Philadelphia Reflects On Who Is An American

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Philly: An American Story

Smith Cremens & Co. Lithograph of Historic Philadelphia i

An illustrated lithograph depicting how the city of Philadelphia may have looked in 1702. F.J. Wade/Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania hide caption

itoggle caption F.J. Wade/Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania
Smith Cremens & Co. Lithograph of Historic Philadelphia

An illustrated lithograph depicting how the city of Philadelphia may have looked in 1702.

F.J. Wade/Courtesy of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania

Previous Stories In The Series:

Who Is An American?

Tom Degnan of Philadelphia
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Ed Bezik of Latrobe, Pennsylvania
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Jennifer McGanny of Willow Grove, Pennsylvania
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Clifford Womack of North Philadelphia
Joel Rose/NPR
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All this month, NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday has been asking what it has meant to be an American at various times in our nation's history. To answer that question, we've been focusing on one of the country's oldest cities, Philadelphia.

These days, the City of Brotherly Love is a magnet for tourists who come from far and wide to see that history up close. We asked those visitors, and some locals, to tell us, "Who is an American?"

Freedom Of Expression

The answers were as varied as the faces of the people waiting in to line see the Liberty Bell. For Terry Knight of Little Rock, Ark., an American is "a person who believes in right and liberty and justice for all mankind, not just certain people." Leonard Taylor of Springfield, Ill., says an American "tries to take care of his family and tries to do the right thing," while his wife, Ruth, says it's "anyone who's living in this great land."

Some people had a very specific idea. Ed Bezik of Latrobe, Pa., says an American is someone who speaks English. "When you're in this country, you should speak this country's language. We should not have to change to accommodate you," Bezik says.

But for others, the concept is more ambiguous. Clifford Womack is a maintenance supervisor at Independence National Historical Park. He's proud of his work at the park, where he's been for 32 years. Womack is also a firefighter, which has allowed him to travel all over the country. He's fought fires in Washington state and Idaho, where he met American Indians for the first time. He also helped with recovery efforts in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. And he's troubled by some of what he's seen.

"You can look around, and you can still see the poverty that's there, and I question why things cannot be better. To make this country as great as it is, it took a lot of different ethnic groups. It took a lot of people, a lot of sweat, a lot of tears, a lot of blood. So I find that question really hard. How do you nail it down to who is an American?"

Ideals And Perseverance

John Gaskin has lived in West Philadelphia for the past 13 years, but he was born in Trinidad. He thinks "What is an American?" is a better question because it gets at what a person really thinks. Gaskin says Americans have "high standards," though they have a tendency "to look on themselves as being the savior of the world" – even when others might not agree.

Independence Park Ranger Tom Degnen concedes that the United States doesn't always live up to its own ideals. But he says an American is someone who keeps trying anyway.

"It's someone who takes to heart the language in our founding documents," Degnen says. "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The nation is founded on those principles. We had a hard time living up to them fully. But there has been that effort, and I think an American in the best sense is conscious of that."

With the exception of Independence Hall and a small number of other buildings, there is not much remaining from the city where the Declaration of Independence was signed more than 230 years ago. But Philadelphians – and for that matter, Americans – still strive to live up to those original ideals.

Lenape Indians, The Original Philadelphians

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Chet Brooks

Chet Brooks hopes to pass on the history and traditions of the Lenape tribe to future generations. Courtesy of Chet Brooks hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of Chet Brooks
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The Lenni-Lenape Indians were the first known settlers of the area that is Philadelphia. Chet Brooks of Oklahoma is a member of the tribe, and he has devoted the past 36 years to studying and preserving Lenape history and tradition.

Brooks told NPR's Robert Smith that the Lenape Indians occupied the Philadelphia area almost 10,000 years before Europeans came to the region. Those settlers renamed the tribe, calling them the Delaware Indians, because they had trouble pronouncing Lenape (Leh-NAH-pay). Before the "Delawares" were forced off the land, they inhabited the region that is now New Jersey, as well as the area along the Delaware River in Pennsylvania and the Hudson Valley and New York Harbor, in New York.

The Lenape signed their first treaty with William Penn in 1683, a document that Brooks says is often referred to as "the treaty that was never ratified, but never broken." Although Penn treated the tribe fairly, his son, Thomas, took a different approach. He tricked the Lenape into giving away their land, and the tribe moved West in what became known as the Delaware Westward Trek. Most tribe members now live in Oklahoma. Brooks says only about 985 Lenape survived the trip to Indian Territory — a number far reduced from the estimated 15,000-20,000 Lenape who lived on the East Coast before white settlers arrived.

In order to keep the tribe's culture alive and thriving today, the Lenape in Oklahoma hold weekly classes to study language, make traditional clothes and practice dance. One dance, the "Go Get 'Em Dance," involves men dancing around a fire while women stand in a line. The men tap the woman they want to dance with on the shoulder, sometimes choosing several women, depending on the number in line.

Brooks says that someday he would like to return to his homelands on the East Coast, set up a business and continue his work to keep the Lenape traditions alive.

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