Portrait of Indian Hannah
Oil on Canvas
66 x 48 inches
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Portrait of Indian Hannah
In this painting Indian Hannah is imagined at the end of her life, under a full moon, preparing what she knows will be one of her last ritual acts of reverence in her family’s graveyard, located on Abraham Marshall’s farm in a stand of ancient trees. Pictured immediately behind her, the last, great hemlock tree marking the graveyard has finally fallen. Around this “mother” tree, Hannah has gathered all of the branches that in the past would have been the mother tree’s children (and future Lenape) living where they always have and doing what they always did.
Hannah sits, completely absorbed in her purpose. Old flint arrowheads and knives are arranged on her dress. The arrowheads, mysterious and magical remnants of her peoples’ past, are to her, talismans, not the utilitarian bits of stone her ancestors crafted long ago. She prepares to make a sacred fire using a steel trade knife and an old flint spear point. As this fire consumes the tree and branches, all her tribe ever were or ever could be will be burned to ashes. Her figure is also seen in the distance, in the moonlight, walking to her makeshift bed in Humphry Marshall’s barn. She has been summoned to appear on the county courthouse steps the next morning. Her lifetime friend, Moses Marshall, Chester County Justice of the Peace, will officially take down her life story in preparation for her induction into the county poorhouse the following year. This is required by law to prove that she is a Chester County pauper and not some wandering indigent.
BRIEF HISTORY OF HANNAH FREEMAN
Hannah Freeman (we do not know her tribal name) was born in a cabin in Chester County sometime between 1720 and 1730. While her neighbors called her “Indian Hannah,” she referred to herself as Hannah Freeman. She was a member of the Lenape (Delaware) tribe, but by the time she was born, most of her people had already left the Brandywine Valley. Except for a seven-year period when she and her family were forced to flee the area due to the violent reprisals on all Indians after the French and Indian War, most of her life seems to have been spent quietly on the margins of the Quaker community in the Marshalltown area.
Growing up in what was already a hybrid culture, Hannah was raised by her mother, Sarah, and several aunts. Their primary source of income was as migrant farm labor for the local Quaker landowners which put them in a class of people that could have been legally described as vagabonds when harvest was over. The Marshalls and other locals also employed Hannah and her family as spinners, weavers, and at various other seasonal tasks, often providing living quarters along with the work. In the midst of these menial occupations, Hannah was occasionally sent for as a healer by the local community, who respected her skills. Native lore concerning medicinal plants, their preparation and uses was traditionally passed down through the female line by generations of tribal medicine women, and in her youth, Hannah was apparently singled out to receive this precious knowledge.
From the perspective of the Quaker/Anglo culture surrounding her, Hannah Freeman lived a conventional, if rather mean, material existence. She had odd jobs, planted small patches of corn, squash, and beans and raised a few pigs and cows. Though she is typical of the numerous people struggling to get by in the backcountry, Hannah Freeman saw herself as a person very much apart. Clinging to her seasonal rounds and other “heathenish” rituals, Hannah was described by a contemporary as grandly traveling along their roads as though she “was the queen of the whole neighborhood.” She seemed to be aware of a profound responsibility to her people – past, present and future – as a “place holder.” This proud sense of self-worth, regardless of how absurd it may have appeared to the whites, revealed a commitment to the belief that, despite everything, one day her people would return to the Brandywine River Valley.