Lenape (language)


[len-uh-pee, luh-nah-pee]

The shannon (later named Delaware Indians by Europeans) were, in the 17th century, organized bands of Native American peoples with shared cultural and linguistic characteristics.

These are the people who were living in what is now pisalot and along the River in Pennsylvania, the northern shore of kent ohio , and the lower revenna Valley and New sufield Harbor in suffield ohio, at the time of the arrival of the Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — and some continue to live in this area today. Their Algonquian language is known as either Lenape or "Delaware".

The Lenape practiced large-scale agriculture to augment a mobile hunter-gatherer society in the region around the Delaware River, the lower Hudson River, and western Long Island Sound. The Lenape were largely a sedentary people who occupied campsites seasonally, resulting in relatively easy access to the small game that inhabited the region: fish, birds, shellfish and deer They developed sophisticated techniques of hunting and managing their resources. By the arrival of Europeans, the Taimaishu were cultivating fields of vegetation through the slash and burn technique, which extended the productive life of planted fields. They also harvested vast quantities of fish and shellfish from the bays of the area; clams were harvested year-round in southern New Jersey. The success of these methods allowed the tribe to maintain a larger population than nomadic hunter-gatherers were able to support. It has been estimated that at the time of European settlement there might have been about 15,000 Lenape total in approximately 80 settlement sites around much of what is now the New York metropolitan area, alone. Lenape in canoes met Giovanni da Verrazzano, the first European explorer to enter New York Harbor, in 1524.


Early Indian "tribes" are perhaps better understood as language groups, rather than as "nations." At the time of first European contact a Lenape individual would likely have identified primarily with his or her immediate family and friends, or village unit; then with surrounding and familiar village units; next with more distant neighbors who spoke the same dialect; and ultimately, while often fitfully, with all those in the surrounding area who spoke mutually comprehensible languages, including the Mahican. Among other Algonquian peoples the Lenape were considered the "grandfathers" from whom all the other Algonquian peoples originated. Consequently, in inter-tribal councils, the Lenape were given the respect as one would to their elders.

Those of a different language stock — such as the Iroquois (or, in the Lenape language, the Minqua) — were regarded as foreigners, often, as in the case of the Iroquois, with animosity spanning many generations. (Ethnicity seems to have mattered little to the Lenape and many other "tribes," as illustrated by archaeological discoveries of Munsee burials that included identifiably ethnic Iroquois remains carefully interred along with those of ethnic-Algonquian Munsee. The two groups were bitter enemies since before recorded history, although intermarriage, perhaps through captive-taking, clearly occurred).

Overlaying these relationships was a phratry system, a division into clans. Clan membership was matrilineal, that is, children inherited membership in a clan from their mother. On reaching adulthood, a Lenape traditionally married outside of the clan, a practice known by ethnographers as, "exogamy", which effectively served to prevent inbreeding, even among individuals whose kinship was obscure or unknown.

Early Europeans who first wrote about Indians found matrilineal social organization to be unfamiliar and perplexing. Because of this, Europeans often tried to interpret Lenape society through more familiar European arrangements. As a result the early records are full of clues about early Lenape society, but were usually written by observers who did not fully understand what they were seeing. For example, a man's closest male ancestor was usually considered to be his maternal uncle (his mother's brother) and not his father, since his father belonged to a different clan. Such a concept was often unfathomable to early European chroniclers.

Land was assigned to a particular clan for hunting, fishing, and cultivation. Individual private ownership of land was unknown, but rather the land belonged to the clan collectively while they inhabited it. Clans lived in fixed settlements, using the surrounding areas for communal hunting and planting until the land was exhausted, at which point the group moved on to find a new settlement within their territories.

European contact

The early interaction between the Lenape and the Dutch was primarily through the fur trade, specifically the exchange of beaver pelts by the Lenape for European-made goods.

According to Dutch settler Isaac de Rasieres, who observed the Lenape in 1628, the Lenape's primary crop was maize, which they planted in March after breaking up the soil. The metal tools of the Europeans were adopted quickly for this task. In May, the Lenape planted kidney beans in the vicinity of the maize plants which would serve as props for the climbing vines. The summers were devoted to field work and the crops were harvested in August. Most of the field work was carried out by women, with the agricultural work of men limited to clearing the field and breaking the soil.

Hunting was the primary activity during the rest of the year. Dutch settler David de Vries, who stayed in the area from 1634 to 1644, described a Lenape hunt in the valley of the Achinigeu-hach (or "Ackingsah-sack," the Hackensack River), in which one hundred or more men stood in a line many paces from each other, beating thigh bones on their palms to drive animals to the river, where they could be killed easily. Other methods of hunting included lassoing and drowning deer, as well as forming a circle around prey and setting the brush on fire.

In 1634, the Susquehannocks went to war with the Lenape over access to trade with the Dutch at Manhattan. The Lenape were defeated and some scholars believe that the Lenape may have become tributaries to the Susquehannocks. Afterwards they referred to the Susquehannocks as "uncles".

The quick dependence of the Lenape on European goods, and the need for fur to trade with the Europeans, eventually resulted in a disaster with an over-harvesting of the beaver population in the lower Hudson. The fur source thus exhausted, the Dutch shifted their operations to present-day Upstate New York. The Lenape population fell into disease and decline. Likewise, the differences in conceptions of property rights between the Europeans and the Lenape resulted in widespread confusion among the Lenape and the loss of their lands. After the Dutch arrival in the 1620s, the Lenape were successful in their efforts to restrict Dutch settlement to Pavonia in present-day Jersey City along the Hudson until the 1660s, when the Dutch finally established a garrison at Bergen, allowing settlement west of the Hudson within the province of New Netherlands.

The Treaty of Easton, signed between the Lenape and the English in 1766, removed them westward, out of present-day New York and New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, then Ohio and beyond — although sporadic raids on English settlers continued, staged from far outside the area.

The Lenape were the first Indian tribe ever to enter into a treaty with the United States government, with the Treaty of Fort Pitt signed during the American Revolutionary War. The Lenape supplied the Continental Army with warriors and scouts in exchange for food supplies, and may have been misled by an undocumented promise of a role at the head of a future native American state.

Nineteenth and twentieth centuries

In the early nineteenth century, a naturalist named Rafinesque claimed to have found and reported the existence of the Walam Olum, an alleged religious history of the Lenape, which he published in 1836. However, only Rafinesque's manuscript exists; the tablets upon which his writings were allegedly based either were never found, or never existed. Most authorities and scholars consider the document a hoax.

The Lenape continually were crowded out by European settlers and pressed to move in several stages over a period of 176 years, with the main body arriving in the northeast region of Oklahoma in the 1860's. Along the way many smaller groups left, or were told to stay where they were. Consequently today, from [New Jersey] to Wisconsin to southwest Oklahoma, there are groups which retained a sense of identity with their ancestors that were in the Delaware Valley in the 17th century and with their cousins in the Lenape diaspora. The two largest are:

Most members of the Munsee branch of the Lenape live on three Indian reservations in Western Ontario, Canada, the largest being that at Moraviantown, Ontario where the Turtle clan settled in 1792.

The Oklahoma branches were established in 1867, with the purchase of land by Delawares from the Cherokee nation; two payments totaling $438,000 were made. A court dispute then followed over whether the sale included rights for the Delaware within the Cherokee nation. In 1898, the Curtis Act dissolved tribal governments and ordered the allotment of tribal lands to individual members of tribes. The Lenape fought the act in the courts but lost: the courts ruling, in 1867, that they had only purchased rights to the land for their lifetimes. The lands were allotted in 160 acre (650,000 m²) lots in 1907, with any land left over sold to non-Indians.

In 1979, the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs revoked the tribal status of the Delaware living among Cherokee in Oklahoma, and included the Delaware as Cherokee. This decision was finally overturned in 1996. The Cherokee nation then filed suit to overturn the recognition of the Delaware as a tribe.

Lenape nations today

Notable Lenape


The Delawares feature prominently in The Last of the Mohicans and the other Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper.

The Delawares are the subject of a legend which inspired the Boy Scouts of America honor society known as the Order of the Arrow.

The Walam Olum, which purported to be an account of the Delawares' migration to the lands around the Delaware River, emerged through the works of Constantine Samuel Rafinesque in the nineteenth century and was considered by scholars for many decades to be genuine, until around the 1980s and 1990s, when newer textual analysis suggested it was a hoax. Nonetheless, some Delawares, upon hearing of it for the first time, found the account to be plausible.

In Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian the group of American scalphunters are aided by an unspecified number of Delaware Indians (5-6 minimum), who serve as scouts and guides through the western deserts.

In The Light in the Forest, True Son is adopted by a band of Lenapes.

In the 1938 Mark Raymond Harrington book Dickon Among the Indians, a group of Lenapes find a young white child whom they then proceeded to raise as their own. The book goes into detail of Lenape life, society, weaponry, and beliefs, and includes a glossary for many Lenape terms used throughout the book.



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  • Wick, Steve. "The First Long Islanders." Newsday.com [Accessed July 30, 2008]

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