Amy Hill Hearth's second oral history touches her own past

Amy Hill Hearth, right, has ancestors in the tribe of Marion “Strong Medicine” Gould.

Blair A. Hearth | Special to the Times

Amy Hill Hearth, right, has ancestors in the tribe of Marion “Strong Medicine” Gould.

LITTLE SILVER, N.J.

Amy Hill Hearth opens the door of her home holding a dog. Dot, a Boston terrier about the size of a large potato, has bowed legs and genetic deformities, and Hill Hearth drove all the way to Washington, D.C., to rescue her.

"Are you a dog person?" she asks only after handing me Dot, who wriggles in my arms and tries to lick my face. "I guess you are. Come in!"

Hill Hearth, a 1982 graduate of the University of Tampa, is the name behind a national sensation — "Delany mania," as she calls it. In 1993, she published Having Our Say, the oral history of Sarah L. Delany and A. Elizabeth Delany, 100-plus-year-old sisters whose father had been a slave.

Hill Hearth hadn't expected much of the book — certainly not for it to be on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, or to become a Peabody Award-winning play, or a television movie in which an equally redheaded Amy Madigan played Hill Hearth.

As we sat in her sunny living room, Hill Hearth talked about her days as editor of the Minaret, the University of Tampa's newspaper, other newspaper jobs that bounced her across the country, the article assignment that led her to her husband and, mostly, about her new book, ''Strong Medicine'' Speaks: A Native American Elder Has Her Say.

Like Having Our Say, ''Strong Medicine'' Speaks is an oral history, this time about Marion "Strong Medicine" Gould, mother to the chief of the Lenni-Lenape Indians of southern New Jersey.

But Hill Hearth is a bigger part of this story than she was in Having Our Say. She writes about discovering her American Indian heritage, and she includes longer passages about how the tribe operates today. It's not just Strong Medicine speaking. It's Hill Hearth listening, too. "I felt I had to put more context in this book," she says. "Most people know the story of African-Americans in the last 50 years, but not Native Americans."

The seeds for ''Strong Medicine'' Speaks were planted while Hill Hearth was in the middle of Delany mania. While researching the family genealogy, Hill Hearth's father discovered that they were connected to an Indian tribe that had once inhabited New Jersey, Delaware and parts of Pennsylvania and New York, the Lenni-Lenape, a tribe that now lives in Cumberland County, N.J.

"People used to not say that they had Indian ancestry," says Hill Hearth. In fact, as Gould says in the book, most American Indians would say they were "colored" when asked by census officials, because no one moved African-Americans to reservations.

The idea for this book didn't come until Hill Hearth met Gould. "We just really clicked. She was very forthcoming and wasn't afraid, which is very unusual for a native American elder, especially a woman, to speak to the outside world, because their words have been taken from them."

Hill Hearth earned the tribe's trust by just hanging around. She met with the tribe historian, went to powwows and "hoped that I would grow on them, and I did." She worked closely with the tribe while writing the book, and they reviewed the manuscript before it went to print.

She's not even thinking about her next book yet, or not willing to admit it. "I don't go into these things thinking, 'There's a book here,' " she says. Besides, who knows if she'd be able to keep up if "Strong Medicine mania" strikes?

Jen A. Miller is author of "The Jersey Shore: Atlantic City to Cape May," Great Destinations.

Amy Hill Hearth's second oral history touches her own past 05/31/08 [Last modified: Saturday, May 31, 2008 4:30am]

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