A Great Book You’ve Never Heard of

When I was growing up, my dad had a huge tome with a mysterious title stuck among the “big kids” children’s books that were just barely too old for us. Eventually I did tackle the big book, and found a whole new world opening before me.

Our edition was called Dickon of the Lenni Lenape.

(The original 1938 edition was called Dickon among the Indians. It’s now available on Kindle and in paperback, and being called The Indians of New Jersey: Dickon among the Lenape, by Professor Mark Harrington. It’s a little pricey, but the gorgeous drawings are there, and the book is otherwise unobtainium.)

Basically, it’s a fictional version of a capture narrative. It was very common for people who survived being captured by Indians to write down the story of their experience, and to include a lot of anthropological information as part of the story. Professor M.R. Harrington, an anthropology guy, just decided to present his Lenape collection of legend and lore with the capture narrative as a frame.

In this case, Dickon is a kid who gets shipwrecked in New Jersey’s wild wilderness. The Lenape (often called Delaware) capture him, mistreat him for a bit, and then decide that they should let a childless old woman adopt him, in order to provide her with a servant. But since Dickon is a kid who is brave and quick to learn, most of the tribe gradually starts treating him like a Lenape. (Which is not unrealistic, depending on the tribe.) He makes friends, gets sent on a spirit journey, and learns the skills of a Lenape man. (And since this is being written by an anthropologist, of course Dickon finds out quite a bit about the women’s way of life too, courtesy of working for his old lady “mother.”) There’s even a little touch of teenage romance.

There is a lot of survival knowledge presented in this book, too. (Albeit there may be better ways to do some of these things; but what’s presented is is the Lenape way of the period.)

Kids love this book. Some teachers in New Jersey used to read it to their fourth graders, apparently. But it’s good for adults too. You will learn a lot, and it’s great for knowing how Algonkian/Woodland tribes lived. If you read about other Woodland tribes or about the Lenape in other places and times, this will give you a wonderful foundation, so you’ll know what the heck people are talking about.

Now, here’s the amazing part. There’s a sequel! I never knew there was a sequel!

The Iroquois Trail: Dickon among the Onondagas and Seneca by Professor M. R. Harrington brings Dickon back, on a quest to find his Lenape brother, Little Bear, who has been captured and carried off by a raiding party. Yup, it’s those darned Iroquois Confederacy guys. (The seven tribes of the Confederacy basically tried to take over all the European fur trade, on the provider side, by killing or driving out all the tribes that lived in the Northeast, from the coast to Ohio and Kentucky. They tended to do a lot of long-term torture and had other unlovely attitudes toward outsiders, so you can see where they don’t have a good rep with other tribes. Having a great system of government doesn’t really show in the day to day experience of people with them.) They spoke languages that weren’t related much to Algonkian; their closest “relatives” were the Dakota/Sioux out west. They also had totally different lifeways and beliefs, but incorporated a lot of the “Mississippian” stuff that had come north from Mexico, and which was also seen in ancient Cahokia, and down south among the Creeks and other tribes.

I haven’t read this book, but I expect that it is also amazing. The Confederacy was not all bad, after all, and they were a great inspiration to early American writers. Iroquois people have done some great stuff since they accepted Christianity and gave up all the torture magic. But I suspect that just as the characters will now be older teenagers or adults, the age for reading this book will have to be older too.

Lenape, Onondaga, and Seneca stores online sell these books with pride. So it’s not just me recommending them!

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Filed under History, Recommendations

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