The "Big House" was the main religious
building of the Delaware Indians.
It was used for an annual religious ceremony to thank the
Great Manitou and the
for the good fortune of the last year and to pray for protection from
future calamity and destructive natural forces (manitou was their word for
spirit or deity).1
The purpose of this paper is to examine the complex ways in which the Delaware
Big House can be read semiotically as a cultural text that demarcates the
social, religious and political reflexivity of the culture.2
The array of signs and symbols that are imbedded within the architecture will be
described through an analysis of its conception, construction, and use. Within
these three larger processes, I will look at how the Delawares formed, informed,
and transformed themselves through their use of symbols.
The conception, or plan, of the Delaware Indian Big House was based on an origin
myth in which the building's purpose was explained, its decorative images
prescribed, and its appropriate uses dictated.3
Through the myth of the Big House, the Delawares addressed their fears of
nature's destructive forces. The myth explained that "long ago the very
foundation of life itself, the earth, was split open by a devastating quake."
From this opening in the earth, "The forces of evil and chaos erupted from the
underworld in the form of dust, smoke, and a black liquid."
The humans then met in council and concluded that the disruptions had
occurred because they had neglected their proper relationship with the
Great Manitou. They prayed for power and guidance. The manitou spoke to
them in dreams, telling them to build a house that would re-create the
cosmos and how to conduct a ceremony that would evoke the power to sustain
segment of the myth subtlety informed the Delawares about how they formed. This
can be seen in the first line of this section where it says "The humans then met
in council," or came together in order to jointly explore and define the actions
of the natural (and supernatural) world and to address the reordering, or in
reality, coming to terms with the cosmos. In this indirect way, those with
religious and/or political power set the stage upon which they would dictate,
through symbolic representations, the rules by which the members of the society
would be expected to abide by.
By "telling them to build a house that would re-create the cosmos," the myth
transformed the house into a symbol. For the Delaware the universe consisted of
twelve houses stacked one upon the other. The Great Manitou resided in the
twelfth and highest house. When entering the Big House, the people envisioned
themselves as passing through these twelve stacked houses. In the form of the
Big House, the concept of "house" acquired meaning beyond that of its individual
existence in and of itself.4
In the myth, the buildings
interior decorative motifs were set out in rough form. The myth goes on to
explain that the Big House Ceremony, "would establish their moral relationship
with the Manitou." Inside the building, the myth told thein to carve faces of
their gods on wooden posts. In their ceremonial dance, they would stop at each
mask and speech to it as if it were alive. The building , then, facilitated a "
face to face" encounter with their gods. These recitations were believed to
"renew and revivify the individual's relationship with his or her personal
Symbolically, by building the Big House, the Delawares could right what they had
made wrong, to balance what they had made unbalanced, and thus protect
themselves from total destruction. The myth informed the people as to what kinds
of associations belonged with the Big House. From this, it was determined what
symbolic forms these should take, what symbolic action should occur in
conjunction with these objects, and how these would interact with the individual
and, ultimately, with the group.
According to this myth, the Delaware also had to follow certain guidelines using
the Big House to maintain this fragile sense of order. These primarily had to do
with cleanliness and purity.
The old time was one of impurity, symbolized by dirt and smoke. To make
the transition into sacred time everyone and everything had to be purified
including attendants, reciters of dreams, and the Big House itself.
Purifying fires burned on either side of the center post. Persons or
objects in a state of impurity, such as menstruating women were always
excluded from the Big House.
piece further informed the actions of the Delaware, as well as substantiating
that the Big House and all the dictates that went along with it did, and will,
transform the world and the Delawares from a lesser, more dangerous position or
situation to one of greater stability. The myth made this transformation appear
as if it were reached and maintained by consensus of the whole of the Delaware
people, guided by a supernatural being, instead of by only those Delaware in
positions of religious and/or political authority.
the rough form and proper use of the Big House "supernaturally preordained," the
Delaware Indians were then given the task of transforming the mythical
conception into a concrete, visible, and functional form. The myth told them to
recreate the cosmos in the form of a
house. They had two types of house forms to choose from, the rectangular floor
plan of their permanent dwellings, the
longhouse or the circular plan of their temporary winter structures, the wigwam
longhouse was relatively narrow in width and could range in length from twenty
to four hundred feet, depending on the number of families living inside. Its
interior was divided off into sections about every twenty feet interval with
each section representing one family's living space. As additional room was
needed for new families, new sections could easily be added on to the end of the
longhouse. The long walls bore two rows of shelving, about five to six feet
wide. The top shelf was for food storage while the lower was for sleeping. Each
family area had its own fire pit and smoke hole.
longhouse form was selected for the Big House over the wigwam even though the
wigwam was much easier to build. From the Delaware's reverence for the circle in
their symbolism, and its ease of construction, it would seem more logical for
them to have chosen the wigwam. So it seems that the selection of the longhouse
form for the Big House was based on some other criteria than its ease of
construction or the natural symbolism in its form.
are four aspects of the longhouse that probably led to it being chosen. The
first reason was the capability of the longhouse for horizontal expansion. In
Delaware religious belief, the universe was conceived of as twelve houses
stacked one upon on another with the Great Manitou residing in the upper most
house. In a sense, the longhouse, was composed of separate family
units that were "stacked" end to end. The
longhouse depicted horizontally the vertical conception of the mythic cosmos.
Therefore, the longhouse was better
equipped for communal living. As a result, the longhouse form was more
easily transformed into a symbol of unity and communal relations with the
gods and the entire cosmos.
Unlike, the wigwam, the longhouse embodied permanence and stability. The wigwam,
being a temporary structure, would not seem suitable to represent a cosmos or
universe that is permanent and timeless.
The final aspect of the longhouse that led to its transformation into the Big
House was the importance the Delawares placed on an orientation with the four
Being rectangular, the longhouse could be easily oriented. Directional markers
served important functions within the Big House ceremony.
result of its inherent, latent symbolism, the longhouse form was commandeered
and transformed into the Big House, creating a new form packed with systems of
symbolism, based on their powerful referential to other symbolism systems.
siting and orientation of the Big House symbolized religious beliefs and were of
major importance in the "framing"
of the Big House structure and
ceremonial actions within the larger community.6
Adopted from the established longhouse form, the Big House had to undergo a
transformative process from secular to sacred. The Big House had to be
physically and cognitively differentiated from its parent domestic form. This
was accomplished, in part, by stripping the interior of all bedding and shelving
structures, familial section divisions and secular decorations and objects. This
action removed all the symbolic structures that had framed the longhouse form
into a place of domesticity- a home.
symbols were conceived to correspond with the origin myth and the social,
religious, and political aims of those with authority. The more a ruler could
control their people's thoughts, beliefs, and actions, the more power they could
have. Power is invested onto the ruler by society's willingness to be
controlled, manipulated, or governed. The specific form this successful
manipulation took was of little import. It was only important to the elite that
manipulation had been allowed.
Big House was a long, narrow, rectangular building, placed on an east-west axis.
It had only two doors, placed at each of its narrow ends. The doors accommodated
the symbolic entering and exiting of the celestial bodies, the sun and moon. As
the sun and moon enter the sky world in the east and exit it in the west, so
shall the people enter the re-created cosmos of the Big House.
The combination of physical architecture, mythical movement, and human action
assist in the framing of the Big House as a sacred site. This east-west line
also reflected the Delaware's concept of the "Good White Path," the path man
travels through his/her journey from birth to death.7
certain times of the year, as prescribed by the origin myth, the elders taught
the young how to gather materials, use the tools, and employ the proper methods
for constructing the Big House. The act of teaching, although seemingly innocent
and devoid of ulterior motives, could also have been motivated by power
politics. Limiting what was taught, when, and to whom, served to empowered the
possessor of this special knowledge. If a person gave away all they knew, all at
once, they would no longer be of much value to their students or the larger
society. So by doling out knowledge in spoonfuls, a person confirmed and
strengthen their membership in society.
Rebuilding took place every time a clan relocated. Therefore, every time they
moved they symbolically recreated the universe at the new location. The building
and periodic rebuilding of the Big House represented the renewal of the cosmos.8 Repetition is an
extremely strong tool for indoctrination. By
repeating a symbolic, ritual action, the ideology behind the symbol becomes
absorbed into the unconscious thought patterns of the participants. By this
method, what were once consciously abstract ideas are transformed into concrete
In its earliest known form, the Big House had an arched roof supported by
saplings which were fixed in the ground, bent over and the other end planted in
the ground (fig.3). Each arched sapling, conveniently, created the Good White
Path in miniature. In the second half of the 19th century, the Big House took on
a gabled roof. The poles which formed the Big House's skeleton were tied with
strips of inner bark or root fibers in a cross pattern that represented the
"cosmic cross" and referred to the four cardinal points. These construction
elements, bent or tied wood, served the interests of several symbolic systems
simultaneously: the "Good White Path, the cosmic cross, and the four cardinal
points. Together, this set of symbols, corresponded with the ideas of "joining
or binding together," one of the major purposes of the Big House ceremony.9
ribs and poles were then covered with wide strips of bark, usually from elm
trees, that had been carefully removed in one piece. The removal of the bark
required concentration and great care in action. Here, even in a small way,
manipulation is further witnessed. By dictating that bark be used for covering
the Big House skeleton, the authorities created a set of
prescribed, focused symbolic actions that had to be repeated over and over again
by the builders. The bark pieces were held into place by external poles pressing
the bark against the interior poles. The bark is, was a sense, sandwiched
between two sets of poles. In its early barrel-roofed form, the Big House and
its bark covering may have symbolized the "cosmic tree."10
By about the year eighteen hundred, the Delaware began to extensively use log
construction and the best descriptions of the Big House we have from the early
twentieth century show a sophisticated use of log joinery, in which the cosmic
tree may have been symbolized through the elements rather than the overall form.11
stated in its origin myth, the Big House, and all that entered into it, had to
be pure. For this reason, no metal objects of any kind were allowed in the
construction or use of the Big House. No metal nails could be used in the
joining of structural members, but if nails were needed, bone pieces were used
in their place.
also could have been an attempt to put forth or further a wish to maintain the
use of only materials found natural in nature or to keep a form that could be
constructed independent of manufactured goods. In this way, the Delawares could
remain independent of whites and could take apart, move, and reconstruct the Big
House with relative ease. Worn out members could be
replaced at any time by the surrounding trees
and other natural resources.
also be speculated that this was another way to control the crowd. By requiring
that all participants remain clean and pure during the course of the ceremony,
coupled with the other symbolism in operation, a general attitude of reverence
could be obtained. This would be desirous to maintain conformity, consensus,
control, and peace. If participants were unbathed, and participating in secular
and/or lewd activities during the period set apart for the ceremony, the power
of the ceremony would be lessened. The Big House, its decorative symbols and the
ceremony would have difficulty in retaining meaning and, ultimately, power over
the members of the community.
walls, like the cross ties, represented the four cardinal points. The walls
created a closed, bounded space for the enactment of re-creating and sustaining
the cosmos. The Delaware indicated that, by the very nature of the world, all
humans were bound together by the four cardinal points. Dictating that the walls
of the Big House represent these four cardinal points, fell in line with the
notion of the Big House as a model of the recreated universe.
the main purposes for the Big House and its ceremony, in addition to its
intensive religious role, was to unite or bind the various clans and their
members together in a close spiritual, social, and political association. This
was accomplished not only by making use of the symbolism of the four
cardinal points, but also by creating a
structure that forced participants to face one another in a close narrow space
that was shut off from any outside distraction.
structure served to create harmony with the natural as well as the supernatural
world. The floor was made of well tamped dirt and represented the lesser deity,
or Manitou, of Mother Earth. The purpose of keeping the floor well tamped was to
prohibit the raising of dust. As mentioned in the origin myth of the Big House,
dirt and dust symbolized the impurity of the old evil time.
ceiling represented the sky, the domain of the "Elder Brothers" the sun and
moon. Only two holes pierced the ceiling, one above each of the two sacred
fires. Some scholars believe that the two fires and the two holes in the ceiling
indicated worship of the sun and moon. In his Semiotics, Preziosi
demonstrates how common many of the symbolic associations mentioned above are.
The ceiling of a structure is
simultaneously meaningful systemically, as a component in the formal
definition of a space cell, and may also be significant in a given corpus
sematectonically, as in the case where the ceiling of a house or temple is
intended to symbolize the heavens (in contrast to the walls, which may
symbolize four cardinal directions of the horizon, and in contrast to the
floor - paved or not paved which may symbolize the earth, the underworld,
and so forth)12
In order to physically and cognitively
separate the Big House from
other house forms, no internal decorations were allowed inside, except for
twelve faces carved on eleven poles, three on each side of the long walls,
two on each door way, and two faces carved on the center pole . These were
the faces of the lesser manitou as prescribed by the origin myth and were
ritually painted during the Big House Ceremony. These faces represented
the Seven Thunders, the Four Cardinal points and Mother Earth (The Seven
Thunders had features of both man and bird and provided rain for the crops
and protected man from water monsters. They were also in control of
Faces also represented an individual's personal manitou or spiritual guardian.
As part of tribal puberty rights, initiates go on a guest in which they
fasted and isolated themselves until they had a vision. In this vision, a
spirit, feeling pity for them in their hunger and isolation, would offer to
become their guardian. From that day forward, that spirit would be ever
present with the person. Thanks for guidance and protection was given to these
personal manitou at least once a year, usually at the Big House Ceremony.
center pole could have represented either the Great Manitou himself or else
the cosmic tree which reached up through the multilayered universe to the
Great Manitou. The cosmic tree was regarded by the Delaware much like many
other culture's "tree of life." This central pole was also referred to as the
"navel of the world." This "navel" belief was also common among the ancient
Conceived of mythic origin, and constructed according to symbolic rules, The Big
House was now ready to negotiate human action in order to illicit reflexive,
symbolic associations. Delaware society consisted of three clans or phratries:
Wolf, Tortoise, and Turkey. The Big House Ceremony was hosted by one clan or phratry who invited other neighboring phratries to participate. This was a way
of uniting the people for socialization. The Big House physically became the
center of all activity within the encampment. Visiting phratries set up camp
around the Big House and arranged themselves first by gender then by phratry.
This was reflexive of the real social structure in which men and women
participated in distinctly different work, were often physically separated due
to this differentiated work, and were symbolically endowed with different types
of spirituality. Women camped to the north and men to the south.14
This separation also symbolized the dictated celibacy of the participants.15
According to the myth, the past evil world was impure. In contrast, the
re-created cosmos, as represented by the Big House, was to be absent of all
impurities. Therefore anything that would taint a person was to be controlled.
Any uncontrollable impurities, such as menstruation, eliminated a person's
eligibility for participating in the ceremony. For this reason, sexual
abstinence was required and menstruating women were kept separate. The
segregation of men and women within the encampment symbolically guarded against
Within the Big House, fires were prepared and tended by the men. No women were
allowed inside until the fires were lit. Outside, women prepared the ceremonial
foods: corn mush, dried meats, and berries. They placed them in wooden bowls
accompanied by shell spoons.16
In preparation for the ceremony, women swept the Big House twelve times. The
number twelve played a major role in Delaware Indian belief. For them, the
universe consisted of twelve houses stacked one upon the other with the Great
Manitou residing in the twelfth and highest house. When entering the Big House,
the people envisioned themselves as passing through these twelve stacked houses.
Within the Big House structure, there were twelve faces carved on the eleven
poles. During the ceremony, dancers paused at each face and recited verses to
them. Between each dance, the Good White Path was swept twelve times with a
turkey feather. Prayers to the Manitou were always said twelve times. The Big
House Ceremony usually lasted twelve days.
purify the Big House and its inhabitants cedar leaves were
burned. Between dances, tobacco was smoked to
maintain purity and to please the manitou. The sensual burning of these organic
materials and the fragrant scents they created, symbolized the spiritual
purification of the participants and the building.
physical separation of gender and phratries in the encampment surrounding the
Big House was further maintained inside. Each phratry sat on the floor in a
special reserved area, within which women and men sat separately. Hierarchical
separation was also seen in that the hosting phratry's sachem (chief), the
Bringer-In, the caretakers, and drums (this is the term for both the instrument
and those who play them) occupied separate places of distinction. In a single,
largely undecorated room, without clear architectural divisions, the Delawares
framed themselves within their phratries and, within their phratries, within the
sexes. By this framing, they informed all others of their social affiliations.
animals that represented the phratries (Wolf, Turkey and Tortoise), were not
totemic in nature, rather they were seen as emblems or mascots. The Delawares
did not believe them to be their ancestors. They were chosen for specific
characteristics the Delawares revered. When different phratries came together
for the Big House Ceremony, they retained their separate identities by sitting
in different areas and displaying their phratry emblems.
Delaware society was matriarchal. The eldest mother was called chief maker,
because, although she herself, nor any woman, would ever rule, she appointed
chiefs and had the power to remove them.
A male could not marry a female of his same
Although each phratry retained their individual identities at the Big House
Ceremony, one of the ceremony's main functions was to unite the Delaware people.
They came together in spiritual oneness, for the purpose of thanking and
appeasing the manitou. Within the enclosed, bounded, unbroken space of the Big
House, they formed a single narrative of praise, and raised one voice in prayer
to deter future destructive forces.
ceremony commenced after the host gave a thanksgiving address. He then started
the first song and dance. The snapping turtle shell rattle stuffed with corn was
an important symbolic object within the Big House and the corresponding
ceremony. In later times, these rattles were hung from the rafters over the Good
White Path. These rattles were used by the leader of the dance as he recited his
puberty dream quest or vision.
Following the Good White Path, the dancers preceded counterclockwise to
replicate the movement of the sun from east to west. This left orientation was
also seen in everyday ritualized action. The left hand was holy while the right
was unholy. This movement to the left was also believed to represent the Indian
belief in life after death.
ceremony proceeded, the lead dancer stopped at each of the carved posts and
recited their vision while mimicking the actions of their personal
guardian-spirit or Manitou. This is an interesting element of the ceremony and
Delaware belief, for the dancer came face to face with their gods and gave
testimony to spiritual transformation.
The dance and song were individual creations. No one there, but the gods, knew
whether what the dancers said in his/her song actually occurred. The songs were
invented by the dancer. There may have been a set range of styles that were
considered appropriate for this recitation, but the final construction was
solely up to the individual.
dancers made their way around the "Path", all in the Big House remained
standing, and many joined the dancer. While the dancer exposed the intimate
details of his/her puberty rites, he/she was visibly and symbolically supported
by the standing audience, the dancers who had joined his/her side in the dance,
and the receptive eyes of the manitou he/she faced at each verse's recitation.
Segregation of gender was maintained in one of two ways. Either the women danced
in a cluster as they made their way around or they danced in a separate circle
from the men.
In between dances, the Good White Path was swept, by both men and women, twelve
times with turkey feathers. During these intermissions, tobacco was smoked to
please the manitou, the fires were tended by male caretakers and cedar leaves
were burned. Also at this time, the bowls of corn mush, dried meat and berries
were passed counterclockwise about the Big House. Each person took but one
spoonful of the food, so that all could, and would, share the ritual ceremonial
the course of the ceremony, the rattle was passed around and any male who wished
to recite his vision and dance could take up the rattle. The dances continued
way into the night until no one else wished to take up the rattle. The
participants then filed out the west door, raised their arms towards the heavens
and prayed twelve times in unison to the Great Manitou. After this prayer, a
great feast was held back inside the Big House.
On the final night of the ceremony, women could dance and recite their visions.
This segment began when the women entered the house from the east carrying
wooden bowls of grease paint. They painted the men's cheeks red and black. The
men then rose and painted the carved faces on the poles half red and half black.18 This part of the
ceremony was a later addition and represented the "False Being." It was said
that in a dream, a certain man of visions saw a powerful manitou whose face was
half red and half black and whose mouth was bizarrely fashioned. This false
being represented a powerful evil force. The man traveled to the east and saw
the creature, returned home, and cut a mask from a tree in the image of the
spirit he had seen. It was felt that something terrible would occur if they did
not let the "False Being" into the Big House and if they did not pay him
respect. This "False Being" was believed to represent the white settlers. The
red half of the face represented the Indians while the black represented the
evil, impure white man. Many believed that letting the "False Being" into the
Big House led to the decline and decay of Indian spirituality and culture.
the ceremony, one of the hosting participants acted out the part of the False
Being. He was the only person in the Big House who wore a costume that masked
his identity. His costume consisted of a floor length fur coat, bear skin
stockings, a great wooden face that was painted half red and half black and
carved with exaggerated mouth. He carried a tortoise rattle and at no time let
any part of his real body be seen. Ironically enough, the role of the "False
Being" was to rid the ceremony of those who were impure.
end of the ceremony, the chief gave an arms length of strung wampum (beads that
functioned as money and were considered to be the heart of the Delaware) to
those who assisted in the ceremony. A bowl of loose wampum was passed around and
each participant took two wampum beads. When they exited the Big House for the
final time, they placed the two wampum beads in their mouth as they chanted
their final prayer. This was believed to represent the Delaware putting their
hearts in their mouth and praying from their hearts. The distribution of wampum
also represented a distribution of wealth. It also indicated that there was a
need for such a distribution. There must have been varying levels of wealth and
power within the tribe.
final acts of the Big House Ceremony entailed closing or sealing the cosmos as
represented in the Big House. The fires were extinguished, first the eastern
fire and then the western fire. The ashes from the fires were thrown out the
Big House Ceremony was usually performed once a year, unless calamity occurred
or seemed eminent, and then it would be performed as often as needed. In later
years, the role of the Big House was expanded to include other religious
ceremonies such as male puberty endurance tests. These consisted of bringing
another symbolically highly packed structure, the sweat lodge, into the Big
House. On these occasions, a symbolic structure was used to house another
symbolic structure. But as time passed, the sacred use of the Big House was
expanded further to include political activities. When it became a common
meeting place for the tribal council, it was then that the previously subtle
representation of political authority seen during the Big House Ceremonies
became blatantly obvious.
Delaware Big House functioned semiotically and symbolically on three levels:
conception, construction, and use. The Delaware Big House existed first in myth.
There are many examples of mythic architecture that remained bound within
language. Streets of gold, castles in the air, and emerald cities can serve
symbolic functions without ever having to be built. The Delaware Big House,
acted out an entire level of encoded messages before a branch was cut.
the Big House was transformed from myth into reality, it could have been framed
solely by its symbolic imagery and viewed passively as a work of sculpture, such
as in the case of the shrine or memorial. But it was more than a shrine or three
dimensional piece of sculpture, it was a machine that stimulated and
accommodated symbolic interaction. As such, it became reinterpreted, along with
the sights, sounds, smells, jesters, costumes, and narratives of the ceremony
back into imagination through experience.
Big House naturally fit into the symbolic concepts within the Delawares' world
view. The Big House brought the Delawares' symbolically created social,
political, and religious worlds together, to function in unison. This concert of
symbolism, made visible the world and life of the Delawares.
1 The exact age of the Big House
Ceremony is unknown. The descriptions which follow are summarized from sources
dating between the late nineteenth century and lasting until the 1920's.
Babcock, Barbara. Reflexivity. In The Encyclopedia of Religion, ed.
M. Eliade, vol.12, pp. 234-238. New York: Macmillan, 1984.
Sullivan, Lawrence E., ed.,
American Religions: North America.
New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987.
Bogatyrev, Peter. "Costume as a Sign." in Semiotics of Art: Prague School
Contributions, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1976, p. 14.
C. A. Weslager.
Indians: A History. New Jersey:
Rutgers University Press, 1972, p.492.
6 Goffman, Erving,
Boston Frame Analysis: An Essay on the
Organization of Experiencen3:
Northeastern University Press,1974.
Nabokov, Peter and Robert Easton. Native American Architecture. New
York: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 88.
8 Nabokov and Easton.
9 Nabokov. Architecture,
pp. 16- 40.
11 Goddard, Ives. "Delaware." in
Handbook of North
American Indian., Vol.15,
Northeast, Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978, pp. 229-230.
12 Preziosi, Donald.
The Semiotics of the Built Environment: An
Introduction to Architectonic Analysis.,
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979, p.63.
Architecture., p. 38.
14 Newcomb, William W. Jr. "The
Culture and Acculturation of the Delaware Indians",
No. 10, Museum of Anthropology, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1956.
17. Bleeker. Delaware Indians. p.103.
Delaware Street Rag by
First Song: XENGWIKÁON [A Story]
Verse VII: Big House
The most controversial element of Mary's [Mary Zeigler's] unorthodox
historical geography was her contention that the Lenape Big House, the
Xengwikáon, came into existence at the time of contact with Finns. The
Xengwikáon was the most important ceremonial structure of the Lenape
people. It was, as the English translation implies, a very large
ceremonial house. It was made of notched logs. The Big House was a
double log cabin with two openings in the roof. Few Lenape have ever
claimed the log version of the Big House existed before European
contact. Yet Mary discovered there was virtually nothing in the academic
literature or in Lenape oral traditions concerning the origins of the
Big House itself. Lenape mythology did, however, have a lot to say about
the origins of many ceremonial practices, elements of which clearly
dated back into the depths of their cultural memory. This large log
cabin adopted as a religious site was simply dismissed as mere copying
of pioneer log churches. That was about as ludicrous, and as easy to
disprove, as the
notion that Vikings had brought the sweat lodge to America. Mary found
documentation that strongly indicated at least some of the Finns and
Lenape found common ground in their ways of worship. Old colonial
records in Swedish archives, and other evidence in the folklife studies
of Finland, convinced her that the Big House phenomenon represented a
significant transformation of the traditional Lenape belief system to
accomodate the ways their world was being impacted by the coming of the
Euros. The Big House had remained the central focus of most Lenape
spiritual life until well after they moved to Kansas. She argued, much
to the chagrin of many scholars and more than a few Lenape, that many of
the Big House ceremonies had originated in the period when the influence
of the Finns was at its peak. The Big House was the place where
Fenno-Lenape cultural beliefs had blissfully cohabited.
Mary knew that the meeting
of these two peoples had occasioned a major upheaval in both their
lives. That should be obvious to anyone. Yet in most instances these
contacts had resulted in what was undoubtedly one of the most compatible
and mutually beneficial encounters in the history of Indian White
relations. That circumstance alone would have provided ample reason to
rethink and reshape the spiritual content of their lives. The Big House
ceremony, in Mary's eyes at least, was intimately associated with the
adoption of log cabins as the primary Lenape house type. But the log
house was only the symbolic center of a much wider and more profound
shift in both Lenape and Finnish cultural meaning and values. Both
cultures were in a fluid state of profound changes. The new habits and
habitations were intimately linked to modifications in traditional
gardening and hunting habits. Life changed dramatically for the Finns
after they settled among the Lenape. It was only natural that these two
peoples would create a ceremonial center that reflected elements of this
cultural union. It was equally certain that the Finns who had been under
constant pressure to abandon their shamanistic beliefs and practices
would keep this out of view of the Swedish colonial authorities. Mary
says that the firestorm her theory generated was not what she was
expecting. But knowing Mary I suspect she anticipated the outrage and
felt compelled to present her work anyway.
* * *
THE COSMIC SYMBOLISM OF THE DELAWARE (LENAPE) CULTIC
(Frank G. Speck, A Study of the Delaware Indians Big
House Ceremony, Publications of the Pennsylvania Historical
Commission, vol. 2 (Harrisburg, 1931).)
The Big House stands for the Universe; its floor, the earth; its four
walls, the four quarters; its vault, the sky dome, atop which resides the
Creator in his indefinable supremacy. To use Delaware expressions, the Big
House being the universe, the centre post is the staff of the Great Spirit
with its foot upon the earth, its pinnacle reaching to the hand of the
Supreme Deity. The floor of the Big House is the flatness of the earth
upon which sit the three grouped divisions of mankind, the human social
groupings in their appropriate places; the eastern door is the point of
sunrise where the. day begins and at the same time the symbol of
termination; the north and south walls assume the meaning of respective
horizons; the roof of the temple is the visible sky vault. The ground
beneath the Big House is the realm of the underworld while above the roof
lie the extended planes or levels, twelve in number, stretched upward to
the abode of the 'Great Spirit, even the Creator,' as Delaware form puts
it. Here we might speak of the carved face images. . . . the
representations on the centre pole being the visible symbols of the
Supreme Power, those on the upright posts, three on the north wall and
three on the south wall, the manitu of these respective zones; those on
the eastern and western door posts, those of the east and west. . . . But
the most engrossing allegory of all stands forth in the concept of the
White Path, the symbol of the transit of life, which is met in the oval,
hard-trodden dancing path outlined on the floor of the Big House, from the
east door passing to the right down the north side past the second fire to
the west door and doubling back on the south side of the edifice around
the eastern fire to its beginning. This is the path of life down which man
winds his way to the western door where all ends. Its correspondent
exists, I assume, in the Milky Way, where the passage of the soul after
death continues in the spirit realm. As the dancers in the Big House
ceremony wend their stately passage following the course of the White Path
they 'push something along,' meaning existence, with their rhythmic tread.
Not only the passage of life, but the journey of the soul after death is
symbolically figured in the ceremony.
* * *
The Creator, the Big House, and Lenape Spirituality
(By Toni L. Nuosce, Student, Kent State University Stark Campus November
Imagine if you can a world
sanctified and respected on a daily basis, in fact imagine that we all
believed that the Earth is our true Mother. To go even a step further,
imagine believing that there is no separation between people and the land
upon which they lived. Wouldn’t we try like mad to keep "her" safe and
away from harm? Wouldn’t we praise our Mother Earth and her creator by
believing every little thing that has been created should be loved and
handled as if it were a newborn child? The Lenape tribes believe this and
their religion is based on the Creator, the giver of all land. Because the
Lenape’s are a very gracious people, they built their temple, the Big
House, to express their gratitudes and spiritual visions.
The Lenape’s, or "True Men", believe
they are created from the earth and pay their respects and deep loyalties
to it’s Creator. An established American Indian author Hitakonanulaxk, of
the book The Grandfathers Speak, describes his people best by
expressing a popular saying they recite, "We do not own the land, we are
of the land, we belong to it" (Hitakonanulaxk 2). With this extraordinary
attitude comes the building of the Big House. The Big House for the
Lenapes would be like a church for the Christians, or for the Jews a
synagogue, yet by any means it is a place to worship and give thanks for
all they possess, materially and spiritually.
The Big House’s structure is extremely
and thoughtfully symbolic. This is not simply four walls, a dirt floor,
and a roof where people come to worship, everything has meaning. Only
materials from Mother Nature are used in the construction of this highly
symbolic place of worship. Robert S. Grumet’s, The Lenapes,
detailed description of the Big House makes it’s symbolism visual, "The
floor was the earth. The roof represented the heavens. The central post,
decorated with carvings of Mesingw, is a vertical shaft connecting the
earth with the upper and lower worlds (Grumet 77 & 78). Mesingw is a
series of twelve carvings believed to be the deliverers of prayer to the
The number twelve is also symbolic,
because of the belief that the Creator dwells in the twelfth heaven, the
highest heaven above the Earth. Due to the significance of the number
twelve, the ceremonies in The Big House last twelve days. During these
twelve days the Lenapes give thanks and praise to the Creator. Frank G.
Speck, author of, Oklahoma Delaware Ceremonies, Feasts, and
Dances, enlightens us with a clear description of the Lenape’s need
for creating the Big House, "The infallible Father and Creator seated in
the twelfth heaven above, in his beneficence toward man is believed to
yearn for the voiced recognition of his creatures as they pay their
devoirs to him - his human children gathered to celebrate the twelve day
ceremony of the Big House" (Speck 154). They believe that the Creator
desires to hear their praises and they, being devoted to the Creator and
the ceremonies in the Big House, without hesitation offer "him" a special
place where they pay homage to the Creator for everything he provides
The need for the Big House as a
sanctuary to praise the Creator is of extreme importance to the Lenapes
because they feel one with the earth and believe it necessary to respect
all inhabitants and creations. They believe that paying their respects to
the Creator in this holy place will bring them the essentials they need
for daily living. The Creator provides them with the bare necessities in
life, such as animals for food, rivers for drink, and air to breathe in
order to maintain life. Due to the these facts comes the symbolic
structure of the Big House, by virtue of design, the Big House is not
looked upon as a physical structure but a representation of the universe.
The Lenapes are a strong people
connected to the earth, seas, heavens, and winds. For all of their
spiritual guidance they receive from Mother Earth and the Creator, they
believe in praising them for all that they offer. I would like to close
with a beautiful quote from a true Native American Indian, Hitakonanulaxk.
Hitakonanulaxk speaks a final thought
that will hopefully create a lasting impression on Lenape spirituality,
"Our Creator, he made no mistakes. It is not much different than if one
considers the heart being where it is in the body and not in the head
where the brain is. The heart is where it is for a reason, and this can
also be said of a people. The function of the heart in the body is
analogous to the religion and ceremonies of a people. Our spirituality,
our religion, is our heartbeat, and our culture and traditions, our life’s
blood" ( 3 ).
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