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A Nation of Women

Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians

By Gunlog Fur

Publication Year: 2011

A Nation of Women chronicles changing ideas of gender and identity among the Delaware Indians from the mid-seventeenth through the eighteenth century, as they encountered various waves of migrating peoples in their homelands along the eastern coast of North America.

In Delaware society at the beginning of this period, to be a woman meant to engage in the activities performed by women, including diplomacy, rather than to be defined by biological sex. Among the Delaware, being a "woman" was therefore a self-identification, employed by both women and men, that reflected the complementary roles of both sexes within Delaware society. For these reasons, the Delaware were known among Europeans and other Native American groups as "a nation of women."

Decades of interaction with these other cultures gradually eroded the positive connotations of being a nation of women as well as the importance of actual women in Delaware society. In Anglo-Indian politics, being depicted as a woman suggested weakness and evil. Exposed to such thinking, Delaware men struggled successfully to assume the formal speaking roles and political authority that women once held. To salvage some sense of gender complementarity in Delaware society, men and women redrew the lines of their duties more rigidly. As the era came to a close, even as some Delaware engaged in a renewal of Delaware identity as a masculine nation, others rejected involvement in Christian networks that threatened to disturb the already precarious gender balance in their social relations.

Drawing on all available European accounts, including those in Swedish, German, and English, Fur establishes the centrality of gender in Delaware life and, in doing so, argues for a new understanding of how different notions of gender influenced all interactions in colonial North America.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies

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pp. vii-viii

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...

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Introduction: “We Are But a Women Nation”

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pp. 1-13

“We are but a women nation,” explained a young Delaware man in 1758 to a visiting delegation from the Pennsylvania colonial government, and presented three strings of white wampum signifying the peaceful intent of Minisink Delawares living north of the Delaware Water Gap. ...

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1. The Power of Life: Gender and Organization in Lenape Society

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pp. 15-50

In 1624, in perhaps the earliest European account of encounters with Lenapes, Nicolaes van Wassenaer related with awe that the people followed closely the movements of the celestial bodies. The first full moon following the end of winter occasioned special celebration. ...

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2. Living Traditions in Times of Turmoil: Meniolagomekah

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pp. 51-100

While contacts between Lenapes, now called Delawares, and colonists increased after the turn of the century, daily lives and experiences among Indians remain as elusive as ever. Colonial records are rife with minutes from councils held between various Indians and white diplomats. ...

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3. Powerful Women: Disruptive and Disorderly Women

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pp. 101-126

The women in Meniolagomekah made it abundantly clear that they were deeply involved in the well-being of their families and that this concern formed a powerful foundation for their relationships with the missionaries. Yet for Delaware women, just as for other Native women, the missionary contact was entangled in a troublesome paradox...

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4. Mapping the Future: Women and Visions

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pp. 127-159

Delaware interaction with Moravian missions was at its most intense in the period between the late 1740s and the massacre of some ninety unarmed Christian Delawares in the town of Gnadenhütten, Ohio, in 1782. These relations, which tied into the spiritual responsibilities that women shouldered...

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5. Metaphors and National Identity: Delawares-as-Women

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pp. 160-198

A pivotal moment in the practice of designating the Delaware people as women took place at the statehouse in Philadelphia in July 1742. This event illustrates the stakes involved in the usage of this description and consequently it has also been central to scholarly interpretations. ...

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6. What the Hermit Saw: Change and Continuity in the History of Gender and Encounters

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pp. 199-210

This chronicle of change from independence in the production of all necessities of life to dependence upon European wares, which occurred in the lifetime of one woman, illustrates the gendered nature of colonization. The story may be read as a mythic tale of great depth and significance for the people involved...

List of Abbreviations

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pp. 211-212


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pp. 213-241


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pp. 243-248


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pp. 249-251

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201994
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812222050

Page Count: 264
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Early American Studies