Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Dickon Among the Lenapes

As part of my project of re-reading books I liked as a kid, I recently read The Indians of New Jersey: Dickon Among the Lenapes, by M. R. Harrington (© 1938).  It tells the story of an English boy, Dickon, who gets shipwrecked on the Atlantic coast in 1612, and is rescued by the local Leni Lenape Indians.  He begins as a captive, but is eventually adopted by the tribe.

I think what I liked about this book as a kid was the sense of agency and purpose that young Dickon had.  The Indians taught Dickon how to do all kinds of useful things: to hunt and gather and cook the proceeds; to make his own clothes, cooking pots, weapons, and musical instruments; even to build a house!

Reading this again as an adult, I notice how progressive the tribal customs were.  When Dickon kills his first deer, he brings it back in triumph to his household.
Thunder-Arrow [who will become Dickon's adoptive father] turned to me.
"Do you know", he asked, "what a boy is supposed to do with his first deer?"

"Certainly.  He is supposed to take it home to his family and then help them eat it."

"Ma-ta-ka.  Not at all.  If it is a buck, he must give it to an old man; if it is a doe, to some old woman."
You can see this as a kind of Social Security tax; the young able hunters must contribute to the elderly, who are losing the ability to hunt for themselves.  Similarly, Dickon is surprised to find that after a fishing expedition nets about twenty shad, the man in charge keeps only a few for his own family and gives the rest away to other members of the tribe.  (Can you imagine Donald Trump doing such a thing?)

The tribe is matrilineal; clan membership passes through the mother, so a father and his children actually belong to different clans.  Women also own property, to Dickon's surprise:
[Roaring-Wings, the Lenape doctor, says]: "The woman really owns her house, though, and its furnishings.  She owns the crops which she raises in her garden and even the meat and the skins which the man brings in after they have been turned over to her."

"What, then, does a man own?" I demanded.

"Hoh! A man needs little.  Just his clothes, his weapons, his fishing gear, his tools, and his medicines -- maybe also a bed mat!"

This all seemed to me very strange, for in England the man owns everything, the woman usually next to nothing.

Overachiever's footnote:  here is yet another great example of the pointlessness of "text-to-self".  This was one of my favorite books as a kid, and it certainly wasn't because it related directly to my daily life.