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Were The Lenape?
The Story of
An early account told how Tantaque took a piece of coal
out of the fire where he sat, and began to write upon the
He first drew a circle, a little oval, to which he made
four paws or feet, a head and a tail.
“This,” said he, “is a tortoise, lying in the
water around it … this was or is all water, and so at
first was the world or the earth, when the tortoise
gradually raised its back up high, and the water ran off
of it, and thus the earth became dry … and there grew a
tree in the middle of the earth, and the root of this tree
sent forth a sprout beside it and there grew upon it a
man, who was the first male.
This man was then alone, and would have remained alone; but
the tree bent over until its top touched the earth, and
there shot therein another root, from which came forth
another sprout, and there grew upon it the woman, and from
these two are all men produced.”
The Land of the
The Lenape (len-AH-pay) or Delaware Indians lived in an area they
called “Lenapehoking,” which means
“Land of the Lenape.”
Their land included all of what is now New Jersey, eastern
Pennsylvania, southeastern New York State, northern Delaware and a
small section of southeastern Connecticut.
As part of the Eastern Woodlands, Lenapehoking had many
rivers, streams and lakes and was densely forested and rich in
We now know that two related but
distinct groups of Indians occupied Lenapehoking; not three as is
sometimes stated. Those
living in the northern half (above the Raritan River and the
Delaware Water Gap) spoke a Munsee dialect of the Eastern
Algonquian Delaware language, while those to the south spoke Unami
– a slightly different dialect of the same language.
The beliefs and cultures of these two general groups,
although very similar, differed somewhat. For convenience, we will
use the word Lenape (“common or ordinary people”) to refer to
both the groups living in Lenapehoking.
of the Lenape lived in large villages of two to three hundred
people, but most of them lived in small bands of 25 to 50
important to the Lenape Indians. There were strong ties
between parents and children, and among all the related families
that made up the clan.
The Lenape had
three clans (or phratries) – Wolf, Turtle and Turkey – which
traced their descent through the female line. For example,
if a mother belonged to the Turtle Clan, then each of her
children also belonged to the same clan. The sons had to
marry women from other clans, and their children belonged to
their mother’s clan.
own groups the Indians were kind to one another. They felt
a sense of responsibility towards everyone in their community.
They did not steal from anyone in their own village, for there
was no reason to do so. The land belonged to the whole
community, shelters were shared, and no one hoarded valuable
Many of the
groups inhabiting Lenapehoking had well-organized ways of
governing their clans and villages. The chiefs –
sometimes referred to as sachems - were chosen for their
behavior, skill in speaking, honesty, and ability to make wise
decisions. The chiefs also had to know about religion so
that they could lead the people in rituals and ceremonies.
were different. They gained power through proven bravery
and success in battle. They were able to gather young men
together and go off on a raid without the approval of the chief.
Everyone worked, but men and women
were expected to do different tasks. Starting at an early
age, small children began to learn the skills they would need when
they grew up. The boys were taught woodcraft and hunting;
the girls, housekeeping and gardening.
Women were responsible for the planting and harvesting of crops
and gathering wild foods. Some of the crops were eaten as
soon as it was harvested, but much of it - together with wild
foods like berries, roots and nuts - were dried for winter use.
The women pounded corn into flour by using a mortar and pestle.
Nuts could be ground up and baked, or were pressed to squeeze out
their oil, which was used in cooking. Maple syrup was made
by collecting sap from maple trees in early spring and boiling it
Women were skilled at making clay
pots, weaving rush mats and bags, and making baskets. They
wove cornhusks for slippers, mats and dolls, and made containers
from elm and birch bark. With fibers from plants, they spun
and braided cords for binding and carrying bundles. Women
were also responsible for preparing the hides for clothes and
shelters. With bone tools, they scraped the hair from the
hides and cleaned them. Then they smoked them over a fire,
cut them into pieces and sewed the pieces with bone needles.
Men cleared the land, built and repaired the houses, and made
dugout canoes by felling large trees and alternately burning and
chopping through them to the desired shape. They constructed
fishweirs and the large fish baskets to gather the catch.
Using bows and arrows, the men hunted a variety of animals,
although deer, elk and bear were the Lenape’s largest
prey. Deer were often hunted by surrounding or herding them
into pens or rivers. This method involved many people
forming into a large a circle as possible and by using fire or
noise to drive the animals to the hunters where they could be
Trapping was another means by which
the Lenape caught animals like beaver, otter, muskrat, raccoon,
mink and wild cats. Turkey, eagle and other birds like
partridge, pigeon, wild ducks and geese were also shot or caught
in traps to be part of the Lenape diet.
Men were good warriors and
sometimes had to go to war to defend their homes, but left the
management of the house to their wives and often listened to the
advice of the chief matron of his lineage in matters of peace and
played an important role in the lives of the Indians.
Men used them to make houses and dugout canoes,
fishweirs, bows and arrows, harpoons, tree trunk mortars,
wooden bowls, and many other useful and ornamental objects.
Women employed hoes and digging sticks in gardens;
knives, choppers, scrapers, millingstones and mullers were
used in preparing meals.
Some of these same tools, along with awls and
needles, were used to make clothing, moccasins, mats,
baskets, and fishnets.
The Lenape made the things
they needed by utilizing the natural environment around
them. The raw
materials needed to make stone tools, weapons and household
objects were most often found locally, although special
stone, as for example soapstone, had to be obtained from
Deer and elk, killed for food, also provided bone and
antler for fish hooks, needles, awls, skewers, and ornaments.
Their sinew and gut were used for sewing and binding,
and their hides for clothing and covers.
Rattles, and a kind of glue, were made from the
hooves of these animals.
Bowls and cups were made from the upper shells of box
turtles, wood terrapins, and snapping turtles, and also from
gourds and large seashells.
Pottery jars were formed out of clay removed from
riverbanks or lakeshores.
Baskets and mats were woven from cattail reeds and
from bast – the inner bark and roots of certain
tools were made either by chipping and flaking, or by
pecking and grinding.
arrowheads, scrapers, knives, drills and gravers were
generally made from finer-grained stones including flint and
quartz that were easier to work into sharp, crisply flaked
celts, gouges, adzes and other heavy woodworking and
domestic tools were usually made from coarser stones.
These types of tools were shaped by repeated pecking
hammerstone until the cobble or rock was eroded to
the desired shape. The
tool might then be ground and polished with a whetstone or
with sand and water. The
more it was polished, the smoother the finish.
Pendants, gorgets, and other objects of
special significance were frequently carved and polished
with great care and then drilled for attachment or
(For additional information see
Lenape or Delaware Indians, or The Indians of Lenapehoking.)
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Revised: July 15, 2014