For nearly two centuries they lived unseen, specters on the land their ancestors occupied for 10,000 years and more.

They, or their forebears, had witnessed death and disease and violence, and they feared what might transpire if invisibility ceased to be a virtue.

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But the descendants of Pennsylvania's Lenape people, who lived throughout the region prior to the arrival of Europeans, no longer embrace anonymity. The time of their long hiding has passed.

An exhibition that opened Saturday at the University of Pennsylvania Museum explores their virtually untold story of hardship and survival, the story of a vanished people who have not vanished at all.

"For generations we really have lived in fear," said Robert Red Hawk Ruth, chief of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania. "That's a bad way to live. It really infects your whole community. So we wanted to get away from that and say, 'Here's who we are, we want to share part of ourselves with you.' So it's really a catharsis for us to come out and do this."

"Fulfilling a Prophecy: The Past and Present of the Lenape in Pennsylvania," an exhibition of ancient and not-so-ancient artifacts, photographs, a short film and text, will remain on view for a year. Many artifacts have never been seen by outsiders - in part because they were considered sacred (although none in the show is still in use), and in part because the Lenape did not want to reveal themselves.

"I can remember my father, for example, saying 'Never advertise anything, don't tell anybody who you are,' " Ruth recalled. "That's why I say our community was living in fear - it was so ingrained. 'Just keep out. Don't go anywhere. Don't come out [of hiding].'

"It was hard for me to come out. It was extremely hard. Parts of my family, they will not talk to anybody about this. And that's why it amazes me this exhibit even took place."

For that, thank cocurator Abigail Seldin, a 20-year-old Penn senior and masters candidate, and the first Penn anthropology undergraduate to curate an exhibit at the museum.

Seldin initially thought she would pull together an exhibition exploring the dispersal of the Lenape from the region. Following harsh encounters with European settlers beginning in the first half of the 18th century, most Lenape were driven west, eventually ending up in Ohio, Wisconsin, Oklahoma and Canada.

By the beginning of the 19th century, most histories said no Lenape remained here.

But when Seldin and museum officials traveled to a Lenape ceremony in the Poconos to discuss an exhibition, she found that most histories were wrong.

She spoke with tribal elders. "They said, 'Yeah, well, we have a sort of hidden history,' " Seldin recalled. "The project just hit me and I had to run with it."

Gaining trust over time, Seldin learned that a handful of Lenape never left the area. Often they intermarried with Europeans and African Americans, keeping Lenape culture and customs alive within the their homes, practicing traditional ceremonies out of sight.

And working with American Indians - Robert Ruth and Shelley DePaul - Seldin shaped the exhibit around the Lenape "Prophecy of the Fourth Crow":

Long ago it was said that a fox will be loosened on the earth.

Also it was said four crows will come.

The first crow flew the way of harmony with Creator.

The second crow tried to clean the world, but he became sick and he died.

The third crow saw his dead brother and he hid.

The fourth crow flew the way of harmony again with Creator.

Caretakers they will live together on the earth.

Ruth interprets the prophecy as a history of the Lenape - decimated by contact with Europeans, driven into hiding and now reemerging.

"It's a unique story," said Ruth, whose father was Lenape. "This is really the story of a small community, a very small community. There are only about 300 people in that community today who stayed in Pennsylvania. It's a story of how we stayed, how we survived and where we are today and what our dreams are today. But the bigger picture is how this really relates to everybody here. It really is the common history to everybody in Pennsylvania.

"So when they first asked us about this story we said we didn't want to get into just artifacts. We wanted to go to our community and ask them if it was all right and if they would go in and bring out something their grandparent or great-grandparent made that was precious to them but told their story. A basket, an apron. Things that would actually tell the story of the people before contact, during contact when we were in hiding, and now the coming-out-again people."

As he spoke, Ruth stood before a plain, seemingly unremarkable indigo apron. A decorative pattern akin to crossed hatch marks ran along the bottom border.

"We want to show that even in simple things like this there is hidden meaning," Ruth said. "If you look at this design, that's a turkey track, and that's one of our clans.

"And so by doing something simple like that, a person can come and see and say, 'Oh that's a nice apron, that's a nice design on it.' But if you were a Lenape and knew, you'd see that design and say, 'Wait a minute. That's a turkey track. That's a turkey going and doing its business.' . . .

"The time when this apron was made was a time when we did not want to come out and tell anybody we were native, for protection."

The apron dates from the 19th century, and comes from a family that, even now, is reluctant to publicize its Lenape heritage.

Ruth, whose family is from the Norristown area, has been a public presence for more than a decade. He now lives in Wisconsin, but he is into his second stint as chief of the Pennsylvania Lenape, a group that is unrecognized by either the commonwealth or the federal government. (Museum officials say nearly half of American Indian tribal groups are not recognized.)

The exhibition contains many simple objects, such as the apron, that tell a story of cultural survival.

"We describe why the people who are here today are here," Ruth said. "And we go back and say, 'Okay, these people affiliated with this church because by doing that they found protection. Or this family married into this farmer family, again for protection. These people from around the Philadelphia area blended into this larger community, oftentimes mixing with African Americans or German or Irish or whatever."

Seldin said that "some people are still scared." They have lived, she added, in a "whole culture of being quiet."

Contact culture writer Stephan Salisbury at 215-854-5594 or ssalisbury@phillynews.com.