Monday, June 13, 2011


I've been reading about the Lenape lately, the original inhabitants of this land.  I highly recommend The Lenape-Delaware Indian Heritage, 10,000 BC to AD 2000 by Herbert Kraft (2001, Lenape Lifeways) if you're interested in reading a scholarly book about their history.  Dr. Kraft (1927-2000) was a professor and curator of the Museum of Archaeology at Seton Hall University and a recognized expert on the Lenape.

They called themselves the Lenape which means "the people" (sometimes you'll see Lenni Lenape which means "true people") and inhabited the area from southeastern New York (including Ulster County where I live), through New Jersey, and into eastern Pennsylvania,and northern Delaware.  The called the area they lived  Lenapehoking - "land of the Lenape."

Sometimes the Lenape are referred to as the Delaware Indians which, of course, is offensive since the Delaware River, which runs through Lenapehoking, was named after Lord De La Warr, the governor of the colony at Jamestown around 1610.  De La Warr, as is typical of the early leaders in America, killed Indians, burned their villages and fields, and stole their land.  Not surprising the Lenape really don't want to be known as Delaware Indians.

The Lenape had three distinct clans - archaeologists call them phraties (derived from the Greek φρατήρ meaning brother).  The wolf (Minsi) clan generally lived in the northern part of Lenapehoking, the turtle clan (Unami) in the central part, and the turkey clan (Unalachtigo) in the southern as the map at right shows (legend is in German).

As I've mentioned before on this blog, I've had a long-standing interest in shamanism and found it interesting to read about a Lenape spiritual being known as Mesingw.  I honestly am not sure how to pronounce the name, my guess would be "may-sing-weh" based on what I've read.  The name means "living solid face" or "masked being" and he was the keeper of the game and guardian of the forest.

The job given to him by the creator was to reconcile the Indians' need for meat with the resentments of the animals who were being eaten!  In a traditional story of the Lenape, the game animals ran away and when the Lenape men found them, they told them "You need us, we don't need you!" echoing that tension.

Here's my edited and abridged version of a traditional story about Mesingw.

Three boys were wandering in the forest when they saw a strange-looking hairy person with his face painted half black and half red. This person said, "I am Mesingw, I have taken pity on you and I will give you strength so that nothing can ever hurt you again. Come with me and I shall show you my country!"

He took the boys into the sky to the place where he came from. It was a great range of mountains up in the sky reaching from north to south. While he was showing the boys his country, he promised that they would become strong and should gain the power to get anything they wished. Then he brought to boys back to the Earth again.

In later years, when the boys had grown up and were hunting, they used to see Mesingw occasionally, riding on a stag, herding the deer together, and giving his peculiar call, "Ho-ho-ho!"

A great earthquake came then which lasted for twelve moons and gave much trouble to the Lenapé ancestors. In one of their towns, a Chief had a large bark house, and there the people met to worship, hoping to stop the earthquakes. They worshipped there, and sang and prayed all winter for relief.

Just after springtime came, they were holding a meeting one night when they heard something making a noise in the forest, "Ho-ho-ho!" The Chief called for someone to go and see what it was. The three men recognized the call of Mesingw and offered to go because they wanted to find out what he wanted.

So, they went outside and found Mesingw in the woods, and asked him what he wanted. "Go back and tell the others to stop holding meetings and to attend to their crops," he answered. "Do not meet again until the fall, when I shall come and live with you. Then I will give your people help through a new ceremony, the Big House. You must carve a mask of wood to look like my face, painted half black and half red, as mine is, and I shall put my power into it, so it will do as you ask. When the man who takes my part puts the mask on, I shall be there with you, and in this way I shall live among you. The man must carry a turtle-shell rattle, a bag and a staff, just as I do now."

The earthquakes stopped, and the Lenapé kept the ceremony and the mask ever after.

The Lenape considered Mesingw important enough to place his likeness on their official seal.  Across his face is a pipe - the Lenape were considered peacemakers amongst the tribes and the sacred pipe was important in such discussions.  To the right of the mask is the fire drill traditionally used to start sacred fires.  Surrounding the mask are the symbols for the three clans of the Lenape - the wolf (Minsi), turtle (Unami), and turkey (Unalachtigo).  Also shown is the Christian cross since a large number of modern Lenape are now Christians.  The twelve bars are prayer sticks used in the old Big House Church ceremony of the Lenape, last held in 1924, and described as a  twelve day ceremony held in the autumn where the Lenape prayed, sang vision songs, and honored Mesingw.

There are still places, secret places, where the mask of Mesingw watches over the Valley here in Ulster County (click to enlarge pictures).  I like that.


  1. Xeli Wanishi, Steven

    Tamike Muxumsa Welaxen
    Tamike Misinkw Taleka Aho

    Waliki Ishku,Steven,
    Nuhuma Achimi

  2. Unfortunately, I only understand a few words in what you wrote...

  3. I'm trying to teach myself Lenape; this is as much as I can make out... not entirely sure about it...

    "Thank you very much, Steven

    Entered Grandfather Good Wind
    Entered Mësingw Singer oh ho

    Good day, Steven,
    Grandmother tells"

    Anyway, your point about not wanting to be called Delaware after a white man who was the Indians' enemy is well taken. I too feel s sense of repugnance from that. However, as to your assertion about the Lenape people themselves refusing it, the actual official tribal names in Oklahoma are Delaware Tribe of Indians and Delaware Nation. In Canada, Delaware of Six Nations. I forgot where I read this, but I read that being called by the name of a great chief of the British was taken as an honor by Lenape people and therefore acceptable (even though it was an enemy chief).

    Glad to see that the ancestral spirit lives on in Lenapehoking to this day! Xeli wanishi!

  4. do you have any information on winter solstice traditions

  5. He is speaking in the Unami Dialect.

  6. There's a Lenape Story about seven holy men who turn into 7 trees, 7 boulders, and then finally the 7 stars of the Pleiades because people keep asking them questions...