OCEAN STORY #3
Chief hopes offshore discoveries are recorded and respected
learn more

Dennis Coker understands why people find these stories so surprising -- what’s out of sight is out of mind for the average beachgoer. But as the principal chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware  a people whose roots in the area trace back thousands of years -- what’s out of sight is very much on his mind.

Coker, also known as White Otter, has become a prominent voice on Mid-Atlantic ocean planning issues, often representing his tribe and other members of the Confederation of Sovereign Nanticoke Lenape Tribes of the Delaware Bay (with members from Delaware and New Jersey) at public meetings. One of the tribes’ most important issues is that as commercial and industrial activities increase offshore, care must be taken to document the discovery of any historic sites that have long since been submerged by an evolving shoreline.

“Fifteen thousand years ago, the outer continental shelf was a grassy plain and we were out there harvesting the resources, and I’m sure we had settlements out there,” Coker said. “So the identification of cultural sites on the outer continental shelf is a major concern of mine.”

Coker first got involved in the regional ocean planning process about five years ago, when he was invited by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) to provide tribal input at a series of meetings about potential offshore wind energy sites. He found the discussions interesting, stayed in contact with officials he became acquainted with, and now regularly participates in discussions on related issues.

Chief Coker discusses the importance of regional ocean planning.

The map above shows BOEM Active Renewable Energy Lease Areas – sites which have been leased by a company with the intent to build a wind energy facility – as well as Wind Planning Areas – sites that are being considered for wind power development – in the vicinity of the Delaware shoreline. (Click box on map to open full interactive version in new window.)

As construction and in-depth exploration eventually proceeds in these areas, Coker believes it’s possible that artifacts from the ancient settlements and religious grounds that once stood there could be unearthed. He hopes any significant finds will be identified properly and afforded appropriate protections through the regional ocean planning process.

“That’s our history,” Coker said. “And I hope that history is not overlooked because it’s not the history of the current population of this country.”

Chief Coker details his tribe's relationship with the ocean.
As peoples whose cultures are so closely woven to the Atlantic – Coker refers to it as “our grandfather, the ocean” – the tribes have found recent trends in global warming and sea level rise alarming. They are also concerned with how industrial activities such as gas exploration, waste disposal or sand mining for beach replenishment may impact wildlife and the ocean’s natural balance.

Coker believes the collaborative ocean planning approach being taken by the five Mid-Atlantic states is “the wise thing to do in the face of these challenges.” To that end, the Lenape of Delaware are encouraging a new generation to embrace the sciences so they’re prepared to represent tribal interests in the future.

“It’s about time we start to build our own experts so we don’t always have to rely on interpretation from other learned cultures,” Coker said. “I think it will allow us to play a more active role in some of these conservation processes. Having tribal observers on some of the survey work that’s done out on the ocean, I think, is critical just so we have a sense of security about what kind of information is being generated and how it’s being portrayed. … We’re trying to do the right things and be progressive in the 21st century.”