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The 'holy experiment' was too good to last

After Penn, Native Americans were treated savagely.

When William Penn founded Pennsylvania, he saw his colony as a "holy experiment" in which Christians and Native Americans could live together in harmony. He called it the "Peaceable Kingdom."

By the standards of the 17th century, Penn treated Indians decently. He insisted on buying their land rather than seizing it. He made treaties with them and respected their culture. He was a Quaker and a pacifist.

Penn had received all 29 million acres of Pennsylvania as a grant from the king of England, including the land where Indians lived. But he purchased the Indians' land from its inhabitants to secure full title before he sold it to European settlers.

Granted, Native Americans would have been much better off if Penn had never arrived. But they did much better under him than under his successors.

Penn's son Thomas, who owned and governed Pennsylvania until the American Revolution, cast off the Quaker faith and resorted to fraud and intimidation. In the so-called Walking Purchase of 1737, he tricked the Delaware Indians into giving up a tract almost the size of Rhode Island.

The Delawares, driven ever westward across the Susquehanna River, never forgot the Walking Purchase. In 1755, they went to war with Pennsylvania. The result, as one Quaker put it, was a "theatre of bloodshed and rapine."

In December 1763, a group of Pennsylvania frontiersmen known as the Paxton Boys exterminated the last 20 Conestoga Indians. The Conestogas were a peaceful remnant of the once-proud Susquehannock nation who lived on land the Penn family had reserved for them in Lancaster County. The Paxton Boys declared that all Indians were enemies deserving annihilation.

What the Paxton Boys did became commonplace in Pennsylvania during the Revolution. Exterminating Indians became an act of patriotism. Just as Americans built their freedom on slavery in the South, they did so by killing Indians in Pennsylvania.

Over the next two centuries, many Pennsylvanians believed there were no Native Americans living in their state. When members of the Hershey family discovered the long-buried remains of two Indians on their land in 1907, they labeled them "the last two Indians in Lancaster County." Pennsylvania is an extreme case of the myth of the "vanishing Indian" - the belief that Native Americans were destined to die out in the face of Western civilization.

That did not happen, though. Three hundred years ago, about 5,000 Native Americans lived in Pennsylvania, their numbers greatly reduced by warfare and disease. Today, almost 20,000 Pennsylvanians identify themselves as Native American, and an additional 30,000 as partly so. They belong to more than 20 different tribes and nations.

Pennsylvania's Indians are much worse off than its other residents. They are four times more likely to live below the poverty line and twice as likely to be unemployed. Pennsylvania is one of only 12 states without an Indian reservation. And it is one of only six where no Indian tribe is recognized by the state or federal government.

William Penn regarded the Native American groups within his colony as sovereign nations. He listened to them, made treaties with them, and recognized the boundaries of their territory. He wanted most of their land, but he saw a permanent place for them in his colony. People at the time referred to these Indian communities as "little commonwealths" within Pennsylvania.

Penn's "Peaceable Kingdom" was flawed from the start and doomed to failure. Yet it is a better model for Pennsylvania's Indian policy than anything that came afterward.

Nationally, the 20th century saw a return to some of the policies Penn favored. The federal government recognizes the sovereignty of more than 500 tribal governments. These Indian nations are like "little commonwealths" existing within the sovereignty of states and the country. They have extensive territorial rights and powers of self-government - but not in the Keystone State, where Indians have no such rights, no such recognition.

Some Native Americans in Pennsylvania want their land restored, but that is a distant dream, and most would not want to live on a reservation.

Native Americans in Pennsylvania want something even more basic than land and legal rights. They want other Pennsylvanians to know they survived the violence of history and are growing rather than declining in number. The important thing now is to acknowledge and respect their history, and to listen when they speak.