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Penn Senior Headed for Oxford as One of 32 Rhodes Scholars

December 11, 2008 By:
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Student curator Abigail Seldin shows off a pendant given to her by the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania.

Abigail Seldin -- a 20-year-old University of Pennsylvania senior who last month was named one of 32 American Rhodes Scholars -- has spent the past two years studying a people that has struggled to maintain its heritage and language, been forced to practice its rituals in secret, faced expulsion from its home and wrestled with its cultural identity in the wake of widespread intermarriage.

The Jews? Not exactly.

During a recent interview, Seldin -- co-curator of a University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology exhibit called "Fulfilling a Prophecy: The Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania" -- was quick to draw some parallels between the experience of the Native American group with deep roots in the Philadelphia region and a well-known chapter in Jewish history.

"These people are exactly like the Marrano Jews," said Seldin, referring to generations of families in Spain and Portugal (and elsewhere in the Diaspora) who continued to perform Jewish rituals generations after being forced to convert to Catholicism.

Lenape is a word for several peoples who inhabited the New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania area prior to the arrival of the Europeans on the shores of the New World. The Lenape were essentially forced from Pennsylvania over the course of the 18th century and, at least according to conventional history, few, if any, remained in the state, explained Seldin. For example, the exhibit shows the front page of a 1764 newspaper article announcing a bounty for killing or capturing Lenape.

In addition, the people Seldin worked with are considered to be the descendants of the Lenapes who made the origin pact with Pennsylvania founder William Penn about territory in the state.

Seldin -- who according to the Penn museum administration is the first student to curate a major exhibit there -- explained that, in actuality, many of the Lenape remained behind in the region, married into white families and held onto fragments of their identity, often in secret.

"Partially because of my Jewish identity, I grew up learning about maintaining your identity under terrible circumstances," and so was able to connect with Lenape members, explained Seldin. "It gave me a good understanding of what the Lenape experience must have been like -- and gave the Lenape a lot of faith that working with me was a good choice to make."

The exhibit -- which she put together with two leaders of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania -- consists of roughly 90 artifacts and is framed through the narrative of a Lenape tale called the "Prophecy of the Four Crows." That tale has been interpreted as a parable documenting the group's history, from its earliest times to the present-day, where it is slowly starting to reassert its identity in a public fashion.

Seldin said that she's always been a big fan of museums; in fact, she put together her first exhibit at her high school's archaeology museum. She grew up in a kosher home and attended the Solomon Schechter Day School in Jacksonville, Fla., before heading to the Phillips Academy, an elite boarding school in Andover, Mass.

This May, she's expected to graduate Penn with both a bachelor's and a master's degree in anthropology

Her application to the 106-year-old American Rhodes Scholar program focused heavily on her work on the exhibit with the Lenape. Next year at Oxford University, Seldin will begin a doctorate at the university's Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology; she will be focusing on "secret histories and subversive objects"-- or "objects that look normal but, therefore, have a deeper cultural meaning."

The exhibit had some such examples, according to Seldin, including a 19th-century quilt that included deliberate mistakes, following the Lenape custom of showing humility before the creator.

As part of her Oxford research, she hopes to delve into other disenfranchised cultures, including that of remaining Marrano communities.

"The Marranos of Spain, Portugal and Mexico are well-known examples of secret cultures, so I hope to include them in my dissertation, if I can find a community willing and excited to work with me," said Seldin.

When the Rhodes program is over, Seldin said that she hopes to either become a museum curator or work in the field of cultural heritage, perhaps for the United Nations or another nongovernmental organization.

"In this age of globalization, it is increasingly important to recognize the resilience of minority cultures," she said. "The Lenape have maintained a great amount of their culture. It's obviously not the same culture from 300 years ago, but my culture is not the same culture from 300 years ago. Nobody is living or practicing religion the same way they were [hundreds of] years ago."

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