Eastern Woodlands natives lived in the northeastern United States. While they were predominantly hunters, fishers, and foragers, they also relied on maize as a food source. Those around the Great Lakes region relied on wild rice instead. There were many tribes, known by many names – Lenape (also called the Delaware), Cherokee, Iroquois, Shawnee, Illinois, Penobscot, and Miami.
Unfortunately, the history of eastern wetlands natives is one of war and dislocation. There are substantial gaps in their history, making it difficult to reconstruct their stories.
The Lenape tribe was one of the most influential and largest groups. In reality, the Lenape were composed of three different tribes, each with its own territory, language, and tribal identity. Together, the Munsee, the Unami, and the Unalimi forged a powerful partnership.
At the onset of puberty, young men would often fast for days, isolating themselves in the forest and hoping for a vision. If they saw their spirit, they were insured successful hunts and general prosperity.
In 1825, a French scholar discovered several bundles of sticks. A total of 183 pictographs were drawn on what became known as the Walam Olum, or “red paint record”. While the natives had no system of written language, the symbols were used as mnemonic devices. Singers would use these to remember all of the five-part story on the world’s creation, which would be transmitted to the rest of the tribe during ceremonies and rituals.
The priesthood involved two specialties. The “Powwow” would analyze dreams, tell the future, seek out game animals, and even look for underlying causes to any illness or accident. The “Medeu” were priests and herbal doctors. There may have been a third group of wandering exorcists who roamed from town to town performing burial ceremonies.
To the Lenape, humans should strive to follow the Weelipeleexing, or “beautiful white path”. The harvest ceremony with take place in a specially built log house. It lasted for 12 days, with processions and drumming every day and a festive meal each evening.
The ritual house, known as the “Big House”, represented the entire universe. The walls represented the four quarters of the earth. The earthen floor represented mother Earth, while the space under the floor stood for the underworld. The ceiling represented the firmament of the heavens, and beyond the ceiling were the 12 heavenly regions. The Center poll of this building allowed the people to talk directly to the creator. The poll could serve as a hand rest for the creator.
In the big house, every action had a ritual purpose. An assistant would sweep the paths that lead between two open fires, symbolically opening the road to heaven. This was done to benefit the whole world. The New Fire ritual would secure health and prosperity for the whole tribe.
In Lenape culture, nature is clean and perfect. Domesticated animals or man-made items are impure. They could return to an unblemished state by attaining a vision in the Big House or though attending the New Fire ceremony.