Pale-face scholars have long theorized about the origin of the American Indian. Some have held that the first humans on this continent arrived here from Asian via the Bering Straits; others have tried to explain their ethnology on the basis of cataclysmic geological eruptions which distorted the ball of earth and separated the mass of land into continents, thus trapping men wherever they dwelled, imprisoning them between the seas. Several reputable scholars held that the American Indian was one of the lost tribes of Israel, transplanted here by supernatural powers, just as Moses and his followers crossed the Red Sea.
But what did the Indians have to say about it? Particularly those Indians who lived in our Berks and Lehigh Valleys, the Lenni Lenape, known to the English as the Delawares, what was their version?
Two Moravians missionaries knew these tribes very well. They were John Gottlieb Heckwelder and Christopher Prylaeus, both operating from Bethlehem during our colonial period. Prylaeus received his instruction in Indian language and lore from Conrad Weiser, making his home at the Weiser cabin, near Womelsdorf, for several months while he learned at the feet of the veteran Indian agent, Weiser. These men have recorded many details about Indian customs, religion and language and they give to us what the Delawares believed about their own origins.
Came from Earth’s Interior?
The Indian believed that his forebears emerged, somehow, from the interior of the earth. Rabbits, foxes and groundhogs, animals that burrowed holes, were relatives and the Redmen eschewed eating the flesh of these animals. While the various tribes held different versions as to how their progenitors had crawled out of the bowels of the earth, there was common agreement that they came from the nether regions.
There were three major subdivisions of the Lenni Lenapes, or the Delawares: viz: the Minsi, or Wolk tribe, the Unamis, or Tortois tribe, and the Unalachittigos, or Turkey tribe. Of these only the Minsi had a definite version of the emergence.
According to Minsi mythology the Indians lived under a lake, deep in the earth; one of their men found a hole through which he ascended to the surface and found solid land. While walking he found a dead deer, and shouldering his burden he carried it back into the subterranean abode of his fellow tribesmen. There the deer was eaten. The other Indians found the meat so delicious that they followed the discoverer to the surface of the earth “where they could enjoy the light of heaven and have such excellent game in abundance.”
Similar traditions were found among the Iroquois and mid-western Indians.
Reader, before you scoff too much, reread the first paragraph and then decide where and when you will raise an eyebrow.