A Nation of Women (part IV)

November 29, 2013

I did not it intended for my review/summary of Gunlog Fur’s A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians to be spread over so many weeks, but I also do not like long blog posts. This is the fourth installment, and there will be two more. Here are the links for Part I, Part II, and Part III.

There were some aspects of Moravian belief that both hindered and helped their missionary efforts. One of these was the Moravian antipathy for alcohol. Some Delaware chose not to convert because they did not want to stop drinking whiskey, while for others the strictures against alcohol were a factor in conversion. Young mothers, especially, perceived the absence of alcohol in Moravian towns as creating a healthier environment to raise children. While Delaware women were victimized by the male violence that accompanied binge drinking, many Delaware women themselves drank heavily. Women had direct access to alcohol through their trade activities with whites, and at any rate women took responsibility for the distribution of resources. Whiskey obtained from whites was used in ceremonies for mourning the dead, which were women’s ceremonies, but this did not appear to be a source of conflict. It was the more prosaic consumption of alcohol that divided communities.

Missionaries attributed drunkeness to Satanic seductions, and Fur does a remarkable job of pointing out the ways missionaries and Delaware converts misapprehended one another on the subject of the Evil One. The Delaware did not have a concept of evil as an animated force, let alone as a personality in opposition to God, with the souls of men and women as battleground between the two powers. They did recognize troublesome and capricious lesser spirits who might wreak havoc or might be beneficial. More often they equated the Devil with vague non-harmonious energies that caused restlessness or worry. Because missionaries characterized Delaware ceremonies and spiritual beliefs as Satanic, many Delaware saw the cosmic play between God and Devil as Indian versus white, and when speaking of a decision to “go to Hell” meant they had chosen to follow the ways that led to the Indian afterlife rather than the Christian one. While missionaries worried that their converts were being subjected to torturous temptations of the Antichrist, Delaware Indians themselves attributed their misbehavior to personal failings or poor choices.

Moravian belief stressed a personal and emotional contact with God, and Moravians looked for direct revelations from the Holy Spirit for guidance. When discussion around a problem did not reveal a clear path, they drew lots as a method of divining God’s judgment. In some ways this harmonized with Delaware reliance on dreams and visions for directing personal and community actions. Prophecy through visions could come from any individual, but some were more blessed with this power than others. Prophecy was a talent that garnered respect, and both men and women could be prophets. Visions could provide direct remedies for a problem or delineate ceremonies to address an issue. Often these ceremonies were directed toward healing physical or mental illness. Whites valued and sought Delaware knowledge on herbal healing, but labeled ceremonial healing as wicked and heathen. Other ceremonies were tolerated to some extent. Missionaries tried to substitute Christian songs and prayers for Indian ones in ceremonies for planting, harvest, hunting, burial and marriage. They met resistance even among converts in trying to change rituals around childbirth. Missionaries also had difficulty Christianizing hunting ceremonies to their satisfaction, but the reasons for this are unclear. Fur does not give information about the ceremonies that undoubtedly accompanied menarche and menstruation.

The biggest philosophical difference between Delaware and missionary, and one that Moravians may not have entirely understood, was the way conversion itself was viewed, independent of the benefits and failings of the white religion. Moravians viewed conversion as an independent decision, one of personal conscience. Delaware, on the other hand, did not view any important decision as an individual one. Attractions of the new religion had to be weighed against spiritual obligations to the community as a whole, such as role in particular ceremonies or healing talents that could not be expressed in a Christian context. Conversely, when a church member decided to go back to traditional ways, not only the spouse but numerous maternal relatives and members of the extended social network would break away as well.

We can’t sum up women’s position in any culture without taking a hard look at marriage. Next week’s post will look at how differing views on marriage and family fueled the most intense conflicts between Moravian missionaries and Delaware Indians, including Delaware converts.

A Nation of Women (part III)

November 22, 2013

This is a continuation of my summary/review of Gunlog Fur’s A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians. Here is part II and part I. This third installment discusses Delaware spiritual beliefs as revealed in encounters with Christian missionaries.

The Delaware responded to the first hellfire preachers with alarm, thinking they had come to declare war. When that misunderstanding was put away, many Delaware continued to attend sermons, curious about Christian beliefs or perhaps entertained by what preachers had to say. Still, Christian missionaries had few converts. This changed with efforts of Moravian missionaries to Christianize the Delaware in the mid eighteenth century.

Fur notes research suggesting that efforts to convert North American Indians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries resulted in one of three predictable outcomes: the entire tribe decided to convert, the tribe decided not to convert, or there was conflict along gender lines around the issue of converting. There were serious conflicts among Delawares about the presence of missionaries and decisions to convert, but interestingly these conflicts were not split along gender lines. Fur notes that Delaware women both participated in and fought white missionary efforts during this period. To make sense of the conflicts and alliances that arose, it is necessary to understand not only Delaware cultural beliefs but some of the beliefs around culture and gender held by the Moravians.

The Moravians were remarkably egalitarian for the times, even compared to other progressive sects, with ideals reminiscent of the very early Christians. They not only preached that men and women were equal in the eyes of God, but allowed women to speak in mixed gender congregations and to hold leadership positions. They had feminine conceptions of the Holy Spirit and utilized metaphors for Christ that were less heavily gendered than other sects. Moravians preferred to work in sex segregated groups and the majority of their religious activities were sex segregated as well. Missionaries had to be married, as men proselytized to other men and women to other women. Unlike the early Christians, Moravians did not hold sexual relations to be shameful, at least in the context of heterosexual marriage, and they placed no value on celibacy. They strove to introduce Christianity in an ethnically sensitive way, at least as they understood the concept, and missionaries not only learned the Delaware languages but taught in those languages and translated written religious materials into Delaware. Missionaries were expected to live and work in the manner of people they were trying to convert, insofar as it did not conflict with their Christian values, so Moravian missionaries labored alongside their converts. It seems that if any group could make Christianity acceptable to the Delaware, it was the Moravians.

The environmental stressors afflicting the Delaware at the time of initial contact with the Moravians were another factor in Delaware receptivity to their message. Delaware peoples had been in contact with Europeans for two centuries when Moravian missionary efforts began in the mid-eighteenth century, and during that time life had changed dramatically. Contagious diseases such as smallpox appeared in waves infecting each generation, reducing the population by between 75 and 90%. Delaware lived peaceably with some white settlements, but had experienced violence and betrayal from others. Alcohol had devastating effects on families. Long-standing conflicts with Iroquois nations to the north and west became increasingly violent as Iroquois sought to appropriate Delaware territory to improve their access to the European fur trade. Delaware had survived all of these challenges with traditional culture intact, but the first part of the eighteenth century saw a much greater white encroachment on Delaware land, blocking access to traditional food sources and forcing widespread relocation of villages. Delaware were beginning to experience significant food shortages, a new experience for people living in a moderate climate with fertile land and abundant wildlife. Hunger and loss of land, combined with long-standing problems of disease and warfare, made many open to religious solutions offered by the new missionaries.

Moravian missionaries had serious conflicts with other whites, for both political and theological reasons, which may have been a point in their favor from the perspective of many Delaware. One conflict revolved around the staunch and inflexible pacifism Moravians adhered to. Within Delaware communities, the principle of pacifism shored up one faction in the ongoing debate over how to respond to white encroachment. While Delaware peoples did not approve of warfare as a way of life, they did go to war to defend their territories, and debate ensued throughout the eighteenth century over which was the better strategy, mediation or war. This debate appears to have hinged on practical considerations, but Moravian missionaries with their message of pacifism appeared on the scene at a time when Delaware leaders were trying to rein in their warriors and arrive at a political solution with European and Indian nations. Since mediation was the purview of women, just as conducting warfare that of men, we can assume that women were actively involved in this decision.

Many women who sought or accepted interaction with Moravians were motivated by concern for their children, as the Indian villages of the Moravians were considered safer and more secure in their food supplies. Women also wanted their children to learn to read and write. Child mortality was a factor, with women often seeking baptism for dying children. Fur does not speculate on the reasons for this, even while noting that baptism for adults approaching death was much less common.

Christianity was a highly polarizing issue for eighteenth century Delaware. For all the attractions the Moravian brand of Christianity held for some Delaware women (and men), there was also strong opposition toward missionizing of any stripe. The next installment looks at reasons many women found Moravian beliefs incompatible with their way of life. This section will have a bit more on Delaware spiritual beliefs. I post on Fridays, so look for this on November 29th.

A Nation of Women (part II)

November 15, 2013

This is a continuation of my summary of Gunlog Fur’s book A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians. This week’s focus is the position of women in Delaware cultures.

A note on terminology. The peoples of what is now southeastern New York, eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and northern Delaware were diverse loosely organized tribes who usually (but not always) spoke similar Algonquian languages. Some of the tribes with larger populations included the Unami-speaking Lenape, the Munsee, and the Mahican, but there were many others. Trade and treaty relations with Europeans, as well as dislocation patterns, created the polity known today as the Delaware. The word “Delaware” comes from the name the English gave to that river. Fur does not like to use the word “Delaware” for people of this region in their initial contact with Europeans for a variety of reasons, the most obvious one being that the word did not yet exist. Although Fur appears to have thought carefully about which name she uses in each context, I am not going to switch back and forth between “Delaware,” “Lenape,” and “Munsee” in these short blog posts because it would become too confusing for the reader. If you want a more nuanced version, you will have to read the book. The hard fact of the matter is that while some words are better than others in discussing colonial-era history in this region, no word is completely correct.

At time of European contact, Delaware cultures were matrilineal. Children belonged to the mother’s family. Men moved in with the wife’s family after marriage but maintained obligations to their maternal clan. Divorce was not uncommon and could be initiated by either party.

Women cared for small children, gathered wild vegetable foods, cleaned game, prepared food, and did most of the agricultural work. They made storage containers for food and implements for cooking and planting. They made clothing and spun hemp for rope and nets. Women kept track of astronomical data that guided planting and other activities. They gathered herbs and practiced herbal medicine. Children worked with their mothers and her female relatives.

Men hunted and fished, cleared land for planting, built lodges, and trained for warfare. They wove fishing nets and fashioned and maintained tools involved in hunting and war. Old men and children guarded planted fields from predators.

These activities were not strictly divided by sex, however, and women commonly engaged in hunting and occasionally in war. Men would also perform activities assigned to women, such as sewing or spinning. During key activities, such as harvest, large scale hunts or seasonal food gathering, everyone participated. Fur points out that it makes more sense to think of spheres of responsibility rather than division of labor when discussing work done by men versus women. There was cross-over in almost every area. Women and men dressed essentially the same, except during certain labor or ceremonial activities. Men often wore a distinct hair style.

Women and men spent a significant amount of time in sex segregated or mostly sex segregated groups. Able bodied men would spend weeks away from the village on hunting expeditions, and women had their own sex segregated activities. Women retreated from village activity during their menstrual periods to a place set aside for this.

Land belonged collectively to all Delaware, but management and decision-making around land use–both agricultural land and land used in hunting–rested with the women. The lodge-style houses, which sheltered many generations, belonged to the women. Decisions on food distribution, including game procured by men, were made by women. Since the Delaware were subsistence level farmers and hunter/gatherers, the distribution of food was a significant sphere of influence. When trade began with the Europeans, it was primarily trade of agricultural and household goods, conducted by women, which gave women further control over the distribution of resources. Women effectively determined whether prisoners of war lived or died, since decisions regarding adoption, including adoption of adults, rested with women in their capacity as mothers. Peace making was directed primarily by women, although that changed with European contact.

Whether explorers, traders, missionaries or warriors, European men found Delaware power structures difficult to fathom. This might indicate that Delaware cultures were nonhierarchical, that many decisions involved the larger group and not just the designated individual or council, or that decisions were significantly influenced by women. Fur offers data supporting all these suppositions. Indications of rank were remarkably absent in Delaware cultures, even when compared to other northeastern Algonquian tribes. There were no differentiations in burial, for example, and there were no status markers of personal adornment. This does not necessarily mean that Delaware cultures were completely nonhierarchical; only that there were no outward signs of social hierarchy that could be discerned by Eurocentric perception.

The chiefs were usually, but not always, male. There were lots of chiefs. There was a war chief and a peace chief, a chief for the maternal clan, a chief who welcomed strangers to the village, etc. etc. Some of these offices delineated duties for the husband and the wife, so they might also be conceived as being held by a couple. The chief chose and trained his successor, who was almost always from his maternal clan. Sons did not succeed fathers. The chiefs answered to the village council, which was composed of men and women. The council was expected to refer to the community as a whole on important decisions. Ability to influence others in the community tended to rest on experience, wisdom, age, and position as maternal clan leader.

In making important decisions the Delaware placed significant weight on dreams and visions as related by the individuals who experienced them. This will be discussed in the next part of this summary, on early Delaware interactions with Christianity.

A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians, by Gunlog Fur (Review)

November 8, 2013

I think this book adds some needed information about the intersection of gender, women’s status, and religious/spiritual perspectives.

Gunlog Fur says in her preface, “I did not set out to write a book about gender. In fact, I was not particularly interested in the topic at all. What did interest me was trying to understand as much as I possibly could about how Lenape Indians lived their lives around the time that they first encountered people from across the great sea and how that encounter altered their society and the world they knew….Thus, I stumbled on my subject by chance, or so I thought, caught by the nagging notion that I was observing a picture where one object stood out of place. The problem I had with the picture I was beholding was that it contained only men.” As Fur began collecting scraps of information referring to women, a new picture of Delaware/Lenape history and society emerged, one with a complex understanding and expression of gender which the Eurocentric mind has difficulty comprehending.

Researching colonial history of the Delaware peoples is a challenging proposition, because these nations were among the first to encounter European explorers and traders, and the location of Delaware territories, which were highly strategic from the point of view of seafaring Europeans, meant that the Delaware peoples came in contact with many nationalities. Early accounts were written in Swedish, Dutch, French, and German, as well as English, so a facility with all of these languages is necessary to examine first-hand sources. Many European traders spoke one or more of the principal native languages, making the language in which discussions occurred and the degree of comfort of the observer with that language an important piece of information. Fur’s knowledge of the languages of early written sources lends credibility to her analysis.

A question I had when I first ran across this book was whether the author had enough understanding of the structure of the Delaware languages to make any inferences about gender. Although it is axiomatic that concepts do not necessarily translate easily between languages, where gender is concerned these conceptual difficulties are magnified. My concern was probably unjustified. Although Fur does not claim to be fluent in any Delaware language, she appears to be aware of the structure of this language group, enough to question the primary observer’s account in places. Fur emphasizes throughout the book that her sources are unreliable. They are thoroughly patriarchal and view interactions with American Indians from the prism of their own agenda – usually commerce, land acquisition, or religious fervor. She compensates for this by examining the wide range of written data for congruencies and anomalies.

I will present a summary of Fur’s analysis in my next three blog posts. I will write about the status of Delaware women within the tribes, the changes and challenges created by Christian contact, and the Delaware/Lenape conception of gender.

Virtual Pagan

November 1, 2013

There are two things that interest me greatly as a Pagan priestess/teacher/thinker. The first is those things that are unremarked upon which nonetheless appear in passing again and again. Usually these are treasure troves of knowledge. An example of this would be the comb as a religious symbol. It is found in Neolithic art, ancient gravesites, and religious texts all over Europe and the Mediterranean, and persists long after Christianity has been established, yet it is not commonly thought of as one of our “magical tools.” It is scarcely ever remarked upon. It has also been an important symbol in Africa and Asia, and a great deal of research remains to be done about the significance of this very personal implement. I wrote an article about the comb for Return to Mago last year and barely scratched the surface. It’s a topic for an entire book.

Deer_in_Snow The second area of interest to me is those things that are remarked upon so often that they become rote. Usually there are unexamined assumptions and beliefs about ourselves that are hidden in these sayings, as well as unexamined meanings in the phrases themselves. An example of this would be the statement that “Paganism is a nature religion.” Is this something we say to distinguish ourselves from Judeo-Christian religions? Is it something we say to give ourselves legitimacy? Is it something we say in nostalgia for a lost relationship? Is it something we say because we learned somewhere that this is so? Is it something we say? Is it something we believe, is it something we wish, is it something we think about, is it something we do?Flight_of_the_Great_Blue_Heron

The answer to these questions will vary not just among the individuals, but for the same person in different settings and at different stages of personal development. The most important thing is that these questions be asked, and asked again, and asked again. To me, following a “nature religion” means an ongoing commitment to a deepening experience within nature. It is active, dynamic, and ever changing. It is a mystery.

I’m hoping to begin offering online classes soon on topics related to Pagan nature worship. My goal is to bring these topics to a more accessible virtual world, while at the same time inspiring the student to directly experience more in the natural world. The classes will be stand-alone and you will be able to take one or many. Here is a survey designed to help me identify potential topics.

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