Frequently Asked Questions About the Lenape or Delaware Tribe
How did your tribe come up with its name?
The name by which we call ourselves is Lenape [pronounced as if spelled “lun-NAH-pay”], and this name means something like “The People.” It is common for many groups of people around the world to use a name that has a similar translation. We do not know how long that name has been in use, but related tribes use similar words, so we think it has been in use for many hundreds of years.
Why did the Lenape people accept the name “Delaware”?
It has long been known that the name applied to the Native people who lived along the Delaware River was taken from the title of an Englishman, Lord de la Warr, whose name was Sir Thomas West. He was appointed governor of the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia in 1610. One of his followers, Captain Samuel Argall, once sailed into a majestic bay which he named “de la Warr Bay” in honor of the governor. The river that flowed into the bay was given the same name, and they both were later contracted into Delaware.
People have asked why the Lenape people seem to have no problem with accepting this “foreign” name for themselves. The reason is that the Lenape have their own story about the origin of the name “Delaware.” It is as follows:
The Lenape story is that when the Europeans first arrived a whiteman kept trying to ask a Lenape what tribe he belonged to, and he told him “Lenape.” For some reason the whiteman had trouble saying the word properly, and would say “Lenuhpee,” “Renahpay” and other mispronunciations. Finally he said “Lenape” correctly, and the Lenape said, “Nal në ndëluwèn! Nal në ndëluwèn!” (That’s what I said! That’s what I said!).
The whiteman heard the DULUWEN part and he said, “Oh, you said Delaware! So you are a Delaware. Now I know what to call you,” and the name stuck.
The Delawares have used the name ever since that time because they knew that the whites just could not say Lenape properly. Of course, when speaking to each other, Lenape people call themselves “Lenape.”
If you could go back and live the way your ancestors did, would you? Why?
Our Culture Preservation Committee has discussed this and we think some people would enjoy trying it, perhaps like some type of camp for a week or two during the summer. Most of our people now live in the same modern world as everyone else. We have televisions, air conditioners, cars, and of course, jobs.
It might be better to ask not “Why?” but instead “Why not?” The answer to why not would be that it would be difficult nowadays to find a large enough area where we could hunt and farm as we used to. There are now laws about when we can hunt, and in the old way we had no supermarkets to go to and get groceries like the present day. We had to hunt and fish to keep our families alive, and the women took care of the gardens and gathered wild plants for food as well. It would also be difficult to find an area with streams with water that is not polluted.
When your ancestors were forced from their homeland, did you lose any part of your traditions?
We have lost a number of things on our forced trek west to Oklahoma. Many of our old traditional ways included making things, such as clay pots to cook and store food in; flint knapping to make arrowheads and flint knives; and decorating things with dyed porcupine quills. We also lost knowledge of sea creatures that we would have known on the east coast, and some of our songs and dances. But we have also been able to preserve many things also.
How has your culture changed over generations as the technology in America has changed?
As in the answer to the question above, many changes have taken place. We at one time used flint, stone, wood, and bone tools, and now we use metal and plastic. Our clothing at one time consisted mainly of deerskin, now it is bluejeans and T-shirts, or suits as the occasion warrants. When we have our dances and celebrations we like to go back to our old styles of deerhide, and early styles of traditional clothing.
Another example of how we keep up with technology is shown by the fact that a member of our Tribal Council and a member of our Trust Board are both pilots. Our late chief, Lewis Ketchum, had a multi-million dollar oil-field pipe and supply company in Tulsa with 480 employees and an eight-story office building.
How did the Europeans ask or force your ancestors to move west?
Our ancestors were asked to sign treaties giving up the land, but they had no idea that they were actually selling land any more than you would think someone could sell air. The belief was that all land was put here by the Creator for use by his children, and that you should not be stingy with it. The Lenape of those days thought they were granting the Europeans the use of the land for a while. They in turn received gifts for the use of the land, like rent. Only later did they come to understand the European concept of private land ownership. Sometimes also our people were tricked out of their land. A great deal of their land in eastern Pennsylvania was taken by trickery. The Lenape were told that their ancestors many years before had signed a treaty giving up as much land as could be walked in a day and a half. Since they couldn’t read they had no way of knowing they were being fooled, and they agreed to the walk. But instead of walking the whites ran, and got a huge piece of land. This was called the “Walking Purchase.”
What are some of the celebrations of your people?
We hold a number of what we call Stomp Dances throughout the year. These are social dances done just for the enjoyment of dancing. Time is kept on what is called a water-drum. Sometimes in conjunction with these dances we play Pahsahëman, which is the Lenape football game. It is played differently from the football game you know because it is played men against women. The men can only kick the ball from place to place, but the women can throw it or run with it. Also the men are not supposed to tackle or grab the women, but the women can do whatever they want. There are goalposts at either end of the field similar to regular football, although they have no crosspiece.
Many of us also attend pow-wows, which are dances at which you wear the traditional Indian clothing and dance to the sound of a large drum accompanied by singers.
Do you make an effort to live the same way your ancestors did in any way?
We have certain customs we try to follow as our ancestors did, but since we live in modern society, some of these things are fading away. There used to be many taboos that were followed, things that you were not supposed to do, or in some cases, were to do if certain things happened. A number of things are still practiced in many Lenape homes, but they are too numerous to go into here.
How did your tribe get started?
We are not sure. It all happened so long ago. We do know that most of the other speakers of Algonquian languages refer to the Lenape as the “grandfathers.” It is said that at one time all the tribes who now speak the Algonquian languages were one tribe, but as the tribe grew, they all moved away in different directions. The more time they lived apart from each other, the more differences there came to be in their languages. Just like English, Spanish, Russian, and Welsh all had a common ancestor, as they went different ways the languages changed.
Was The Mësingw on the Tribal Seal is interesting. Was he considered a god?
First of all, he was not a god. The Lenape believe in one God only, but under him there are manëtuwàk, and these are “lesser spirits,” and they have various roles to fill. I am not sure they would be the same as the whiteman’s angels, but perhaps somewhat similar.
The Mësingw was the guardian spirit of the game animals, such as deer and bear, etc. It was said he “helped” the Lenape find game when they went hunting, and also that he would sometimes be seen riding on the back of a deer.
The Mësingw had a face that was half red and half black, like the one on the seal, and the man who impersonated him at certain ceremonies wore a suit made of bearskin.
Because he had a fearful appearance, the parents would sometimes use the mention of him to correct the children. They were told that the Mësingw would get them if they didn’t behave.
Did the Lenape make baskets and pottery?
Yes, the Lenape in 1600 made both baskets and pottery. In fact one pot was found in New Jersey that was so large you could cook two whole deer in it.
The pots had rounded bottoms as when used for cooking they were held upright by three stones and a fire was built around them. There were no metal grates in those days to set the pots on.
What was the role of the Lenape or Delaware Indian men in society?
While we were still in our homeland in the east, the men had the duty to bring in the game animals, birds, and fish for his family to eat. There were no grocery stores to go buy meat, and hunting was not a fun activity. The man had his family, and perhaps aged parents, depending on him.
The men also took care of some of the heavier things that needed to be done around the village. Putting up the framework for the house, making dugout canoes, mortars and pestles used to grind corn, bows and arrows for hunting, and similar things. Of course in this day and age the man’s role is much the same as any other man in modern American society.
What were Delaware houses like?
Our houses were made of bark. First a framework made from trees was built, usually in a rectangular or oval shape, then this was covered with large sheets of bark. Sometimes, especially in the summer, the houses were covered with mats made from reeds.
In the southern part of the area where the Delawares lived the houses were mainly built for a single family. In the northern part larger multiple-family barkhouses were made and these had rounded ends and a door on the side. Usually several related families lived in these.
What kind of clothing did the Delawares wear?
Before colonial times in warm weather the only clothing our men wore was a breechcloth and moccasins made of deerskin. Sometimes leggings were added when going into brushy areas, or during colder weather. Nearly all our clothing was deerskin except for some fur robes worn in winter time.
Our women also wore moccasins and a deerskin skirt that reached from the waist to the knees or below. This was a large rectangle that was wrapped around the body. In warm weather that was all they wore.
Another special item was turkey feather capes worn by both men and women.
One item worn by Delaware men was the bandolier bag. This had a wide, fully beaded shoulder strap attached to a beaded bag. A number of these are now in museums as they were a favorite of collectors.
During colonial times when cloth became available some of the clothing items began to be made of cloth, all but the moccasins. Here are some photographs of the dance and ceremonial clothing our Lenape people wear:
Why are there two groups (bands) of Delawares in Oklahoma?
There are two bands of Delawares here in Oklahoma because the western group (now centered at Anadarko, Oklahoma) split off from our group about 215 years ago when we were all in Indiana. They headed down thru Louisiana into Texas, and finally got pushed out of there into western Oklahoma.
After leaving Indiana our group went to Kansas and we lived there for thirty years until we were forced to move into Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Our group with headquarters in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, is the main group and we now number 10,500.
Did the Missionaries help or hinder the Delawares?
We have mixed feelings about the impact of the missionaries. First, we are not sure the earliest attempts by the Swedish Lutherans in the 1600s was able to make any converts, or at least the evidence is lacking.
Next was David Brainerd, a Presbyterian. It seems like he wasn’t around long enough to have too much impact, and unfortunately he probably spread more consumption (tuberculosis) than religion.
The Moravians were at it a bit longer, but the strictness of their beliefs seems to have kept many possible converts away. They did some good things with the language, and we still refer to their works. We cannot help but think that had they offered to teach how to read and write Lenape to all the people and not just the converts the Lenape would today have their own literature. Also, with wars and massacres such as Gnaddenhutten the deck was “stacked” against the missionaries.
By the time the Lenape got to Kansas they were mainly preached to by Methodists and Baptists, but again, the same problems. When you convert you had to give up the old ways. It caused a great deal of division in the tribe. It also was part of the downfall of the traditional beliefs.
This is a difficult matter to discuss because in one way they were attempting to bring a good belief to the Lenape, but by trying to make it be the only belief, and by strict rules forbidding many activities that were our native ways, a lot of harm was done.
What kind of games did the Delawares play?
Our Lenape (Delaware Indian) people had several other games besides the football game, which is described in the section Lenape Football.
In brief, there is a Kokolësh (Rabbit Tail) Game. This used a sharp stick with string tied to the base and some cone-shaped pieces on the string with a rabbit tail tied on the end of the string to keep the cones from coming off. Object is to catch the cones on the stick. Good for dexterity.
There is Selahtikàn, not unlike Jackstraws. Pieces of reed were decorated with various lines and dots (for scoring purposes) and these were dropped onto a surface and then picked up one at a time without disturbing any others.
There is Mamandin, which is a dice game. Some dice (usually made of bone or deer antler) were placed in a wooden bowl, which was brought down on a folded hide or blanket to make the dice jump in the bowl. Score was kept.
Up north in Canada where some of the Munsee and Delaware people had to move, they play a game called Snowsnake in which a spear-like instrument (about 7 feet long) was tossed down a prepared trough in the snow. The trough was prepared the night before and allowed to refreeze so it would be lined with ice. The object was to see who could get it to go the farthest. This may have been adopted from the nearby Iroquois as they also play it.