other tribes, sharing Delaware history, participating in reconciliation ceremonies. As a tribal member, she keeps up with what’s happening back home, and she voted remotely to adopt the Tribal Constitution in 2009, which restored the Delaware as a federally recognized tribe.
“It was very long coming, so people were happy to be recognized formally by the government again,” she says. “We were always under the government’s thumb. … The Indians, since the first explorers came, we haven’t had it easy, and we’re not having it easy yet today.” Although she couldn’t go herself, Marjorie supported her daughter who took part in the Dakota Access pipeline protest at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.
This year, her 90th birthday came and went without much fanfare; a small gathering of friends shared their personal histories and the stories of their ancestors around the table. “If you want to say I’m an elder, well, I’m an elder’s elder,” Marjorie says with yet another signature chuckle.
She’s the last surviving family member of her generation, and relishes the time spent laughing with her family, retelling their shared story. Recently they went to the mountains together and held a ceremony where everyone was given a Delaware name. It’s something Marjorie didn’t receive until later in life, when her aunt named her We` ti lah’ qua, — bird who flies with other or all birds.