CURSE UPON NEW JERSEY ROUTE 55
In 1983 New Jersey began building a short stretch of State Route 55 over land long ago occupied by American Indians confirmed by state archaeologist. The Lenape Indians had used the tract of land some 3500 years before the birth of Christ until the white man showed up some 5000 years later.
The state denied that the Lenape Indians had ever buried any of their dead there.
Not so said Sachem Wyandaga a Nanticoke Chief and Medicine Man. The day construction began he issued a warning “ Stop vandalizing Native American graves or be punished”. Then he began praying to Ancestors.
A foreman on the construction crew, Charles Shoemaker, told that when Wyandga put a curse on him, his freezer broke down. Shoemaker then developed ulcers and had to leave his job.
Reports by the Press tell that a 34 year old crewman was killed at the site when hit by a dump truck, another, an inspector , fell dead on a brain aneurysm, another healthy workman succumbed with cancer, and a mysterious wind blew a worker off a bridge. Other workmen, some of their families, fell victim to serious ailments. A van carrying five caught fire for no apparent reason.
The construction company, John Rouse & Company, lost millions on the project and almost went bankrupt. A lawyer for Rouse, John Land, said “ I am not superstitious, but if you believe in 'curses', this one sure did the trick” .
Sachem Wyandaga , the name means “chosen one”, is standing next to his pickup camper, looking over a pile of brick, he is about 67 year but not looking so. He is retired and just back from fishing. His fight with the New Jersey Tansportation Department is an example of wide differences that exist between Indians and White Men. Looking at the same thing they see it different. White men look at words on paper and Indians live with logic and oral traditions handed down generation to generation.
It is hard to believe that 'real' Indians live in our midst, they live, dress and behave just like the whites but when together , in buckskins and feathers, form a circle, holding hands and pray to “The Great Spirit” them become like their ancestors or hundred of years ago. Today Wyandaga is sorting blocks and bricks, his second wife, less than half his age, is raking leaves, in the camp ground which is in the middle of a forest near Elmer. He is building a patio as a car drives up. Lighting his pipe he lets the driver know he cannot talk too long as the pation needs to be done. Around his neck is a 'medicine bag' and two others on his belt. He says all 'traditional' Indians ware 'medicine bags' from the day they are born, in the bag is dust from the earth at their birth place, a sliver f gold, silver and maybe copper. Later are added herbs, roots and 'other things' necessary to the health and religion of the wearer. Another bag, he says is his money bag and yes we Indians also need money.
Three feathers are fit in his straw hat which he takes off and shows his shaved. All 'medicine men' shave their heads. Then he lays the feathers in the palm of his hand. Pointing to the feathers he says this one is a turkey feather for the Turkey Tribe. The one in center is a golden eagle feather, and is only allowed to be worn by an Indian. The next on is a guinea hen, it's decorative. Next on the hat is a lock of blond hair, a scalp, and yes I did kill Nazis for it. I earned twelve of them in Europe during WWII.
Last he hands over a necklace of bear claws which he admits the bear gave up under protest.
Still laying the bricks, blocks or whatever, he said that it needs to be understood that the ill fate of the builders of the road not a result of any curse even though the Nanticokes were known for witchcraft and the like by other tribe, curses were not one of the traditions.
When asked it he was sure there were graves, he replied, “here's the thing, there was no Indian village, where, within 500 yards, there was not a burial site, so, anyplace there was a village there was a grave site, I knew this, told them so, and if they destroyed the burials, that I as Chief had not alternative but to call down a curse. They did not listen to me. They laughed. It did not prevent what happened”. Out of breath, he drops the last brick into place and wipes his brow with the outside of his hand as all Indians did.
Wyandaga began his learning the ways of the Shaman from his grandmother when he was five. His father, deceased at the Battle of Blood Creek in south central Pennsylvania in the 1920's, a historically obscure event. From central Pennsylvania he moved to Philadelphia with his mother and grandparents, where he was a shoeshine boy, moving every year or so, to New Jersey, Delaware and back to Philadelphia. When WWII came about he joined the Army Airborne in Germany. While there he studied under the GI Bill, things that struck hid fancy, engineering, theology. Returning to Philadelphia he tried to live like the white man but could not make it work. He tried to reject his Indian heriatge and drank a lot and ended up in a hospital someplace. Calling on the Great Spirit he got the message to go back to the Indian ways. That was 20 year ago. Now, Wyandaga calls himself Chief of the Delaware Nation, 40,000 Indians who make up 12 Tribes.
FRANK ROSSI PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, OCTOBER 4 1987