The Lenape or Lenni-Lenape (later named Delaware Indians by Europeans) were, in the 1600s, loosely organized bands of Native American people practicing small-scale agriculture to augment a largely mobile hunter-gatherer society in the region around the Delaware River, the lower Hudson River, and western Long Island Sound. The Lenape were the people living in the vicinity of New York Bay at the time of the arrival of the Europeans in the 16th and 17th century.
Their language is in the Algonquian language family and had two main dialects. Munsee, or Minnisink, was spoken in the upper Delaware River (including northern New Jersey), New York, and Long Island Sound. Munsee is now spoken in parts of Canada, on and near the reservations to which Munsee were removed. Unami was spoken in the lower Delaware River (including central and southern New Jersey) and is now spoken in parts of Oklahoma, where Unami-speakers were removed. Lenape is a word in the Unami dialect whose most literal translation into American English would be, "the people." (The common schoolbook term, Lenni-Lenapi is not correct, but translates as, "the original people"). The Lenape names for the area they inhabited were Scheyischbi, which means, "the place bordering the ocean," and Lenapehoking, meaning "place where the people live," although the latter is not universally accepted as historical.
Although a different order may have prevailed during pre-colonial times, in Colonial times Lenape families (like many other Native American peoples) were organized into clans based on a common female ancestor. Phratries, which were groups of two or more clans, were identified by an animal sign. Three Lenape phratries emerge in the early historical record: Turtle, Turkey, and Wolf. These phatries were not political divisions, but rather 'flavors' of individuals common to all discrete bands of Lenape, which together made up the Lenape 'tribe' -- although the very notion of 'tribe' is misleading, suggesting a uniformity that did not exist.
Early Native American 'tribes' are perhaps better understood as language groups, rather than as 'nations.' A Lenape individual would have identified primarily with his or her immediate family and friends, or village unit; then with surrounding and familiar village units; next with more distant neighbors who spoke the same dialect; and ultimately, while often fitfully, with all those in the surrounding area who spoke mutually-comprehensible languages, including the Mohican. Those of a different language stock -- such as the Iroquois (or, in the Lenape language, the Minqua) -- were regarded as foreigners, often, as in the Iroquois' case, with animosity stretching back many generations. (Interestingly, ethnicity itself seems not to have mattered much to the Lenape and many other 'tribes,' as illustrated by archaeological discoveries of Munsee burials that included identifiably ethnic-Iroquois remains carefully interred along with the ethnic-Algonquian Munsee ones. The two groups were bitter enemies since before recorded history, although intermarriage, perhaps through captive-taking, clearly occurred).
Overlaying these relationships was that of the phratry. Phatry membership was matrilineal; that is, a child inherited membership in a phratry from his or her mother. When a Lenape reached adulthood, he or she traditionally married outside of his or her phratry, a practice known by ethnographers as "exogamy", which effectively served to prevent inbreeding even among individuals whose kinship relationship was obscure or unknown.
Early Europeans who first wrote about Native Americans found this type of social organization to be unfamiliar and perplexing. As a result, Europeans often tried to interpret Lenape society through more familiar European arrangements. As a result, the early written records are full of clues about early Lenape society, but were usually written by observers who did not fully understand what they were seeing. For example, a man's closest male ancestor was usually considered to be his uncle (his mother's brother) and not his father, since his father belonged to a different phratry. Such a concept was often unfathomable to early European chroniclers.
Land was assigned to a particular clan for hunting, fishing, and cultivation. Individual private ownership of land was unknown, but rather the land belonged to the clan collectively while they inhabited it. Phratries lived in a fixed settlements, using the surrounding areas for communal hunting and planting until the land was exhausted, at which point the group moved on to found a new settlement.
The early interaction between the Lenape and the Dutch was primarily through the fur trade, specifically the exchange of beaver pelts by the Lenape for European-made goods.
According to Dutch settler Isaac de Rasieres, who observed the Lenape in 1628, the Lenape's primary crop was maize, which they planted in March after breaking up the soil using metal tools acquired from the Europeans. In May, the Lenape planted kidney beans in the vicinity of the maize plants to serve as props. The summers were devoted to field work and the crops were harvested in August. Most of the field work was carried out by women, with the agricultural work of men limited to clearing the field and breaking the soil.
Hunting was the primary activity in the rest of the year. Dutch settler David de Vries, who stayed in the area from 1634 to 1644, described a Lenape hunt in the valley of the Achinigeu-hach (or "Ackingsah-sack," the Hackensack River), in which 100 or more men stood in a line many paces from each other, beating thigh bones on their palms to drive animals to the river, where they could be easily killed. Other methods of hunting included lassoing and drowning deer, as well as forming a circle around prey and setting the brush on fire.
The quick dependence of the Lenape on European goods, and the need for fur to trade with the Europeans, eventually resulted in a disaster with an overharvesting of the beaver population in the lower Hudson. The fur source thus exhausted, the Dutch shifted their operations to present-day Upstate New York. The Lenape population fell into disease and decline. Likewise, the differences in conceptions of property rights between the Europeans and the Lenape resulted in widespread confusion among the Lenape and the loss of their lands. After the Dutch arrival in the 1620s, the Lenape were successfully able to restrict Dutch settlement to present-day Jersey City along the Hudson until the 1660s, when the Dutch finally established a garrison at Fort Bergen, allowing settlement west of the Hudson.
The Treaty of Easton, signed between the Lenape and the English in 1766, removed them westward, out of present-day New York and New Jersey and into Pennsylvania, then Ohio and beyond -- although sporadic raids on English settlers continued, staged from far outside the area.
The Lenape were the first Native American tribe to enter into a treaty with the future United States government during the American Revolutionary War. The Lenape supplied the Revolutionary army with warriors and scouts in exchange for food supplies and the promise of a role at the head of a future native American state. (http://members.tripod.com/~lenapelady/deltreaty1778.html).
The Lenape were continually crowded out by European settlers and pressured to move in several stages over a period of about 175 years with the main body arriving in Northeast Oklahoma in the 1860s. Along the way many smaller groups split off in different directions to settle, to join established communities with other native peoples, or to stay where they were and survive when their brothers and sisters moved on. Consequently today, from New Jersey to Wisconsin to southwest Oklahoma, there are groups which retain a sense of identity with their ancestors that were in the Delaware Valley in the 1600s and with their cousins in the vast Lenape diaspora. The two largest are:
The Delaware Tribe of Indians (Bartlesville, Oklahoma)
The Delaware Nation (Anadarko, Oklahoma)
Most members of the Munsee branch of the Lenape live on three Indian reserves in Western Ontario, Canada, the largest being that at Moraviantown, Ontario where the Turtle clan settled in 1792.
The Oklahoma branches were established in 1867, with the purchase of land by Delawares from the Cherokee nation; two payments totalling $438,000 were made. A court dispute then followed over whether the sale included rights for the Delaware within the Cherokee nation. In 1898 the Curtis Act dissolved tribal governments and ordered the allotment of tribal lands to individual members of tribes. The Lenape fought the act in the courts but lost, the courts ruling that in 1867 they had only purchased rights to the land for their lifetimes. The lands were allotted in 160 acre (650,000 mē) lots in 1907, with any land left over sold to caucasians.
In 1979 the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs revoked the tribal status of the Delaware living among Cherokee in Oklahoma, and included the Delaware as Cherokee. This decision was finally overturned in 1996. The Cherokee nation then filed suit to overturn the recognition of the Delaware as a tribe.