Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

The Lenape – Who They Are

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Typically a series about Native or First Nations people would start off in a chronological fashion by focusing on the past history and then graduating up to a present day retelling of their story. However, it is always a good thing to recognize a people with such a rich history as still living and thriving as a community. To search the past, without giving acknowledgement to these individuals as living breathing people who have overcome adversity,  and who are still trying to maintain their culture, would be a huge disservice to what they have accomplished in their own cultural struggle over time.

In today’s post, we will focus on the question, “Who are the Lenni Lenape/Delaware people?” and try to establish and understanding of who they see themselves as today. I was given the opportunity to visit with the Museum of Indian Culture in Allentown, PA. This site has so many interesting things to offer the community who want to get in touch with their own past or just a curious mind, to find out the important aspects of Lenape/Delaware culture (among other Native people groups) and how it is still lived today. This site offered both interesting and valuable information within its exhibits.

Most individuals (non-Native) are not usually familiar with the Native cultures of North America, in general. Many tend to look at Native peoples as a past relic, meant to be studied and kept in the museum setting. There is no understanding in the differences of band/tribe/nation affiliation or the cultural traditions they held. Oftentimes, if the name “Indian” or “Native American” are being used, people tend to visualize a male warrior on horseback wearing feathered headdress. People often do not realize that this depiction is a small drop in the bucket compared to the amazing diversity held within each band/tribe/nation.

Oral traditions are important to many modern day Native people. Retellings of how the Earth or the first people and/or animals were formed are integral to some tribal cultures understanding of who they are and how they came to be. Some of these retellings can be found in the Powwow ceremonies that are done throughout the country and throughout the year. Did you know that “powwow” is actually an Algonquin term? According to one American historian Francis Jennings, in his book the Invasion of America, “pauwau” or “pauau” referred to a group of spiritual leaders and/or medicine men. When people were “pauwauing” it referred to a curing religious ceremony. During the early settlement period of America’s history, the powwow ceremony made some European settlers feel at unease. In The Three Affiliated Tribes, historian Joseph H. Cash stated that, “In 1646 the Massachusetts General Court decreed that “no Indian shall at any time pawwaw, or perform outward worship to their false gods, or to the devil.”

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These words in particular show how misunderstood Native song and dance ceremonies were. Fortunately, the understanding and appreciation for the powwow ceremony has changed since the 1600s. These ceremonies have also evolved over time in many ways.

For the Lenape and other Native people all across the continent, it’s a special way of meeting together to dance, sing, visit relatives or friends or to make new friendships, embrace a competitive spirit amongst different Native tribes, or for spiritual reasons. Each person’s regalia, song, and dance have special meanings. Their regalia is not a “costume” and only those participating in the event are allowed to wear it. It is considered highly offensive to those who are involved in the powwow ceremony to have an outsider “dress up” as one of the group when they are not involved in the spiritual and cultural significance of the ceremony. It’s so important, in fact, that regalia is usually prayed over and blessed before the outfit is worn and the ceremony begins. However, many of the dances are social dances and religious ceremonies are typically kept privately. The social aspect is to celebrate pride in the culture and heritage of the Lenape and other Native peoples.

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Some examples of the modern day powwow for the Lenape would include the “Traditional”, “Jingle, “Grass”, and “Fancy (Shawl)” dances.

The traditional style of dance tells a story of bravery or of a hunt. Each dancer is required to create their regalia in a traditional fashion. Eagle feathers, sinew, bones and animal skins are also used as part of the dancers regalia. The items for the regalia and even the regalia itself must be blessed before being used.

The women’s jingle dance was originally started in the 1920s as a healing dance for a young girl who fell ill. The design of the dress and dancing were revealed to an Ojibwe medicine man in his sleep, after seeking a vision for the recovery of his sick daughter. Once he awoke, he asked his daughter to wear the dress he made and dance according to what was revealed in the dream. It is said that this particular dance helped heal the young girl and has been used ever since. They typically took side-ways steps around a person who was ill as their unique dance choreography.  In this dance, rows of metal cones across the front of the dancers dress, called ziibaaska’iganan in the Ojibewe language, clink and clank as the dancer moves. The dancer also carries a feather or a fan of feathers as she dances. A woman who wants to become a jingle dress dancer is asked to purify herself through the fasting of food and water for four days and also to give a personal offering. A woman is asked to fast because of the healing powers brought about by the dress and dance to the First Nations people and their use of song, step, and ceremony.

Next, is the grass dance. This particular style of dance originated from the men of the northern Plains tribes. It was later used in powwows by other Native tribes. The fringes on their regalia demonstrate the prairie grass, all-the-while, their movements were originally done to depict the stomping down and flattening of the tall prairie grass when creating a new settlement. The regalia for this type of dance is usually very colorful and contains colored fringes made of yarn or ribbon.When a dancer moves, he must create symmetry on both sides of the body to mimic the waving of tall grass. Sometimes it is often done to depict the hunter stalking wild game within the grass.

Last, is the fancy dance. This style of dance is said to have originated in the 1920s, to curtail the U.S. government’s ban on tribal dancing – but still recognized the importance of it for the entertainment of visitors.This dance is much faster than all of the other styles and expects the dancer to keep perfect timing with the beats of the drum. The regalia is typically bright with the inclusion of feathers, bustles, beaded bodices, breech cloths, bells, moccasins, beaded arm/head bands, and others. This dance is a predominantly male centered one. This is also one of the most popular forms of dance. Women took part in this dance originally, but eventually branched off on their own calling their version the women’s fancy shawl dance. The intricately beaded and sometimes fringed shawl spans from the end of one hand, across the back, to the other hand. Almost resembling the wingspan of a butterfly. This dance is not the same as the men’s fancy dance and does not require the women to have choreographed foot steps. They are to be light on their feet and not necessarily required to hit the ground with their feet every time the drum is hit. If they are doing jumps or spins it is not required.

Modern day powwows are an evolution of past cultural stories that are still important to individual tribes and the connection they share with each other as First Nations people. They are an amazing way to gain a better knowledge about the past that was experienced by Native people. They are also very fascinating and beautiful to watch and to partake in, while listening to traditional styles of music, both vocal and instrumental. If you have the opportunity to ever visit a local powwow, take full advantage of it. The Lenni Lenape/Delaware tribe Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware hold powwows and other music and dance performances throughout the year. Here is a link which will provide you with information of the areas closest to ours here in Chester County, PA!

Nanticoke-Lenape People: http://nanticoke-lenape.info/powwow.htm

 

Next week, I will discuss some past historical traditional roles of the Lenape and how many of their customs influenced the people who lived in our area during the early settlement period.

Written by: Sarah Krykew

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