The Primeval Revelation

Chapter 5 The Happy Hunting Ground

The Lenape also expect that good persons will journey to the abode of the Supreme Being after death, being guided on the way by the "white path" which consists of the good deeds they have done during their lifetime. The concept of life after death, which is missing in Genesis 1-3, is well developed among the Lenape as well as among other ancient peoples. Harrington tells about the hope in eternal life among the Lenape as follows.

The doctrine of the survival of the soul or spirit after the death of the body, forms an integral part of the Lenape belief. The spirit is supposed to leave the body at the moment of dissolution, but remains in the vicinity for eleven days, during which time it subsists on food found in the houses of the living, if none has been placed at the grave. Some say that the actual food is not consumed but that the ghost extracts some essence or nourishment from it (ibid.52).

On the twelfth day, however, the soul wends its way toward the eternal abode beyond the skies, to join the ancestors, to be alive and healthy once more, to have all the good things of this life and more, and this for endless ages:

On the twelfth day the spirit leaves the earth and makes its way to the twelfth or highest heaven, the home of the Creator, where it lives indefinitely in a veritable "Happy Hunting Ground," a beautiful country where life goes on much as it does on earth, except that pain, sickness, and sorrow are unknown, and distasteful work and worry have no place; where children shall meet their parents who have gone before, and parents their children; where everything always looks new and bright. There is no sun in the Land of Spirits, but a brighter light which the Creator has provided. All people who die here, be they young or old, will look the same age there, and the blind, the cripples - anyone who has been maimed or injured - will be perfect and as good as any there. This is because the flesh only was injured, not the spirit.

This paradise, however, is only for the good, for those who have been kind to their fellows and have done their duty by their people. Little is said of those who have done evil in this world (Harrington 52-53). [But as we shall see immediately, other Lenape sources have great stories about what happens to the evil souls, who are excluded from the abode of the good.]

Daniel Brinton adds an interesting detail about the journey to eternity cherished in Lenape beliefs:

The path to this abode of the blessed was by the Milky Way, wherein the opinion of the Delawares [Lenape] coincided with that of various other American nations, as the Eskimos to the north and the Guaranis of Paraguay to the south. The ordinary euphemisms used to inform a person that his death is near at hand was: "You are about to visit your ancestors" (Brinton, 64; 69-70).

Even more dramatic is the description of eternal life given by a Lenape whose name was Natomika, which was written down by Fr. J. de Smet in his Missiones(Paris 1848, pp.219-221). The account here is the writer's translation from the passage as quoted in Schmidt Ursprung II, pp. 415-417:

According to the religious code of the Lenape there is a life of the future. It consists on the one hand, of a place of joy and rest, where the wise ones of the council, the courageous and the fearless warriors, the tireless hunters and the good people who are friendly to guests will receive an eternal reward. But for evil persons, for those with a "forked tongue" or liars, for cowards and the slothful, there is a place of terror. They call heaven Wakanda, land of the living; hell is Yuniinguc or the insatiable abyss which never gives up its prey.

They say that the land of the living is an island of breathtaking beauty and of vast expanse. A soaring mountain rises majestically in the center, and upon the peak of this mountain is the dwelling of the Great Good Spirit. From there He oversees in one glance the entire expanse of His vast realm: the courses of the thousand streams and rivers, clear as crystal, which stretch out yonder like so many shimmering threads, the shady forests, the plains strewn with flowers, the calm seas, which mirror steadily the wholesome rays of a splendid sun. Birds with exceedingly beautiful plumage fill these forests with their sweet melodies. The most majestic animals, buffalo, deer, squirrels, the "cabris," the great cranes, feed peacefully there, in countless herds and flocks, on the expanses of this smiling, charming, opulent great plain. The seas are never whipped up by winds or storms; slime never mixes with the limpid waters of these rivers. Waterfowl, otter, beaver, and fish of all kinds are there in abundance (ibid.).

As in other documents of the Lenape, the people in this happy land, as described by Natomika, are healthy in mind and body, without the marks of aging, sickness or wounds they encountered while on earth. Their concept is that wounds of the body do not affect the soul itself. Natomika continues:

The sun brightens this land of the living at all times; a perpetual spring reigns there. The blessed souls which are admitted there, recover all of their vigor again and are preserved from sicknesses. They feel no weariness, either during the hunt or during the other pleasant activities which the Great Spirit grants them, and they never have a desire to seek rest (ibid).

Contrary to other accounts of the Lenape, Natomika has a great deal to tell about the horrible fate of the wicked in the next world. Apparently he draws the scene as negatively as his lively imagination will allow, to motivate his audience against evil and toward doing good:

The Yuniinguc, on the contrary, which surrounds the land of the living, is a deep and expansive body of water; it consists of a harrowing series of cataracts and whirlpools, where the unabating and horrifying roar of the floods never stops. A massive craggy rock sticks out above the highest of the wild billows, and on it dwells the great Evil Spirit (ibid).

The Lenape Natomika, who related this passage, may have been a practiced story teller, one who held the complete attention of his audience as he pictured the machinations of Waka Cheeka, the evil one, in the dramatic description which now follows:

Like a fox on the lookout, like a vulture ready to pounce on its prey, Waka Cheeka keeps guard there at the passageway for the souls which leads to the land of the living. This passageway is a bridge so narrow that only one single soul at a time can cross over it. The Evil Spirit assumes its most hideous shape, and attacks every soul, one after the other. The cowardly and indolent soul instantly reveals its baseness and takes its flight; but in that instant Cheeka grabs it and plunges it down into the yawning abyss which never frees its victims (Trans. by author, from Schmidt, Ursprung II, 415 ff).

The horror of hell described in Buddhist sources scarcely matches the wild scenario portrayed by this gifted Lenape narrator. Lenape elders evidently instilled into their people a salutary fear of hell in the next life to deter them from doing evil while in this life.

The Lenape Address the Supreme Being As "Our Father"

From a Mr. Witapanoxwe we learn that the fundamental attitude of the Lenape toward the Creator was one of trust in a caring Father. Mr. Witapanoxwe's mother was a Lenape and educated him in their traditions, although his father was a Cherokee. He explained that the six calls of HO and HAE which the Lenape use in official prayers to address the Creator, do not at all indicate that they think of Him as dwelling in a far distant heaven; each call addresses Him personally there in attendance at their ceremony. He gazes upon them from heaven while leaning on His staff, which is now the central post of the Big House in which the Lenape are gathered to pray. Frank G. Speck, University of Pennsylvania, cites Witapanoxwe as declaring that all religions of the world originate from this staff of the Creator: "That is the Creator's staff. From that very staff branch off all prayer-creeds of the red-people given to them, whence come all other prayer-creeds of the world" (Speck, The Delaware Indian, Vol. II, p. 87).

The Thanksgiving festival was the high point of ancient Lenape rituals, when they gathered in the big-house for twelve days of immersion in communion with the world of spirits and of prayer and dance to the Creator and Father. The Unami celebrated Thanksgiving when the leaves fell in October, and the Minsi a bit later when winter settled in. Competent elders did the lead reciting, and the rest of the assembled community repeated choruses as they marched and danced, with the drummers tapping out the rhythm.

A sample of a prayer on the fourth day of one such festival is the following. In the name of the community the prayer leader salutes the lesser gods, the Mask-Spirit of Fire being commemorated, and all the Spirit Forces up above, but in the end he asks the Great Spirit who is in charge of everything to do the providing: "Now give us all we ask of you Great Spirit that you are and, our creator; think of your children" (Speck, 139).

A Thanksgiving Prayer in the tradition of the Unami tribe is commemorated in Harrington's Indian Notes and Monographs, pp. 87-93 (Heye Foundation, New York; Smithsonian Institute, Washington). It was recited in a Big House ceremony on the shores of Little Caney River in Oklahoma by Chief Elkhaar:

We are thankful that so many of us are alive to meet together here once more and that we are ready to hold our ceremonies in good faith. Now we shall meet here twelve nights in succession to pray to Gicelemu'kaong, who has directed us to worship in this way. And these twelve Misi'ngfaces [carved on the posts of the house] are here to watch and to carry our prayers to Gicelemu'kaong in the highest heaven...

Chief Elkhaar now gives thanks for the sun which rises in the east and goes down in the west, for the south wind which blows to bring in the spring, for the growing grass. "We thank the Thunders, for they are the mani'tokuk that bring the rain, which the Creator has given them power to rule over." He then muses over the relation of the body to the soul:

Man has a spirit, and the body seems to be a coat for that spirit. That is why people should take care of their spirits, so as to reach Heaven and be admitted to the Creator's dwelling. We are given some length of time to live on earth, and then our spirits must go. When anyone's time comes to leave this earth, he should go to "Gicelemu'kaong feeling good on the way. We ought to pray to Him, to prepare ourselves for days to come so that we can be with Him after leaving the earth...

The belief in a happy afterlife is expressed in the traditional manner, as the Chief encourages all to persevere. What follows is hardly different from precepts and teachings of the New Testament and we are probably not wrong if we attribute some things said here to influence by the Christian religion. Even if that is the case, the blend of the ancient Lenape prayer with the tenets of the more recent Christianity is so smooth that we scarcely notice even a wrinkle:

When we reach that place, we shall not have to do anything or worry about anything, only live a happy life. We know there are many of our fathers who have left this earth and are now in this happy place in the Land of the Spirits. When we arrive we shall see our fathers, mothers, children, and sisters there, and when we have prepared ourselves so that we can go to where our parents and children are, we feel happy.

Everything looks more beautiful there than here; everything looks new, and the waters and fruits and everything are lovely.

No sun shines there, but a light much brighter than the sun; the Creator makes it brighter by His power. All people who die here, young and old, will be of the same age there; and those who are injured, crippled, or made blind will look as good as the rest of them. It is nothing but the flesh that is injured; the spirit is as good as ever. That is the reason people are told to help always the cripples or the blind. Whatever you do for them will surely bring us reward. Whatever you do for anybody will bring you credit hereafter. Whenever we think the thoughts that Gicelemu'kaong has given us it will do us good.

That is all I can think of to say along this line. Now we will pass the Turtle around, and all that feel like worshiping may take it and perform their ceremonies (selections from Harrington, Indian Notes, 87-93).

The prayer is recited with variations during the twelve nights. Note that they frequently address the Creator as "Our Father." This Father has care for them and provides everything they need from the cosmos which is totally at His command. He is also omniscient and just, noting the good deeds which become a "white path" after death by which the departed find their way to the Creator. This "Path of Accounting" leads eventually to a parting of the ways; while still at a great distance from their final destination, bad people are halted from going on and cannot approach nearer to the abode of the Great Spirit (Speck, 174; see Schmidt, UrsprungV, p. 518). We can therefore understand why Witapanoxwe, who provided information to Professor Speck about the Lenape religion, could affirm with confidence and understandable family pride that "the prayer-creeds of the red people ... and all other prayer-creeds of the world" issue from the Creator who leans on the staff of the Big House (cf. Speck, 87).

Whence Did The Lenape Learn Their Religion?

We ask ourselves now: Where did the Lenape learn all this about the Creator and about Our Father? We do know that they are our fellow humans, who descended from our first Homo Sapiens ancestors, common to them, to us, and to all other human beings now existing. If the Homo Sapiens race originated in Africa, then the Lenape ancestors must somehow have reached the Delaware River forests after a very long journey. During their wanderings they may have staged many a parting of the ways from fellow humans who are now other nations and peoples.

From Africa they may have advanced into Asia via the Fertile Crescent where Abraham would live many thousands of years later. Perhaps they said goodbye to Aborigines who would move south into Australia, as they moved north through Ainu territories; then they likely found passage across Beringia some tens of thousands of years ago, passed through Canada, across the St. Lawrence, and on south into the Delaware drainage area.

During all these years, did they remember something which is traced originally to the primeval revelation before original sin? Did they continue to adore their Creator and pray to Our Father during perhaps 200,000 years? If so, that is a remarkable theological reality which is almost totally ignored and neglected in contemporary studies. Even if their beliefs are not connected with the primeval revelation, they are nevertheless genuine, indicating that their source is some form of divine revelation. We contemplate the mystery in words of Canon IV of the Mass:

You formed man in your own likeness and set him over the whole world to serve you, his creator,and to rule over all creatures. 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. Again and again you offered a covenant to man, and through the prophets taught him to hope for salvation. Father, you so loved the world that in the fullness of time you sent your only Son to be our Savior.

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