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Every 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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Lenape dried the leaves and
blossoms of the indigenous “wild
tobacco” plant (Lobelia inflata) and used them as
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
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.
In 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
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.
(For additional information see
Lenape or Delaware Indians, or The Indians of Lenapehoking.)
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Revised: December 07, 2009