Kevin Markle Presents: The Lenape – The Original People of New Jersey
The Pascack Historical Society is excited to help local student Kevin Markle with his Eagle Scout project by posting the article and mp3 that he authored and provided below and of course….the impressive Lenape inspired display that he has put together inside the museum! Any questions or comments about the article below and/or mp3 should be sent directly to Kevin ( firstname.lastname@example.org). All other questions/comments about any other exhibit or information contained on this website and in the museum can be sent to the museum (see out contact page for details…)!
The Lenape Indians, otherwise known as the Delaware tribe, were a nation of men and women who resided in harmony on the Mid-Atlantic regions of mainland America up until about 350 years ago. They were an extremely peaceful race who had exceptional respect for nature, and frowned upon wastefulness. The origins of the Lenape are unknown, but it is believed that all Indians travelled from Asia to North America over the ice bridge that once existed between Russia and Alaska. Once in North America, the tribes dispersed into different regions; the Apache travelled south to present-day New Mexico and Texas, the Sioux travelled north to present-day Michigan and North Dakota, and the Lenape travelled to the Northeast, to the present-day tri-state area. Lenape lived in North America for nearly 3,000 years before encountering any Europeans. The first major encounter probably took place sometime in the early-1600’s, upon which Europeans were most likely shocked at the seemingly primitive race of people they saw. The Lenape, along with most other Indians, possessed no steel knives or guns, certainly no metal or precious gold. This must have puzzled the Europeans, and probably helped establish the common belief that Indians were all “savages”.
In reality, Indians were far from the savages that Europeans assumed they resembled. Sure, the colonial style of living Europeans held may have seemed more appealing and sophisticated than residing in a wigwam made out of bark and saplings, but the Indians proved their intelligence and distinctiveness on multiple levels. For example, Lenape, along with all Indians, were incredibly adaptive, and learned quickly how to thrive in the forest environment. More than that, they learned how to live in harmony and peace with nature and all of its creations. When European settlers saw a wigwam, they didn’t realize exactly how much determination and effort it took to build one, or the simple beauty in such a structure. Lenape would spend hours building simple things like axes or knives, using the naturally-occurring materials around them to do so. They did not simply make tools to survive, but developed very unique aspects of their culture which allowed them to enjoy life as well. For example, Lenape men competed in games such as lacrosse and football, and held races and wrestling tournaments which allowed them to entertain themselves during free time. While men were out in the fields battling each other, women were inside wigwams sewing beautiful quilts to decorate their wigwams. The most important part of Lenape culture though was the Indians’ ability to coexist with nature without harming the surrounding environment. Indians would never over-use or waste anything they gathered, and held nature in the highest esteem. For example, when looking for medicine, an herbalist would not take the first plant he/she found which contained the remedy he/she needed. Instead, he/she would leave it alone and make an offering with tobacco to the plant’s spirit, promising not to waste the plant’s body and take only what was needed. This not only respected the plant, but prevented the over-harvesting of a certain herb. Lenape treated all aspects of nature with this same attitude, and as a result never had to worry about destroying a certain species or any aspect of the forest environment. The sustainability that the Lenape exhibited sets an example for our approach to the environment today.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, the Lenape were gradually pushed further West until they had completely left the Northeast, their native land they held for thousands of years, and travelled onto the Great Plains and western states. Over the course of about 150 years, Lenape lost all of their native territory and ended up on reservations in the Great Plains. During this time, many Lenape elders had died or mixed with Europeans. As a result Lenape tradition suffered and many parts of their once prominent culture were lost with time. In modern day, most Lenape have mixed into American society and left their Native American past behind them. There is not one person in the world who can speak Unami, the Lenape language, fluently anymore. However, there is a brighter side to things. Many of the younger Lenape generation have taken an extreme interest in reviving Unami, along with other traditions which have fallen dormant in Lenape culture. Lenape descendants now hold festivals and religious celebrations on reservations and are attempting to relive their past at least a few times a year. Women are learning how to make moccasins and other articles of clothing, while men learn how to make spears and knives out of only natural material. Despite the hardships they have endured in the past, the Lenape people are re-building themselves again.