Returning from the sun

The history of the Lenape can be found in their stories

Posted 9/30/19

“It becomes very difficult to separate fact from fiction when we talk about the Native Americans,” said Sullivan County Historian John Conway, explaining that Lenape didn't leave anything in writing. “So who’s to say what’s legend and what’s fact?”

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Returning from the sun

The history of the Lenape can be found in their stories


This story was published in the Fall 2019 edition of Upper Delaware Magazine.

It has been said that history belongs to the victors. In the case of Native Americans in this country, and certainly in the Upper Delaware, that bears truth.

“It becomes very difficult to separate fact from fiction when we talk about the Native Americans,” said Sullivan County Historian John Conway, explaining that Lenape didn't leave anything in writing. “So who’s to say what’s legend and what’s fact?”

The Lenape Native Americans, who are sometimes referred to as the Delaware Indians or Lenni Lenape, once occupied land between the Middle Atlantic coast from New York Bay to Delaware Bay, between the Hudson and Delaware rivers. According to Robert S. Grumet, author of the book “The Lenapes,” there were between 16,000 and 24,000 Lenape people living in that stretch of domain in the early 1600s. The Delaware River was considered the center of their nation.

The arrival of European settlers in the 1600s affected the Lenape in ways that would ripple through their history and eventually diminish their tribe by the thousands.

In some regards, the relationship between early white settlers and the Lenape was amicable. William Penn was known to be a brother and admirer of the tribe.

As we know, that friendship did not last. To the Lenape, land is not something to be owned—a way of thinking that did not mesh with white settlers idea of private property.

Notably, and after many years of unease, death, disease and resettlement, the Lenape sided with the French in the French and Indian War. That angered the English, and after the loss, Native Americans who had fought with the French were left with virtually nothing but a bad reputation, despite the cruelties that had also been done against them.

“In the hearts of many of the whites ranked a deep and undying hatred, which needed but a safe and favorable opportunity to slake itself in blood,” writes James E. Quinlan’s in his 1851 book “Tom Quick the Indian Slayer and the Pioneers of Minisink and the Wawarsink.”

It is the whites to which Quinlan refers who left most written historical record of Native Americans.
The Lenape people are still in existence, and tribes such as the United Eastern Lenape Nation and the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania maintain the tradition and history of their ancestors. But in the larger cultural understanding of Native Americans, historian Frank W. Porter writes, we are left with only oft-inaccurate and culturally biased stereotypes.

“Where in the world view are the real Indians, the human beings and communities whose ancestors can be traced back to ice-age hunters?” he asks.

The “real Indians” are in their stories.

Storytelling is an important tradition and point of connection for the Lenape. The stories they tell are some of the few artifacts that haven’t been handled and redispersed by settlers. They “tell not only of ourselves and our relationships to the places in which we live, but also teach us about our origins, about our ancestors, who we are, and where we come from,” writes Hitakonanu’laxk, in his (highly recommended) book, “The Grandfathers Speak: Native American Folktales of the Lenape people.”

The story of “Mother Corn,” for instance, teaches of humility and gratitude for nourishment that the Earth provides. The story of the Rainbow Crow, which in just a few words tells of how the Rainbow Crow flew to heaven to get fire from the sun, charring his wings black in the process, is a lesson in sacrifice and the true nature of beauty.

Many of these stories share a common theme, says Adam DePaul, a member of the Lenape Nation who also teaches classes on Lenape mythology at Temple University. Language is one of them.

Some of his favorite stories are of Wehixamukes, who often finds himself in comical or outlandish situations based on his literal interpretation of commands. In one story, he is told to get a turkey and boil it. So he does—feathers and all.

“There’s a lesson in there about speaking carefully,” DePaul says. “And I think that really speaks… to the culture in general. One of the first observations William Penn made about the Lenape is that they’re very careful with their words… They speak sparsely, and when they do, every word matters. And that does really capture a lot of the language.”

Plus, he adds, “I think the stories are just funny.”

DePaul has invested his whole life in the study of mythology, specifically those of his tribe.

“The history of academia is just marred with people misappropriating, misrepresenting the mythologies of marginalized communities,” he says. “So we have to make sure we don’t repeat those mistakes.”

What has happened to a lot of Lenape mythology in the Upper Delaware is referred to as “synocrotism,” a melding of Lenape folklore with the beliefs of the settlers and Christian mythologies.
This blending often places the settlers as “savior” figures for which Native tribes are thankful.
“It really creates its own mythology, when two cultures like that come into contact, and it’s certainly happened with the Lenape and the colonists,” DePaul said.

The legend of the last of the Cahoonshee

A sign in the Hamlet of Cahoonzie, located near Sparrowbuch and Pond Eddy, NY.

Here’s an excerpt from James M. Allerton’s 1892 book, “Hawk’s Nest or The Last of the Cahoonshees”:

“Cahoonshee was reputed to be seven feet in height, with a large powerful frame… At the time we introduce him, he has passed his three-score-and-ten years. His hair is as white as snow; his voice low; his words few, and to the point. He belonged to a small tribe of the Delawares called Cahoonshees. When a small boy he was captured and taken to England. While there, he was painted in true Indian style, decked out with feathers in the most fantastic way, and carried around the country to be gazed at. This was repulsive to Cahoonshee, but for a long time he could not help himself. At length it was resolved to educate him for an interpreter and missionary. Cahoonshee proved to be an apt pupil, and in the end a good scholar. In a few years he mastered the English language and acquired a fair knowledge of the arts and sciences of that day. Then he returned to his native land, with the understanding on his part and on the part of the English that he was to remain in their employ and act as their agent and interpreter; and probably Cahoonshee intended to abide by this understanding when he left London.”

Cahoonshee does not, in the end, “abide by this understanding” that he would be an envoy of the English. When he returns to the Upper Delaware, he finds that his entire tribe—his brothers, sisters, parents and friends—have been wiped out, reportedly by the Spanish Salamanca.

Cahoonshee vows to remain in the Delaware, in the land of his people, and maintain good relations with the settlers here. He predicts that the rise of the white man will come on the back of the Native Americans.
The stories of Cahoonshee, in Allerton’s rendering, mingle with stories of the Quick family, Dutch settlers who were friendly with their Native neighbors until the patriarch was reportedly killed by a Lenape during the French and Indian War. Tom Quick Jr. would go on to be known as the “Indian Slayer,” in vengeance for his father’s death. (For many years, Tom Quick was a hero figure in the Upper Delaware. A statue in his honor was desecrated and removed from a public square in Milford in the ‘90s, marking a turning point in cultural understanding.)

Here's the thing: the legend of Cahoonshee is just that. A legend. The Cahoonshee tribe likely never existed, nor did its seven-foot-tall namesake.

It likely originated from the meshing DePaul refers to. He is unfamiliar with Cahoonshee, but said the theme is familiar.

“ resonates very well with a sort of archetypal myth that’s told across nearly every Native American mythology,” he said. A member of a tribe will go off to a new land, typically the sun, and find that some kind of devastation has occurred upon their return.

In that case, all that's left is memory.

“Sometimes they will just come back with knowledge,” DePaul says. “And they will almost always use that knowledge to seek their revenge or correct the wrong that has been done in their homeland.”


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