The Primeval Revelation

Chapter 4: The Lenape Worship the Supreme Being

How the Lenape Indians of the Delaware River Drainage basin in North America, and their kinship of the immense Algonkin tribal network spread over a large part of the continent, came to know about God, about creation, and about life in the next world without knowing the Bible is a matter of keen interest. When white Europeans came to the Americas beginning in 1492, the related Algonkin tribes were at the height of their prosperity, spread out along the eastern seaboard from the Savannah River on the south to Newfoundland over 1,200 miles to the north and they were neighbors to the Eskimos in Labrador. Daniel G. Brinton, A.M., M.D., Professor of Ethnology and Archeology at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, told how the Algonkins had been spread about in many parts of the continent, except for the southeastern and southwestern areas:

Their northernmost branch, the Crees, dwelt along the southern shores of Hudson Bay, and followed the streams which flow into it from the west, until they met the Chippewas, closely akin to themselves, who roamed over the watershed of Lake Superior. The Blackfeet carried a remote dialect of their tongue quite to the Rocky Mountains; while the fertile prairies of Illinois and Indiana were the homes of the Miamis. The area of Ohio and Kentucky was very thinly peopled by a few of their roving bands; but east of the Alleghenies (sic), in the valleys of the Delaware, the Potomac and the Hudson, over the barren hills of New England and Nova Scotia, and throughout the swamps and forests of Virginia and the Carolinas, their osier cabins and palisadoed (sic) strongholds, their maize fields and workshops of stone implements, were numerously located ... The dialects of all these were related, and evidently at some distant day had been derived from the same primitive tongue (Brinton, The Lenape and their Legends, Philadelphia 1885, pp. 9-10).

From the Atlantic coast they occupied forest and plains westward beyond the Great Lakes; some of them, the Blackfeet, Cheyennes, and Arapahos, located still further to the west, took on the "Great Plains" culture, hunting deer and buffalo.

The Lenape inhabited the area of the Delaware River drainage system, in what is today Pennsylvania, southeast New York, and parts of New Jersey and Delaware. They were primarily forest dwellers who kept no cattle, but cultivated corn and tobacco and some other garden products. They were eventually victimized by aggressive Iroquois who first came into possession of firearms. After 1720 they were forced to vacate part of their territory to settle in Ohio. There, through a pact with the French, they gained independence from the Iroquois who had overpowered them. Later they were scattered to Kansas and other parts of the U.S.A., and to Canada. See more in Schmidt, UrsprungVol. II. pp. 393 ff; Brinton, The Lenape and their Legends,9-11.

William Penn dealt with them when he became Governor of Pennsylvania. He commemorated their belief in God and immortality of the soul in a letter dated 16 August 1653:

They believe a God and Immortality; for they say, there is a King that made them, who dwells in a glorious country to the Southward of them, and that the Souls of the Good shall go thither, where they shall live again (M.R. Harrington, 1921, p. 20; Heye Foundation, New York).

Brinton made a major study of the remarkable epic cherished by the Lenape called Walam Olum which testifies to their belief in the Supreme Being. He published it as Number V of the series "Brinton's Library of Aboriginal American Literature," in the book titled The Lenape and Their Legends. In the book he discusses the authenticity of Walam Olum at great length pp. 148-158, and concludes, after consulting with native speakers that: "It is a genuine native production, which was repeated orally to some one indifferently conversant with the Delaware language, who wrote it down to the best of his ability" (p. 158). He accepts it as authentic with its limitations, but he corrects the English translation in places.

The Walam Olum is first of all a series of pictures drawn on wooden plaques which were cues for those who recited or chanted the epic before it was written down. A certain Mr. C.S. Rafinesque related that he obtained the picture graphs from a friend in Indiana in 1820. Then in 1822 he obtained a transcription of the text from another source. Now he had 74 picture graphs, and he had the text to go with them, but he could find no one to translate the text into English. He studied the language, therefore, and translated it in 1833. After he died, Brinton obtained the manuscript from the Hon. Brantz Mayor of Baltimore "distinguished as an able and public man" (p. 163). Brinton introduced the manuscript as follows.

The MS from which I have printed the Walam Olum is a small quarto of forty unnumbered leaves, in the handwriting of Rafinesque. It is in two parts with separate titles. The first reads:

First Part of the painted-engraved traditions of the Linni linapi, &c. containing the 3 original traditional poems. 1. on the Creation and Ontogony, 24 verses. 2. on the Deluge, &c. 16 v. 3. on the passage to America, 20 v. Signs and verses 60 with the original glyphs or signs for each verse of the poems or songs translated word for word by C.S. Rafinesque 1833 (Brinton p. 162).

The present writer was happy to find Brinton's book in the library of the Ethnology Department of the Smithsonian Museum, Washington. I diligently copied it with the Museum's antiquated Xerox copiers. There were two machines, and when one broke down the kind attendant directed me to use the other, which worked ever so slow and erratically (Uncle Sam's budget is limited), but I was glad to get the copy finally of the precious document.

The lengthy epic of five Cantos runs to 47 pages. Brinton printed the original language together with the pictograph of each verse on the left side page, and the English translation on the facing page to the right. The original is rhythmic poetry, suited for song and dance. "Even to an ear not acquainted with the language, the chants of the Walam Olum are obviously in metrical arrangement. The rhythm is syllabic and accentual, with frequent effort to select homophones (to which the correct form of the words is occasionally sacrificed) and sometimes alliteration. Iteration is also called in aid, and the metrical scheme is varied in different chants" (Brinton 160).

The epic is of major significance because it points to belief in the Supreme Being and Creator among people who had no knowledge of the Bible. This belief was not confined to the Lenape, but was shared essentially by the very large population of the Algonkins dispersed over wide areas in what today are the United States and Canada. In the words of Brinton:

The myths embodied in the earlier portion of the Walam Olum are perfectly familiar to one acquainted with Algonkin mythology. They are not of foreign origin, but are wholly within the cycle of the most ancient legends of that stock. Although they are not found elsewhere in the precise form here presented, all the figures and all the leading incidents recur in the native tales picked up by Jesuit missionaries in the seventeenth century, and by Schoolcraft, McKinney, Tanner and others in later days...

The cosmogony describes the formation of the world by the Great Manito, and its subsequent despoliation by the spirit of the waters, under the form of a serpent. The happy days are depicted, when men lived without wars or sickness, and food was at all times abundant. Evil beings, of mysterious power, introduced cold and war and sickness and premature death. Then began strife and long wanderings.

However similar this general outline may be to European or Oriental myths, it is neither derived originally from them, nor was it acquired later by missionary influence. This similarity is due wholly to the identity of psychological action, the same ideas and fancies arising from similar impressions in New as well as in Old World tribes. No sound ethnologist, no thorough student in comparative mythology, would seek to maintain a genealogical relation of cultures on the strength of such identities. They are proofs of the oneness of the human mind, and nothing more (164-165).

We need not agree entirely with that final assertion that the oneness of the human mind explains the similarity of beliefs of the Lenape people with beliefs of Europeans. Indeed, the "oneness of the human mind" can achieve knowledge about God as the Supreme Being and the Creator of all things for only the fool says there is no God.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Rom 1:19-20).

But for belief in the God who admits souls of the departed into His presence in heaven, revelation is absolutely necessary. Plato and Aristotle had great minds, but did not achieve that essential truth, whereas the Lenape and the extensive family of Algonkin tribes knew it very well. A more realistic explanation is that their myths point to a revelation given by God. He originally revealed Himself to the founders of our race, and did not abandon them subsequently: "Even when he disobeyed you and lost your friendship you did not abandon him to the power of death, but helped all men to seek and find you" (4th Canon of the Mass).

The Lenape prayed to the Supreme Being and expected His kindly response, whereas the Supreme Being of Plato and Aristotle does not interact with humans.

Daniel Brinton had a personal reason to commemorate the Lenape by writing down their legends. When his ancestor William Brinton had immigrated in 1684, he and his wife and children "immediately took possession of a grant in the unbroken wilderness, about twenty miles from Philadelphia. A severe winter set in. Their food supply was exhausted, and they would probably have perished but for the assistance of some neighboring lodges of Lenape, who provided them with food and shelter. It is, therefore, a debt of gratitude which I owe to this nation to gather its legends, its language, and its memories, so that they

'in books recorded,
May like hoarded
Household words,
no more depart!'" (Legends 64).

Canto 1 of Walam Olum

Canto I begins with an account of the original formation of the cosmos by the Great Manito, whose name is Kitanitowit. All is peaceful and idyllic as the Great Manito does His initial work, much as in Genesis 1.

The narration is not as beautiful nor as orderly and complete as Genesis 1. Note that it completely lacks the division into six days of creation, a specialty of the Israel tradition. However, the epic commemorates God as creator of the cosmos and of man in essentially the same absolute manner as Genesis does. The name of the great Manito is Kitanitowit. He was there at first, at all times. The name is repeated together with His mode of being: He simply was (essop). The dynamic verb reminds us of Jahweh, of the I AM WHO AM and of the HE WHO IS of the Old Testament, and of the title Jesus gave to Himself in the New Testament: "I AM." In the Canto the Supreme Being is likewise absolute: He was there at all times, is present above the earth as well as on it. He is Lord over the lesser gods (the manito's), and over humans.

In Genesis God creates heaven and earth at the beginning. The cosmos emerges from nothingness into the initial chaotic deep: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, 'Let there be light,' and there was light." In the Lenape epic the initial act of creating the tehom is not expressed clearly. God is there, is always, is above the earth, is on the earth. The earth is wrapped in a dense fog (parallel to the initial darkness in Genesis).

The sequence of creative acts differs sometimes in Canto 1 from that of Genesis. In Genesis God made in sequence: 1) light first of all, 2) the firmament, 3) the ocean and dry land, 4) vegetation and trees, 5) sun, moon, stars, 6) fish and birds, 7) animals wild and domestic, and 8) finally man. In Canto 1 God made: 1) the extended land, 2) the sky, 3) sun, moon, and stars, 4) then blew away the fog, 5) separated the oceans from the land, 6) man, 7) woman, 8) the fish, turtles, beasts and birds.

Canto I: 9-10 is a distant parallel to the mysterious phrase in Genesis 1:26 "Let us make man..." God addresses other beings in Genesis before He creates man, emphasizing the importance of the act. In Canto 1:9-10 the Great Manito speaks anew to "manitos and to beings, mortals, souls and all." We understand that the creation of man follows, for He becomes the Lord of humans, and their kindly Grandfather. The one thing missing in the Lenape version is the creation of plants which Genesis details explicitly. Practically everything else of Genesis 1 is found in some manner in Canto 1 of Walam Olum, but not in an identical sequence of events, nor with the same beauty and finesse as in Genesis. Jews, Christians, and Muslims celebrate the creation story with Genesis 1; the Lenape chanted their version of it in Canto 1. Faith, the gift of God, is alive among many peoples.

The difference in details notwithstanding, the central message comes through: the Great Kitanitowit is the formator of the cosmos, and when He speaks, all obey. He is provident and kindly. When He speaks to secondary manitos and to humans, he does so with authority, and with the disposition of a kindly grandfather. Initially He speaks not to the Lenape Indians, but to "beings, mortals, souls and all," that is, all peoples of the earth.

Up to this point everything was good. Canto 1:14-24 paints an idyllic paradise as does Genesis 2. But the goodness does not last. In Genesis the serpent spoils the peace of the garden of Eden, in the Lenape version an "evil Manito" enters to do only evil things. The latter is a being thoroughly malicious and jealous, a spoiler of all that is good. Canto II will identify it as a serpent:

Note the aspect of dualism: The Great Manito makes (sohalawak) only good things, but an evil Manito makes (sohalawak) only evil things. Both "make" things which turn out to be products that reflect the good nature of the One, the evil nature of the other. In Genesis 3 the serpent tricks humans to sin. But God is master of the serpent in Genesis, a point which is not entirely clear in Walam Olumwhich has dualistic overtones. In Genesis God punishes the serpent first of all, then deals with the man and woman to punish them for their sin. The defective Lenape version does not mention sin by man, and attributes the evils directly to the machinations of an evil being, a kind of rival of the good God. That evil being "brought badness, quarreling, unhappiness, brought bad weather, brought sickness, brought death." As the epic, continues, however, God restores the world after the flood, and the serpent leaves the scene, powerless before the Almighty. The shade of dualism may be no more than a stage prop for the narrator.

Canto III

(The snake is conquered and slithers away (palliwi palliwi), much as the serpent in Genesis, cursed by God, leaves the garden of Eden crawling on its belly.) [End of Canto II]

Canto III

Canto III begins the more specific history of the Lenape after the Flood. They huddled under the protection of the great turtle, and wandered to new places. The description, however, is of a northern landscape, of life in hollow houses (igloos?) of a land of arctic snowstorms:

The rest of the epic tells of travels, of the parting of the ways by contending factions, of rival chiefs, of war and peace, of contact with various other Indian tribes as far distant as the Great Lakes. The epic ends with the coming of the whites, strangers to them, but the encounter is peaceful:

Canto V

59. At this time, from north and south, the whites came. 60. They are peaceful; they have great things. Who are they?


Walam Olum as presented here is likely a defective version recited by a Lenape Indian who was uprooted from his native land, and no longer had a supportative traditional community on whom he could lean for confirmation and correction. He probably did his best to recount the words which had never been put into writing, by following the picture cues and citing the verses one after another as the pictures suggest. But we see signs of some confusion, some repetition or back-treading, some scarcely intelligible passages. The final two verses were evidently added only recently, after the white man had landed in Jamestown to the south in 1607 and on Plymouth Rock to the north in 1620. If there is a survivor of the Lenape today in Kansas or Oklahoma who can tell us more about the legends of his forefathers and explain more accurately the contents of the Walam Olum, I fervently desire that he will read this and do us the favor.

The Supreme Being Among the Lenape

M. R. Harrington, in his book Religion and Ceremonies of the Lenape, 1921, which is available in the museum of the Heye Foundation in New York, relates that the Lenape had always believed in a Supreme Being, whom they also invoked as "Father." Zeisberger wrote in 1779, for example: "They believe and have from time immemorial believed that there is an Almighty Being who has created heaven and earth and man and all things else. This they learned from their ancestors (Harrington, 21).

The same author states that the Lenape distinguished the one Supreme Being who is unique and transcendent, from lower gods and spirits who may have been given charge of the elements. They had recourse to the intermediate gods as members of a lower order than that of the Supreme Being.

All the Lenape so far questioned, whether followers of the native or of the Christian religion, unite in saying that their people have always believed in a chief Mani'to, a leader of all the gods, in short, in a Great Spirit or Supreme Being, the other mani'towuk for the greater part being merely agents appointed by him. His name, according to present Unami usage, is Gicelemu'kaongusually translated "Great Spirit" but meaning literally "creator." Directly, or through the mani'towuk his agents, he created the earth and everything in it, and gave to the Lenape all they possessed, "the trees, the waters, the fire that springs from flint - everything" (Harrington, 18).

On ordinary occasions people pray to the various agents, for good weather, for protection, etc., but on the great feasts they worship the Supreme Being directly in common prayer:

To him (Gicelemu'kaong) the people pray in their greatest ceremonies, and give thanks for the benefits he has given them. Most of their direct worship, however, is addressed to the mani'towuk his agents, to whom he has given charge of the elements, and with whom the people feel they have a closer personal relation, as their actions are seen in every sunrise and thunderstorm, and felt in every wind that blows across the woodland and prairie (ibid.19).

Harrington, therefore, claims that it is false to believe or assert that the American Indians did not know the Supreme Being before the white man taught them about Him:

It has been frequently stated that the concept of a supreme being or chief of the gods was not known among the American tribes in precolonial times, and that the "Great Spirit" concept, now widely distributed among the Indians, is entirely the result of missionary teaching. This seems to have been the case in some instances, but it is a mistake to assume such a broad statement as a general rule, on a priori grounds. To the Indian mind, the spirits or gods partook largely of the nature of mankind. Why could not a chief of gods be as natural a concept as a chief of men? In the case of the Shawnee, the Creator or Great Spirit is usually spoken of as a woman, "Our Grandmother Paboth'kwe" - surely not a missionary idea! (ibid. 20).

Harrington quotes from an older source, Danker and Slayter's Journal, 1679, an aged Indian who referred to the Supreme Being not only as Creator, but also as the Preserver of all creation: "... who has not only once produced or made all things, but produces every day... He governs all things." The same author quotes from other earlier writers:

Zeisberger...wrote about 1779: "They believe and have from time immemorial believed that there is an Almighty Being who has created heaven and earth and man and all things else. This they have learned from their ancestors." Heckewelder (page 205) adds more details in his book originally published in 1818: "Their Almighty Creator is always before their eyes on all important occasions. They feel and acknowledge his supreme power... It is a part of their religious belief that there are inferior Manitos, to whom the great and good Being has given command over the elements" (Harrington, 21).

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