author documents her family's history, survival of the Delaware
Ten generations ago, Denise Low's Delaware ancestors began a
forced journey from their eastern coastal homelands near modern-day
Manhattan to escape encroachment and persecution from the amassing
The diaspora of the Delaware people would spread them inland,
a disaster for keeping the people together and whole.
"After several hundred years of resistance, from the 1500s to
the mid-1700s, they were overwhelmed but not finally defeated,"
Low writes. "Dozens of Delaware communities continue to exist from
the Atlantic Ocean to Idaho and from Canada to the southern plains.
Two federally recognized tribes are in Oklahoma and one in Wisconsin.
State-recognized Delawares are in Delaware, New Jersey and Ohio.
Others meet regularly, including the Kansas Delaware Tribe of Indians
near my home in Lawrence."
By the time the later generations of Low's family settled in
Kansas, a state with a then-prominent Ku Klux Klan presence, a tacit
public denial had begun. Not calling attention to Native heritage
at the time also meant children would not be removed to boarding
schools. The silence was practical, but as with all secrets, reaped
Low documents her journey through the family's past and the
Delaware diaspora in her book released this year, The Turtle's Beating
Heart: One Family's Story of Lenape Survival.
American author Denise Low writes about her family's Delaware
history in her latest book. "Grandchildren meet their grandparents
at the end," she writes, "as tragic figures. We remember their
decline and deaths.
The story we see as grandchildren
is like a garden covered by snow, just outlines visible."
(photo courtesy Tracy Rasmussen/Insight Photography/University
of Nebraska Press)
The title evolved from a story told by an Arikara woman, whose
grandmother fed her the heart of a freshly killed turtle. A turtle's
heart beats long after it is separated from its body.
"I love that image of survival," Low said. For her, it illustrated
well how the heart of the Delaware people continues to beat.
"All of them adapted to many different conditions," Low writes.
"All are survivors like my family."
Low's grandfather, Frank Bruner Jr., as a teenager. (photo
courtesy Denise Low)
The former Kansas state poet laureate, Low also serves as adjunct
professor for the master of liberal arts program at Baker University
and is the former dean of Arts and Humanities at Haskell Indian
She has written a dozen books of poetry, but this family memoir,
which focuses on her grandfather, Frank Bruner Jr., her mother Dorothy
Bruner and herself, presented different challenges.
"I rewrote it maybe four times completely. I am grateful to
Kimberly Blaeser, Ojibwa, and Matthew Bokovoy, who are editors of
the University of Nebraska Press."
Low found several stories to tell, both the history of the Delaware
people and the history of her own family. She tried, too, to insert
poems, but finally, after one revision, her editor gave her some
"The reader's mind was ping-ponging back and forth between lyrical
and prose and textbook history," Low said. "The last version, consulting
with my editor, he really recommended that I write with one voice.
I tried that, and it finally felt right."
The voice she chose was that of her own history. She follows
the trials of her grandfather, his wanderings and chronic pain from
a work-related head injury, self-treated, Low surmises, with alcohol.
As his grandchild, the youngest in her family, Low saw only
a witty and warm grandfather. The experience of growing up in the
household was different for her ambitious and talented mother. Her
mother's dismissal of her Native heritage became a rejection, perhaps,
of her fractured family.