For example, when the series begins the Lenape tribe is non-federally recognized and is actively seeking federal acknowledgement, as is the case for hundreds of tribes across the U.S. Additionally, the traditional homelands of the Lenape tribe in the show are polluted and marred with toxic sinkholes resulting in high rates of cancer among the Lenape people in the show. Unfortunately, Native people in the U.S., as well as around the world, have some of the highest rates of cancer as a result of corporate pollution on their lands. The racial and cultural identity of Indian peoples is also discussed in the show both explicitly and implicitly by the phenotypically diverse Lenape characters, as well as the transient and wounded Phillip Kopus. Identity politics for Native people are often isolating and painful, so that part of the show feels especially honest. Finally, there are some great examples of the anti-Indian racism that exists among non-Native peoples who live near Indian communities in the show. I think that making this racism visible is very important because it illuminates the hostilities between settlers and Indians that persist today.
Kopus’s relationship with his mother is a major plot point in the show; he seems to care for her but only acts in self-interest unless she is in mortal danger, as she is several times throughout the series because of his criminal enterprises. Kopus’s break from his mother mirrors his broken relationship with his own identity. Philip has no home – yet belongs to his traditional homelands, even if seemingly against his will. He is always called back to the land.
The similarities between the land and his mother are made even starker as the viewer learns that the land is toxic from years of illegal dumping which leaves many of the Lenape dying of cancer, his mother included. For Philip Kopus, home is toxic and his desire for belonging is complicated by the toxicity.
Jean’s near murder of the Lenape boy is important in the first season of the series, but not as important as the death of her twin brother some 20 years prior. She blames Philip for her brother’s death by claiming that he got him messed up on drugs and watched him drown. However, the viewer soon learns that Jean’s brother’s death was not Philip’s fault and that a young Harold lied in order to end Jean and Philip’s romance and secure her for himself. Because of Harold’s deceit Philip is run out of town and sent down a dark path where he loses his ability to make a future for himself in his home. Conversely, Harold gets the future he wants - his wife Jean, their daughters, and a career as a respected officer. Not unlike the narrative of the Lenape tribe and the white town, Philip’s future is forsaken by the deceit and desire of Harold. Harold and Philip become metaphors for the Lenape and the settlers.
Philip’s motivation for all his misdeeds seems cut and dry, he just looks out for himself either to make quick money or evade capture. He is a criminal; A man without family or a home. However, he does extend some care and guidance to his half-brother, Junior. He and Junior have much in common. Both of them were raised without a positive father figure and both got into some kind of trouble early on in their lives. Each of them has only their mother. But despite only just meeting – Philip and Junior’s bond grows quickly and they seem to need one another.
Junior and Philip eventually have a falling out because of Philip’s criminal activity. Here lies the difference between them – Philip remains the same, acting in self-interest on the fringes of both the Lenape and settler communities whereas Junior goes back to the blanket. In somewhat adolescent and romanticized fashion begins camping out as “his people used to,” hunting with an old rifle his uncle gives him, and sports tattoos of Native petroglyphs. He also begins praying, reading books about the genocide of Native peoples, leaving offerings of tobacco, and referring to his hunting kills as “brother.” Junior, unlike Philip, rededicates himself to repairing his relationship to the land and seeks to heal his mother – albeit by giving her stolen medication. Junior recognizes in some way that his kinship circle must be repaired if he is going to have a future and living in reverence of the land and healing his mother become one in the same act for him.
Junior also asserts sovereignty when he kicks development prospectors off his land which makes him distinct from Philip in another way. Junior doesn’t just care about his own future, but the future of the Lenape people as well, however tenuous and uncertain it seems. Sovereignty comes up several times during the series especially after the Lenape gain recognition and casino talks begin.
This is a good example of the real complexity of being a contemporary Indian person and a part of a larger people that the show does well to demonstrate. The choices that the Lenape have are limited by time, settlers, and an obligation to their land and ancestors but they struggle with these options in order to make a way outta no way.
They assert themselves in imperfect ways in less than ideal situations and under a pressure no less great than that of keeping themselves from dying. For the Lenape people living on the edge means being obligated to risk everything in order to survive for one another.