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  Skillful Healers


HealerEvery family knew the medicinal value of certain plants and herbs to cure ordinary sicknesses, injuries, and hurts, but for serious physical problems the Lenape consulted two kinds of medical practitioners.   The nentpikes, or herbalists, cured diseases and healed wounds and infections by applying natural remedies.  The meteinu or medew, in addition to being familiar with the properties of herbs, plants, barks and roots also claimed to know how to deal with witchcraft and other occult practices.  It was belied that meteinu could cure illnesses of supernatural origin and could chase away evil spirits.  Both types of medical practitioners usually started their professions as a result of dreams or visions.  Experienced older professionals would then teach them the special rituals associated with the selection and use of medicinal plants, their powers for diagnosing of healing illnesses, and the prayers and proper preparations associated with the use of each plant.  

In selecting the required medicinal plants in field or forest, an herbalist would stop by the first specimen, leaving it untouched. A ceremony would then be performed to appease the spirit of the plant.  Following this the herbalist would dig a small hole on the east side of the plant’s roots and place a pinch of native tobacco into the hole as an offering to the manetuwak or spirits who cared for the plants.  After addressing the plant and its spirit, the meteinu would then pick other plants of the same sort.  

Each plant was gathered according to the needs of the patient’s body.  Proper diagnosis of disease was important to the treatment and usually each plant was carefully examined.  If the roots of a selected plant appeared rough and knotty the patient would be difficult to cure, but if the roots were clean and well formed, an easy cure was assured.  In a love potion, rough and knotty roots presaged a stormy relationship, but smooth roots promised a loving companionship.  

Click here for some plant uses and cures

Sweat Lodge

Sweat LodgeOne of the more important structures in any Lenape settlement was the sweat lodge or pimewakan, used for ritual, cleaning, and curing all manner of sickness.  In use, one would enter the small hut where red-hot stones had been gathered.  Water poured on these stones produced steam that would surround the person and cause sweating.  After a time, when it was believed that the sickness or evil had been sweated out of the body, the individual would plunge into a nearby stream or be doused with cold water to close the pores.  Wrapped in blankets, the person would then lie by a fire to dry and rest.  



  Beliefs and Rituals

EffigiesThe Lenape believed that there were spirits – called manetu – all around them.  They believed that the great spirit Kishelemukong created the world and that evil spirits, known as manetuwak, were responsible for sickness and death.  They felt there was a spirit in every wild storm and in each new bud on the trees in spring.  

The Lenape believed that spirits could be helpful or harmful and so they had to be treated with respect.  To gain a spirit’s favor, people left small offerings in the place where they thought it lived – for example, near a huge tree, a waterfall, or a strange and lonely rock.  The gifts might be a handful of leaves or flowers, carved stick, or some pipe smoke.  The Indians were careful not to offend the spirits.  

MesingwFor certain ceremonies in the village, a man would dress from head to foot in a bearskin costume with a red and black painted mask and would impersonate one of the spirits called the “Mesingw.”  This important spirit was responsible to watch over and care for all the animals of the forest and was believed to roam the woods riding on the back of a deer.  On special occasions he was called upon to come into the village and frighten young children for acts of disobedience. He never talked but used a turtle shell rattle and stick to communicate his thoughts.  

At different times of the year the Lenape held ceremonies and rituals to honor the good spirits or drive out the evil ones.  They celebrated the rising of the maple sap and the planting of the corn.  They had a ritual for the first green corn of each year and a celebration of the harvest.  And there were other good things to celebrate – a birth, a marriage, or a successful hunt.  

Shaman Man Sitting


People known as shamans were thought to have more special power over spirits; these individuals often used their power for the good of others by becoming medicine men or religious leaders.



  Tobacco Ceremonies

Smoking was important to many Indian groups.  Both the tobacco and the pipes for smoking it were thought to be sacred.  They had to be treated with respect and used according to the proper rituals.  Tobacco smoke was frequently used as an offering to the spirits.  Sometimes tobacco was burned as incense or tossed onto the fire as a person called on a spirit for help.  And sometimes shamans smoked to drive disease from a sick person’s body.  Chiefs and councilors smoked before making important decisions, before trading, and before declaring war or agreeing to peace.  

Tobacco PlantThe Lenape dried the leaves and blossoms of the indigenous  “wild tobacco” plant (Lobelia inflata) and used them as stimulants.  Indian tobacco was also a popular asthma remedy.  Sometimes this plant was mixed with other aromatic herbs and bark to produce different affects.  

The tobacco plant is indigenous to the Americas and was unknown to the rest of the world until the Indians introduced it to the Europeans around the fifteenth century.  


  Vision Quests

Vision Quest

The Lenape believed that certain rituals, such as fasting, gave them special power to influence spirits.  It was the custom for boys – and sometimes girls – to mark the time when they became adults by going away alone for many days to fast and dream.  The special power they received at this time might enable them to have visions, and some of them might find a guardian spirit. This special guardian could take the form of a fox, a hawk, a small ant or even a rock and could protect the individual for life or tell them what their future would be.



  Burial Customs

BurialIn general, very few native people lived to be older than thirty-five years of age.  Sometimes Lenape children died at a very young age because of sickness, injury, or lack of proper food.  For this reason, children were not given a formal name until they were about three years old.  

The dead were laid in a shallow grave lined with tree bark or grass mats.  In early times, the arms of the dead person were folded across the chest.  The knees were bent so that the legs were close to the body.  Sometimes, a clay pot was filled with food and placed in the grave.  This food gave the soul of the dead person strength to make the long journey to heaven.  

The Lenape believed that the soul of good people went to live with the Great Creator Kishelemukong in the highest heaven, but the souls of evil individuals had to stay outside this “happy hunting ground“ forever.  They believed that the starry cluster called the Milky Way was the path to heaven.  The Lenape name for the Milky Way is Ane (A-nay-e).  When a person died, his name also died.  People did not say that person’s name ever again because it would bring sadness to the family.




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  (For additional information see The Lenape or Delaware Indians, or The Indians of Lenapehoking.)


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