The National Park Service’s proposal to remove a William Penn statue from a historic site in Philadelphia — quickly withdrawn amid a backlash — wasn’t a priority for some of the Native Americans the agency was required to consult with as it prepared to renovate the deteriorating plaza.
Uprooting the statue of Pennsylvania’s founder from Welcome Park also wasn’t a major point of discussion as park service officials and tribal representatives met to plan the renovation over video last year, said Jeremy Johnson, director of cultural education for the Delaware Tribe of Indians.
Rather, what tribal representatives had envisioned for the plaza is an exhibit that would highlight the culture, history, traditions and perceptions of the Native Americans who had lived there for thousands of years before Penn arrived, Johnson said.
“We do still speak highly of William Penn,” Johnson said. But tribal representatives, he said, “were really just focusing on our culture and our history and that, in a way, he was an important part of it, but … it was a small interaction compared to our overall history.”
A park service spokesperson hasn’t responded to repeated questions about the abandoned proposal.
Announced quietly on Friday, the plan quickly and — perhaps unexpectedly — laid bare the sensitivities around the image of the colonial founder of Pennsylvania and threatened to become the latest front in a fight over how to tell the nation’s history through its monuments.
A top state Republican lawmaker, Bryan Cutler, said removing Penn’s statue to “create a more inclusive environment takes (an) absurd and revisionist view of our state’s history.” Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro pressed the Biden administration to keep the statute in its “rightful home.”
The park service said it consulted with representatives of the Haudenosaunee, the Delaware Nation, Delaware Tribe of Indians, the Shawnee Tribe, and the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, whose ancestors were displaced by the Pennsylvania colony. Such consultation with the federally recognized tribes is required under the National Historic Preservation Act.
But leaders of the Shawnee Tribe and the Eastern Shawnees, both now based in Oklahoma, like the Delawares, said they hadn’t had any discussions about it. Ben Barnes, chief of the Shawnee Tribe, said his tribe hadn’t received a customary “dear chief” letter from the agency — and he objects to removing the statue.
“William Penn was an ally of the Shawnee,” Barnes said. “As long as he lived, he kept his promise. As long as he was able to speak on behalf of the colony in western Pennsylvania, the Shawnees had a home there. … Of all the terrible human beings that inflicted tragedy upon native peoples, I don’t put William Penn in that category.”
Historians say Penn’s willingness to negotiate with Indians for lands distinguished him from previous colonizers in the Chesapeake and New England where early colonial regimes were more willing to use armed force in bloody confrontations to expand their settlements.
But Penn’s legacy has been mythologized, to some extent, and his mission still led to the dispossession of natives, historians say.