Ways of Lenape / Delaware Women

"Some of the Ways of the Delaware Indian Women."

by the respected Lenape elder and culture-keeper Nora Thompson.

"The Lenape or Delaware Indians originally lived along the East Coast, occupying most of New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, and northern Delaware. The lands in the East were lost through deceit and aggression and the Lenape people began a gradual movement westward. Unlike the Cherokee who were moved westward in one sweep, the Lenape were settled and resettled; at various times living in Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, and finally for thirty-six years in Kansas. Pressure was again applied and the Lenape were forced into Indian Territory, and most of the traditional people settled in the area that is presently Washington County, Oklahoma.

"The subject of this brief paper is the Lenape or Delaware Indian women and their place in Indian life, but before going into some of the specifics of daily life, it should be pointed out that the role of women in Lenape life was entirely different from that of the European cultures. The Lenape are matrilineal which means that everything descends down from generation to generation through the female line. The children belong to the clan or group of the mother, and therefore, even if one was the son or daughter of a chief, they would not be a prince or princess as was the case with European royalty. The successor to the chieftaincy was the chief’s sister’s son, or the nearest male relative to the chief within the same clan. This gave the women a powerful voice in tribal matters, but in spite of this ‘voice,’ it was the tradition for women to not speak out at public gatherings such as councils. If a woman had a point to make she would have a male relative or her husband state her opinions for her.

[I've seen this barrier on women speaking publicly in some other matrilineal systems, for example in Belau, western Pacific. That's an area I continue to research, on shrinkages of female authority, such as requiring male relatives to be spokesmen for women. It's tricky: hard to get reliable information. Example, you'll see references to this among the Six Nations of the Iroquois, but they leave out the fact that there were women's councils as well as men's councils. Not only did women need a male representative to speak in the men's councils, but men needed a woman to speak for them in the women's councils. This per Barbara Mann.]

"Unlike the women in the cultures of many of the Europeans who came to these shores, the Lenape wife was never considered as the property of the husband. Women’s roles among the Lenape were clearly defined: the woman had full charge of the home; in fact, she was considered the owner of the house. The woman took care of the food preparation and the man procured the game animals. The woman took care of planting and the garden and the man cleared the land for the gardens.

"The Delaware Indian women had a reason for most of the things they did. Even with cooking, we think that the person’s mind when they are cooking has something to do with the health of the ones who eat the food. The cook must be in a good frame of mind during the food preparation, not angry, or ill, and have an inside prayer to the Creator that what she prepares will bring strength and happiness to the consumer of the food. Sewing likewise is not done when one is angry lest the wearer will feel unhappy when wearing it. They will feel the “makers” sensations.

"Delaware women, especially when we cook outside such as when we camp out, we bend from our waist down to stir our pots. Usually a white woman will stoop down on her knees to attend her cooking pot. That is one of the differences that I see. Then too we old traditional people have a habit of pointing with our lips. Like you say, “Well, right over there,” and we point that direction with our lips. [This is mentioned in the pdf I posted below.] But you don’t point at people. And neither do you point at graves.

"The children in a Lenape family were cared for by both parents, although some of the time the father was gone hunting or fishing as this was necessary for survival, it was not for sport as is usually the case these days. In the traditional families the children were spaced about three to four years apart, and the women usually nursed their children until they were about three years old.

"In the Delaware tribe the women disciplined children in the old way. They didn’t really use any whips or any paddles or anything. They were taken to the creek, and a basket put over their head and water thrown over that basket. The Lenape said that there is a grandfather spirit in this water will correct all your bad habits, and this water will take away all these obstinate traits you might have. There is another way to correct children. You tell the child that, “Your conduct, your action, brings shame to me and all the people who are gone, you bring shame upon them.”

"The woman had the freedom to do as she pleased, and she might ask her husband if he wanted to go to some certain place, but if he did not she would just take the children and go, such as to town or to a dance, (most of our dances do not require a partner). Some women also had a special man friend, a non-relative called by the term usually reserved for a female friend, and he served the purpose of a confidant. It was to him she would go with questions or problems she could not discuss with her husband or male relatives.

"This account shows just a few of the many facets of the life of a woman among the Lenape people. Most of the older ways have about disappeared among the younger generations as they grow up among the non-Indians, and learn many of their ways in the schools, all too often overlooking the ways of their ancestors."

—Nora Thompson Dean, Dewey, Oklahoma, 24 January 1983 (shown here washing gathered food)

SOME EARLY LENAPE CULTURAL PRACTICES, by Raymond Whritenour They 'are mentioned in the documentary record; and knowledge of their existence enriches our understanding of Lenape culture.

1. Matchen Stick

"It was in 1686 that Jonathan [Stout] came to Hunterdon County, [NJ]... When he was ready to return late that Fall, a heavy snow had fallen in the night. So the Indians gave him a matchen stick (a stick displaying a symbol that would identify him as a friend) to present to the different natives he might meet along the way to Middletown. He was treated with great kindness when he presented this to the Indians at Princeton and Cranbury."

[from Lewis, Alice B., Hopewell Valley Heritage, Hopewell, NJ, 1973, page 24]

"I don't think there's another mention of the "matchen stick" in other sources. However, Nora Thompson Dean ("Touching Leaves Woman") remembered an item her people called an "invitation stick," which was delivered to other Lenapes, or other tribes, when they were invited to visit the Delaware country. This item might have been what this "matchen stick" was. Mrs. Dean had her husband make one for the Governor of Oklahoma. It was made from a small elm limb, about five or six inches long. The limb (about one inch in diameter) was split in two, and only one half of it used, so that the stick was flat on the front side and rounded on the back.

"A "head" and "neck" were carved on one end and the "body" tapered down to a point from the "shoulders" to the other end (like a dagger). The flat "face" of the "head" was painted with the left side black and the right side red. Finally, a string of 24 wampum beads were hung around the "neck. [thanks to Jim Rementer for this information]"


"The name Lenni Lenape translates into “the original peoples,” and the term Pocono in the native Lenape tongue means “a river between two mountains.” Because the Lenape did not have a written language, their history was passed from generation to generation by storytellers. The ancestors of the Lenape, the true “original peoples,” were said to have come from the great sea in the west thousands of years before Christopher Columbus.

"Three clans comprised the Lenni Lenape nation: Wolf; Turtle, and; Turkey. Often, the Lenape have been referred to as the “Delaware” because they lived along the Delaware River. The Wolf Clan occupied the land in what is now Monroe County. This Clan was referred to as the Munsee or Minsi, the name of their spoken dialect of the Algonquin language. Their area stretched northward along the Delaware River from the point where the Lehigh River meets the Delaware in what is now Easton. The members of the Wolf Clan were known as “People of the Stony Country.” The Turtle Clan occupied land south of the Lehigh-Delaware confluence, reaching into Philadelphia and were referred to as “People Down the River.” The Turkey Clan lived the furthest south, occupying current-day Wilmington, Delaware. They were called the “People Who Live Near the Ocean.” The three clans were all sects of the Algonquin Tribe and generally lived peacefully with each other. The Lenape, however, did conflict with other warring Indian nations, including the Iroquois and the Cherokee.

"In general, each Lenape village operated independent of the others, following its own rules. A trusted spokesman, or sachem, was “in charge” of each village [female sachems existed]; however, Lenape villages were democratic, and every member had a voice in important decisions. The role of the sachem was vital for the village, though, in both times of peace and war. Eventually, Europeans began colonizing the Delaware River valley, and as relations between Native Americans and European settlers soured, these sachems assumed a larger role in village leadership, becoming recognized as chiefs.

"While there is evidence of the existence of longhouses, the Lenape preferred to live in family units in small dwellings. Structures were constructed of saplings fastened together with vines and sheets of tree bark used for the walls. Often, a center section of the roof was left open to allow the escape of smoke from the fire. Clay would be used to insulate the interior walls."

rest at:


Crucial info rrom Jannah Bint Hannah:

"Touching Leaves Woman was a linguistic superhero who devoted her long lifetime to rescuing the Lenape language. Her brother was the last native Lenape speaker left alive. But by the time he died, work on reviving the language was coming to fruition. Now this site, this amazing resource, is her legacy—many Lenape elders contributed to it, but it was Nora's vision and leadership." https://www.talk-lenape.org/

Here's an example page, searching for "mother": https://www.talk-lenape.org/results?query=mother

What i LOVE about this is it has audio with Native speakers pronouncing the words!

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