Chadds Ford Historical Society

Revisiting History

Family, Women, and Children and Gender Roles in the Lenape Tribe

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This week we will focus on an area that is very important to understanding Lenape culture and how their society functioned. Each society is governed by its own traditions and the way it functioned based on sex, gender, class, and/or race. There are also other variants to the way societies function, but these are typically very important when trying to understand the way each society has shaped itself and the rules or laws it creates over time to keep order within.

The Lenni Lenape/Delaware people were known to have been a matrilineal based society. The children born into the mother’s clan gained both their social identity and status through that system of kinship. All members of the mother’s side were considered more significant in the upbringing and education of the children than was their father and father’s side. Within their society, women made a large percentage of the decision making in affairs considering who was sent into battle and who stayed home, property rights, leadership for the community, etc.

Marriage within the Lenape Tribe

Matrilocal families made up the Lenape tribe. A man and woman would live with the woman’s family after marriage – this harkens back to the matrilineal system that promoted the importance of female leadership within the community. Exogamy was practiced, where the man would typically marry outside of his own clan but within the tribe. When William Penn arrived in the area of where the Lenape lived, it was thought that the Lenape only had 3 clan lines that were known: the Turkey, Turtle, and Wolf. This is a largely false understanding of the Lenape people and the over 30 or more clans that existed at the time when the Lenape people were losing a large percentage of their people to both war and epidemic disease. This 3 clan system was only seen as such because many of the other clans that existed were being absorbed into one of these three in order to keep the population together.


Gender Roles Within Lenape Society

The women were typically in charge of land/territory rights. However, the men were largely responsible for hunting, community protection, building, and clearing (slash and burn) swaths of land for farming or building on. The women were the cultivators of the society. They planted and harvested the crops and gathered more than they would have hunted (although it wasn’t uncommon for women to hunt). They were also known for preparing a large portion of the meals. They created woven baskets, pottery, and clothing.

The role of women broken down into pregnancy and childbirth are also important topics that are not always discussed when regarding the lives of regular, everyday people. The importance of women’s needs during this time in their lives was something that was recognized and catered to. There were ways in which women dealt with both pregnancy and childbirth that may seem fairly different than how one would approach those events today.

Women, like today, were supposed to refrain from eating certain foods. Liver was a common food not intended for pregnant women. Today, we know that the amount of Vitamin A (retinol) stored within the liver of an animal may be harmful to an unborn child. The effects of eating this particular animal food is something that was known well before our modern medical science established this understanding. They were also not allowed to eat chicken, its organs, or byproducts. Their belief was that eating these items would cause the baby to scratch the pregnant mother from within her body and it would actually cause non-pregnant girls and women to age/wrinkle prematurely.

Pregnant women were also not supposed to look at certain animals during this time. Two known animals that the Lenape women avoided were both opossums and rabbits. These animals were thought to cause a “harelip” or what we now call a “cleft palate” in newborns. The spirit of the unborn child was also thought to disrupt the fathers ability to successfully hunt. Sometimes small bow and arrow or corn mortar and pestle were made and pinned to the clothing to detract the child’s movements in the womb from frightening the deer or other animals being hunted.

As with many other cultures around the world, a Lenape woman’s place during her time of menstruation or birthing was done in a special hut or shelter. Women’s fertility and “that time of the month” or during childbirth were considered very powerful times in a woman’s life that could disrupt the outside world in many ways. Therefore, it was important for women to have their own protective place for both themselves and the people who were to be protected from them outside in the village. Men and women at certain times, especially during times of the afterbirth period when a mother was breastfeeding , abstained from sexual relations only because it was believed the mothers milk would go bad. Therefore, it was acceptable at times for the men to cohabitate with other wives or partners during this period. Women were also allowed this same type of open relationship for a time, depending on the circumstances of her relationship with her husband.

For the boys who were born, the umbilical cord was typically buried in the forest or in an area of non-domestication. This was believed to influence the spirit of the boy for the future so that he would become aware of his role as a hunter and protector in and around the forest. The girls umbilical cord would have been buried near the home, with hopes that she would understand her role in the domestic sphere of birthing children, harvesting and preparing food, and working in and around the home. Girls and boys were given toys according to the work they were expected to do as they got older and according to the gender roles within their society. The girls were given corn husk dolls, mortar and pestles, and clay pots to mimic their mothers within the domestic sphere. They typically stayed with their mothers and female figures near the gardens or gathering foods and preparing clothing within the home. The boys were given toy tools and weapons to mimic their fathers or other head male figures in the hunting and protective non-domestic way of life. Boys were given the task of learning how to make stone tools, traps, and repairing nets in order to hunt and fish. This only came as they were getting old enough to handle the work more effectively. Later, as he became a successful hunter and fisherman, he would have been seen as a sufficient partner for marriage because of his capability to provide food and other necessaries required for the family.

Women in the Lenape tribe typically breast-fed their children until about 2 years of age – the complimentary food in early stages of the infants life would have been a gruel or thin mush of Indian corn. This amount of time for breastfeeding, plus complimentary feeding of solids is still recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO) today.

Babies were often kept from the time of birth, until they were able to walk, on cradle boards strapped to their back.



Children were typically plunged into cold water at an early age to “harden” them as they got older. If they misbehaved, they were not “spanked” or disciplined by what most people would see as “corporal punishment” but instead were made to have water poured over their heads, dunked in the river (if they were thought to be in need of a more severe punishment), or were scolded. Any type of corporal punishment (spanking) was frowned upon. It was considered a curse that the child may one day grow to lash out against the person who inflicted this type of punishment, and therefore, the parents resorted to different means of disciplining their children.

The interesting thing about this particular tribe is that Europeans were highly confused about the importance of women within the society and their ability to select male warriors for battle, grant permission of land rights, and electing male leaders of the tribe. Even though they worked much in the domestic sphere, their ways of electing leadership was not in line with a patriarchal society. In the eyes of a patriarchal European society, which was not familiar with the customs of the Lenape, their understanding of the typical gender roles they associated with their own culture was much confused with how the Lenape society actually functioned, from a matrilineal and matriarchal perspective.

Next week, I will focus on another interesting aspect of Lenape culture and their understanding of medicine and its ability to heal the sick through dreams, healing ceremonies, and the ritual of death and burial practices.

Written by: Sarah Krykew

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