In this last segment on our study of the Lenni Lenape/Delaware culture, we would like to visit one last important aspect of the Lenape culture. The Lenape view of dreams and visions, art of healing, and death and burial practices provide much insight into a culture that has called the Pennsylvania and surrounding region home for thousands of years. Hopefully, the previous installments of this series have offered an interesting variety of information about a culture that thrived and influenced groups of European settlers who were first introduced to the landscape of a new land, here on the eastern seaboard of North America.
Dreams, Medicine, and Healing
Dreams are important to many cultures. It is because of dreams that many people try to understand the ability of their subconscious to gather information about themselves that they would not have otherwise thought of when struggling with particular issues of stress, sadness, happiness, rage, or contentment. Among many other things, the brains ability to capture feelings and emotions attached to a particular event and then recreate it with symbolism in ones sleep, is often confusing and hard to decipher. Cultures throughout the world over many millennia have used dreams as a way to determine the outcome of a future event or to make decisions about certain things. Sigmund Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams suggests that,
“Properly speaking, the unconscious is the real psychic; its inner nature is just as unknown to us as the reality of the external world, and it is just as imperfectly reported to us through the data of consciousness as is the external world through the indications of our sensory organs.”
The Lenape people were no different in their understanding of the importance of dreams. They believed that their Creator communicated with them through dreams. Just as with many other Native tribes and cultures all over the world, they believed that dreams could foretell the ability of hunting plentiful game, how long or short their life may be, or even if there was a danger that may present itself to the individual or tribe in some way.
In order to avoid bad dreams, the future dreamer would offer tobacco and wash themselves in order keep the bad spirits at bay. If a person were to dream about something tragic or the presentation of a dearly departed family member, the bed and home would then be purified with red cedar smoke.
Sometimes when dreaming of a dead relative or a nightmare of someone becoming sick, there were rituals that could be produced in order to counteract the message of the dream. Vision quests or engaging in a ritual behavior associated with having visions were also common introduction into the lives of boys and girls at a young age. This would have given them the ability to be introduced to their “guardian spirit” which would watch over them for their entire life. These vision quests were almost akin to having a particular type of psychic ability to predict future events of both themselves and of others. They believed that certain rituals gave them the power over spirits in order to combat a particular illness. The visions were often what lead particular individuals into their calling of spiritual healing as a practitioner of medicine. One example of this type of ritual, known in many other societies throughout the world, is fasting. Fasting as we know it is similar to the ways that the Lenape would have exercised it. Abstaining from food and drink for a prescribed number of days or weeks, would allow the person to purify themselves of whatever was ailing them. Sweat lodges or pimewakan were also a common practice among the Lenape. After sweating out the illness, an individual would plunge themselves into the closest water source for final purification and cooling.
Aside from fasting, vision quests, and dreams, individuals within each clan or family unit through out the entire tribal entity had an understanding of the medicinal uses of herbs and other plants. Many of the plants of the area, or that were found locally or obtained through trade were: white mullen, sassafras, water germander, mallows, wild marjoram, wild leek, blessed thistle, violet, wild indigo, snake root, tower mustard, lingwort, etc. These items would be prepared medicinally in herbal tea form, poultices, or other decoctions. Many of the ailments they would have healed abscesses, headaches, swelling, cuts, bruises, menstrual cramps, and arthritis, to name a few. There was typically a ritualistic means of acquiring the plants for use medicinally. For example, if the bark of a particular tree was being used, the east portion of the tree’s bark would have been stripped first and only. It was believed that the morning sun infused its strength and healing into the tree bark. Sometimes families knew the importance and potency of plants in order to cure sicknesses. But, if there were something occurring that the family could not heal on their own, an expert practitioner would have been called upon for a more in depth healing.
There were two specific types of healers:
Nëntpikès: herbalists who cured diseases and healed wounds and infections.
Mëteìnu or Medew: herbalists who also dealt with “witchcraft” or negative spirits.
The latter of the two practitioners was known for being able to both heal physical ailments through natural remedies of applying poultices or preparing other tonics for healing and also combating negative spirits.
Some might question, “Would they have the power to heal themselves if they were overcome with an illness upon their own person?” Simply, the answer is: “no”. They had power over other peoples lives, but not their own unfortunately. They would have to call upon another expert in the area of healing in order to combat their illness.
The Lenape people believed there were different spirits called manetu who were always present. The creator God, known as Kitanitowit, created the world and all in it. The manetuwak (or negative/evil spirits) were responsible for all sickness and death.
In certain rituals, the Lenape believed that the spirits around them could either be easily offended or appeased based on an individual’s relationship to the spirit world. In order to keep the spirits at peace, they would make and place offerings in and around the area they resided. For example, a person could place a handful of leaves or flowers in a nearby river for an offering. They could also offer pipe smoke near a local stony bank. Ritual ceremonies were also practiced at certain times of the year in order to honor the good spirits. This would also keep away the negative spirits that would affect the tribe or an individual. Sometimes these ritual ceremonies were done for special events, such as weddings, births, successful hunts and harvests.
Some ritual ceremonies required an individual shaman/medicine man to dress in a particular attire. For example, there would have been a man dressed in bearskin with a red and black painted mask that would pretend to be a mesingw.
This particular type of spirit was known to be a watcher and caretaker of the forest and all the creatures that lived in it. He was also known as “Keeper of the Game Animals”. He used a turtle shell to communicate and never talked when in the presence of others. According to the Lenape, this man was also called on in certain situations to put a scare into the younger children of the tribe who misbehaved. This spirit was so important, that the Delaware Tribe of Indians actually has it in the forefront of all the other symbols on their official tribal seal.
Sickness, Death, and Burial
Oftentimes if an individual became sick and died, it was not attributed to natural causes. The view of sickness and of death were viewed as a cause of something more supernatural – mostly from a negative spirits who intended harm on individual people. Sometimes, particular types of illness were blamed on the way a family or individual did not perform ceremonies or particular rituals. The Lenape tribe, around the 17th and 18th centuries, did not have a lot of elderly individuals. Many people died at a very young age. Many did not live past their 40s. Children, because of their high mortality rate, were not typically given a name until they reached the age of three.
When a person died, their ceremony was fairly simple. A shallow grave was dug and lined with tree bark or dried grass or other plants, or they were given a coffin to lie in. Pots filled with food and/or other items may have been placed in the deceased grave according to what they enjoyed to do in life. An individual would have been laid with their legs bent close to the body and arms folded across their chest. As with the Christian faith, the Lenape believed that there were both desirable and undesirable places in the afterlife.
The Lenape believed that the soul of good people went to live with the creator God Kitanitowit. Those who lived in a negative or evil way were not welcome into the desirable afterworld. Those who did not live according to the right path and who were cursed by evil spirits to live a life that was not pleasing to the community, were thought to have been sent to the undesirable place, similar to what might understand as “hell”.
According to Lenape traditional spiritual/religious teaching, it took eleven days for an individuals spirit to go from their grave into the highest heaven with their creator God. Wailing women were often called upon to mourn the dead during the ceremony. There was much crying, pulling of hair, and sadness. After a persons death, people were no longer allowed to speak of the deceased. They believed it would bring much sadness to the family and people closest to them. Therefore, once a person died, so did their name.
The Lenape understanding of the world through the eyes of the first settlers to the area must have been a fascinating one. It must have been quite a learning experience for both the European settlers and the Lenape who were not familiar with the ways of European society. There was a lot of misunderstanding but also an observation and sharing of cultural knowledge and heritage that passed through both groups of people, that to talk about the history of one group of distinct individuals, over another, would be leaving out a large chunk of history. When studying any historical topic, it is always important to understand ALL of the individuals who make up that story. Their lives are all pivotal in the role of how history is played out and how society develops over time. Therefore, we must always recognize how individuals within each society shape the foundation and build the society up over time, so we can recognize our own origin story and where we have come from.
There is so much more to be said about the Lenape and their practices of medicine, healing, death and burial practices, and all of the previous information we have discovered in our research on the cultural history of the Lenni Lenape/Delaware people. Hopefully these bits of information were interesting enough for you, that you decided to share it with others! We want to know how you feel about our month long series on the Lenni Lenape/Delaware people!
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Written by: Sarah Krykew