Creation Stories

Nanticoke and Lenape Creation Stories


It must be stated that there are differing Nanticoke and Lenape creation stories that are well documented to the 17th and 18th centuries. Sadly, some that are being widely circulated today in modern publications are not historic, but are the modern invention of cultural enthusiasts and not the product of an authentic tribal community’s tradition. Those collected here are from historically well documented tribal communities…


Of the historically documented accounts, one of the earliest recorded tells of how a Lenape Elder answered the inquiry of a Dutchman who wanted to know where the Lenape People came from… He was silent for a little while, either as if unable to climb up at once so high with his thoughts, or to express them without help, and then took a piece of coal out of the fire where he sat, and began to write upon the floor. He first drew a circle, a little oval, to which he made four paws or feet, a head and a tail. “This,” he said, “is a tortoise, lying in the water around it,” and he moved his hand round the figure continuing, “This was or is all water, and so at first was the world or the earth, when the tortoise gradually raised its round back up high, and the water ran off of it, and thus the earth became dry.” He then took a little straw and placed it on end in the middle of the figure and proceeded, “The earth was now dry, and there grew a tree in the middle of the earth, and the root of this tree sent forth a sprout beside it, and there grew upon it a man, who was the first male. This man was then alone, and would have remained alone; but the tree bent over until its top touched the earth, and there shot therein another root, from which came forth another sprout, and there grew upon it the woman, and from these two are all men produced.” [Jaspar Dankers & Peter Sluyter, Journal Of A Voyage To New York In 1679-80.]


The following retelling pulls from traditional elements that are common in several of the most well known, and historically well documented, accounts of Northeastern Woodlands and Algonkian stories. While the origin of the inclusion of the role of “Muskrat” is unclear, and may be a “borrowed feature” from another tribal cultures and not originally told by the ancient Lenape… it is an old addition, becoming a traditional element for some tribal communities over the generations. “Muskrat” is included in a similar story among the Seneca that is recorded by Arthur C. Parker [Seneca Myths and Folk Tales. Buffalo: Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, v. 27, 1923. pp. 59-73]. It has also been reported as an element included in stories of the Onondaga, Mohawk, Ojibway/Anishinabe, Potawatomi and others. This retelling, which is one of the versions currently told among the Nanticoke-Lenape tribal communities of the Delaware Bay region, also includes the role of Muskrat, which is recorded to have traditionally been an animal of some mythological significance among the Nanticoke, as documented by James Athearn Jones [Traditions of the North American Indians: Tales of an Indian Camp, vol.II. London: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, 1830. pp. 49-91].


After the Great Spirit and creator of all, “He-Who-Creates-Us-By-Thought,” brought the world into being, there came a time very long ago when the animals were living in deep water with no dry land. They grew weary of being wet and wanted to find a way to bring up the mud from under the water. From the greatest to the least, each one dove under the water. One by one they tried to dive deep enough to bring up some of the mud. And, one by one, they failed, being unable to dive so deep and so long. It seemed as though none could bring up the mud from the bottom. All came back to the surface, gasping for air. It seemed an impossible task, for none was willing to risk their life to bring up the mud. Finally, after all the others had tried and failed, humble Muskrat took his turn. Muskrat dove deep and was under the water for a very long, long time. The other animals feared that Muskrat had drowned, for he stayed below the water much longer than any of them had. When Muskrat finally came back up to the surface, he was exhausted and close to death. The animals saw that there was a clump of mud scraped from the bottom in Muskrat’s paw. Humble Muskrat had risked his life to dive deeper than any of them had in order to bring the mud up from the bottom. “He-Who-Creates-Us-By-Thought” summoned Turtle to the surface of the water and placed the mud from Muskrat’s paw upon the back of Turtle. “He-Who-Creates-Us-By-Thought” caused the mud to grow, covering Turtle’s back. As Turtle continued to raise his back, more water drained off and the mud that grew and grew became dry, becoming the land. And the animals had dry land to live upon. One day, in the middle of the land upon Turtle’s back, there grew a tree. From that tree grew a shoot. And, from that shoot sprouted a man. The Man would have been all alone, but then the tree grew another shoot. And, from that shoot sprouted a woman. This was the first man and the first woman. They are the ancestors of us all.


A further illustration of the variety of historically well documented creation stories among the Lenape is the following version reported to be from the Munsee-Lenape as recorded by the Reverend John Heckewelder (c.1780) [History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States. Philadelphia: The Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1876. p.250]…


“The Minsi…say that in the beginning, they dwelt in the earth under a lake, and were fortunately extricated from this unpleasant abode by the discovery which one of their men made of a hole, through which he ascended to the surface; on which, as he was walking, he found a deer, which he carried back with him into his subterraneous habitation; that there the deer was killed, and he and his companions found the meat so good, that they unanimously determined to leave their dark abode, and remove to a place where they could enjoy the light of heaven and have such excellent game in abundance.”


By the late 18th century, George Henry Loskiel provides information that demonstrates a common influence for the Iroquois and Munsee as he reports that “…the Iroquois say, that the Indians formerly lived under ground, but hearing accidentally of a fine country above, they left their subterranean habitations, and took possession of the surface.” Giving further evidence of the variety of creation stories, he also reports that…


The Delawares say, that the heavens are inhabited by men, and that the Indians descended from them to inhabit the earth: That a pregnant woman had been put away by her husband, and thrown down upon the earth, where she was delivered of twins, and thus by degrees the earth was peopled. The Nanticoks [sic] pretend, that seven Indians had found themselves all on a sudden sitting on the sea-coast, but knew not how they came there, whether they were created on the spot, or came from some other place beyond the seas, and that by these the country was peopled. [George Henry Loskiel.  A History of the Mission of the United Brethren Among the Indians in North America, Part 1. London: The Bretheren Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel, 1794. p.24]