When Europeans began settling the region between the Delaware River and the Atlantic Ocean in the 17th century, they encountered Lenni Lenape American Indians, the original tribe of the Algonquin nation. Along with the settlers came Christian missionaries who introduced the Lenape to Christianity. Although the Lenape already had a spiritual tradition, many were compelled to abandon their beliefs for fear of persecution. Others accepted Christianity to assimilate into the increasing domination of European culture. In later years, remaining Lenape reclaimed and promoted their cultural and religious traditions.
The Lenni Lenape believed the great spirit Kishelemukong, also called Kitanitowit, created the world. One Lenape creation legend describes the earth as covered with water. The land the Lenape occupied was formed when a large tortoise raised its back out of the water and became land. A tree sprouted on the land and from its roots a sprout grew bearing the first man. The tree later bent down to touch the earth, forming another sprout that bore a woman. Because Kitanitowit is an early Lenape translation for “God,” many Algonquins consider their creator and the Christian God to be the same.
Lenape spiritual tradition holds that many spirits, both good and evil, populate the earth and all spirits must be revered. In order to gain the favor of good spirits, Lenape would leave gifts such as bundles of flowers or leaves in places where they believe the spirit resided. They also would hold ritual ceremonies to honor the good spirits during the planting of corn and again during harvest of the corn. Thunder beings, or pethakhuweyok, were dangerous spirits that caused storms and mesingw, a powerful sacred medicine spirit, often appeared to Lenape men in dreams.
Weather and Celestial Objects
The Lenape viewed themselves as one with nature. As such, the celestial bodies and the four winds were family members. The fours winds were grandparents and the change of seasons was due to gambling between the grandmother and grandfathers. Spring came when grandmother, the warm wind out of the south, was winning over the grandfather north wind. The stars also were considered grandfathers The sun and moon were referred to as brothers whose job it was to light and darken the sky. Mother Earth is was charged with feeding and taking care of the Lenape.
As in many other cultures, the Lenape held a special spiritual regard for the time in an individual’s life when they passed into adulthood. For the Lenape, this rite of passage involved a vision quest. Around the age of 12 to 14, both boys and girls would set out on a vision quest in order to obtain a guardian spirit who would stay with them throughout their lives. During the vision quest the youngsters would not eat or drink and upon their return they would be given a new name based on what was revealed to them in their visions or dreams.
Modern Lenape Religious Beliefs
In 1978 Congress approved the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, which gave all American Indians the right to openly practice their traditional religious beliefs. This allowed tribes such as the Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape Indians of New Jersey to establish community agencies that, among other things, permits them to establish cultural instructional centers to teach younger Lenapes about the tribe’s spiritualism. Lenni Lenape in Oklahoma and Ontario, Quebec, where the largest communities of this tribe now live, have preserved many original spiritual traditions, songs and dances.References
Laura Leddy Turner began her writing career in 1976. She has worked in the newspaper industry as an illustrator, columnist, staff writer and copy editor, including with Gannett and the Asbury Park Press. Turner holds a B.A. in literature and English from Ramapo College of New Jersey, with postgraduate coursework in business law.