Even though New Jersey Native American tribal leader Pastor John Norwood of Ujima Village Christian Church grew up in the second most ethnically diverse state in the country, he was advised in his youth to keep quiet about his Native-American ethnic roots.
“For many people in those days,” he says, “you were either ‘white’ or ‘black.’ And all persons of color were simply put into the category of ‘black’ regardless of ancestry.”
Now that various ethnic heritages are celebrated freely in the Garden State, Norwood plans to bring two powerful presentations celebrating his Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape heritage to the New Jersey Folk Festival on Saturday, April 28, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The festival, now in its 44th year, is free and held on the grounds of the Eagleton Institute of Politics on the Douglass campus of Rutgers University.
Norwood was raised in Moorestown, where he still lives. Yet for the past 26 years he has been making an almost daily trek to the approximately 100-member Ujima Village Christian Church in Ewing Township at 1001 Pennington Road near Parkway Avenue.
“We have a mixed congregation,” he says. “The majority is African-American, but we have Hispanics and some Caucasians. We have prayer meetings at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays, followed by Bible study at 7 p.m. and our Sunday worship starts at 10:30 a.m., and that’s followed by a fellowship meal usually around 12:30 p.m.”
Norwood’s wife, Tanya, is director of Christian Education at Ujima Village, while his son, Justice, is a drummer and his daughter, Trinity, runs the liturgical dance group. Ira Serl, who converted to Christianity from Judaism, is the church’s organist.
Norwood says Serl “is a known musician throughout Mercer County and central New Jersey. He’s known for his talents with gospel and hymns and church music. The Lord has used him mightily.”
Norwood says curious guests are welcome on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, and says visitors can check the website: www.ujimachurch.org.
Norwood says the “down south” tribal church for the Nanticoke-Lenape tribe is the St. John United Methodist Church in Fordsville, outside Bridgeton in Cumberland County.
Asked how he decided he wanted to pursue the ministry, Norwood says he was a child of two churches.
“I made a profession of faith when I was 12 years old. I have no memory of not believing in Jesus Christ. However, there came a point where I was moved by an inner conviction to publicly profess my faith. Apparently I showed quite an aptitude for knowing the Bible because I was teaching a Sunday school class by the time I was 13. Even at that young age, there was a burning within, compelling me to preach the Gospel. I was a boy preacher and considered quite a novelty. Various churches in the area would invite me to preach on special days,” he says.
Norwood’s father, also named John, owned barber shop for 50 years in nearby Camden. “It was more than a barber shop. It was a place where men gathered to talk politics, tell stories, debate about sports, and share faith testimonies,” says Norwood.
“My father was a member of the vestry of his church, Saint Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Camden. As I worked with him through my high school and early college years, I recall often hearing religious discussions. The barbershop was also welcoming to women and families because my father’s Christian values forbid any rough talk around ladies or children and even tempered how far the language would go when it was only men in the shop.”
Norwood says his mother, June, who will turn 95 this year, “is the oldest woman and longest living member of her congregation, Bethel AME Church in Pennsauken. In the early mornings on Sunday, I would rise with my father and go to the Episcopal Church for the high church ‘smells and bells,’ and afterward the two of us would meet my mother for her morning worship and the ‘tapping and clapping’ style Methodist service. When my dad died there were 13 Methodist ministers at his funeral wondering why it was in an Episcopal church. It was because he had also been so active in my mom’s Methodist Church.”
A homemaker while John was being raised, his mother worked as drycleaner presser and later for the then RCA Records in Moorestown.
“Mom is tough,” says Norwood, “She just retired at 94 years old in 2017 from working part-time with the senior program at the Social Security Administration. She then promptly went out and bought herself a new car. Fiercely independent, she still lives on her own.”
Norwood says he was a surprise to his parents when he was born, but a good one. He has two much older brothers and one sister who died two decades ago.
Norwood received a B.A. in philosophy from Howard University in Washington, D.C., a master of divinity degree with a concentration in church and society from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in missiology from North-West University in South Africa. He and Tanya returned to Moorestown in 1992 to raise their family.
In addition to his ministering Norwood over the past decade has acted as tribal leader for the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation and holds the senior role of principal justice for the Tribal Supreme Court. He also serves as a delegate to the National Congress of American Indians, government liaison for the Confederation of Sovereign Nanticoke-Lenape Tribes, and the general secretary of the Alliance of Colonial Era Tribes.
His desire to preserve and perpetuate his tribal nation’s cultural heritage and rights were informed by his past. “When I was young, like many non-reservation-based tribal people during those years, you did not flaunt American Indian identity,” he says, “You identified publicly with what others thought you were. While family members would urge me to never forget my tribal heritage, they would do so in hushed tones as though it was something that was only discussed behind closed doors. My mother once said, ‘It was hard enough being black, but if they knew you were Indian, how much harder would that have been?’ ”
“Growing up where I did, we were at a distance from the core of the Nanticoke-Lenape communities in southern New Jersey and Delaware,” he says.
“In my younger days my exposure to any tribal heritage was only through what was shared by my father’s sisters, who doled out a few facts every now and then, or at my mother’s family reunions, where a few stories might be shared. It was easy to identify with and be accepted as African-American, no one questioned it or asked for proof, and that was also part of my heritage, and it’s not uncommon for many eastern American Indian people.”
He says historically the territory of the Lenape Indians extends from the southwestern part of Connecticut and southeastern part of New York State through all of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania by the Delaware River and down into northern Delaware around the Delaware Bay. The Nanticoke- Lenape territory extends from the Chesapeake Bay to the Atlantic Ocean, across the central part of the Delmarva Peninsula.
“After European contact and the upheaval that it brought, many Nanticoke and Lenape were forced out of the homeland by the mid-1700s, with many being forced as far West as Oklahoma and as far north as Ontario,” he says. “Those of us who remained clustered in small communities and continued tribal governance through tribal churches. Those core tribal churches continue to this day. In the 1960s and early ’70s among New Jersey’s Nanticoke-Lenape, there was a new generation of young leaders that reorganized the tribal government outside the church’s ‘family clan’ leadership format and instead established an elected chief and council.”
The new tribal leadership was less isolating and far more assertive in affirming tribal identity and celebrating tribal heritage in open ways, he adds, noting a tribal center was established, tribal ceremonial grounds were purchased, an annual powwow initiated, and community services were organized.
At the New Jersey Folk Festival on Saturday, Norwood says, there will be two performances from Lenape dance troupes accompanied by musicians, drummers, and possibly flutists as well.
“Given my arthritis, I’m not going to be doing much performing, but we’ll have dancers with us. I may assist on the drums. I will be giving a presentation at the festival in their discussion tent on current issues and current lifestyle ways and how we are preserving our culture,” he says.
The group’s main stage presentation “will explain how powwow dances are done. They tend to be not just our own nation’s dances that we do, but these represent dances that are done across North America. We’ll be doing dances that have become popular in modern day powwows.”
“There will be men’s dances and women’s dances and with specialized regalia. The songs that will be sung are powwow songs. Some of them are Nanticoke-Lenape songs that have been put together by our drummers. The costumes and regalia — some of it — is specific to each dance,” he says.
As far as music to accompany the dancers, Norwood says “in ancient times our people used hand drums and water drums in the songs, and I’m not sure exactly what the drummers are planning, but on occasion, rattles are used, some of the dancers will have rattles or bells attached to their costumes, and flutists are often at our powwows.”
“As I’ve explained repeatedly to the folks at Rutgers, we’re not a dance troupe, per se,” he says. “This is our people expressing our culture, and we’re anticipating we’ll have four to six drummers and a dozen or so dancers from our tribes and then other tribes in New Jersey that have been invited by us.”
44th Annual New Jersey Folk Festival, Eagleton Institute’s Wood Lawn Mansion, 191 Ryders Lane, on the corner of George Street and Ryders Lane, New Brunswick. With Pastor John Norwood and Lenni-Lenape Powwow Dancers and Musicians as well as Irish and Chinese dancers. Free. Saturday, April 28, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For a complete schedule: www.njfolkfest.org