Friday, July 15, 2016

The Delaware's Annual Big House Ceremony

The Northeastern Woodland tribes observed many common festivals and ceremonies such as the maple, planting, and green corn festivals, but many tribes, including the Delaware, had an annual religious ceremony that differed from those of other tribes. The Delaware’s supreme annual religious service was the Big House Ceremony, in which they worshiped and reestablished their moral relationship with their Great Spirit, Manitou.

Big House Ceremony

Big House sketch from Conner Prairie.
The Delaware had a temple, called the Big House, which symbolized the universe and was used exclusively for this annual ceremony. They believed that the universe consisted of 12 houses stacked one upon the other, with Manitou residing in the 12th and highest house. When the people entered the Big House, they visualized themselves as passing through these twelve stacked houses to come before the great deity. Therefore they believed that everyone who entered the Big House and everything used in it had to be pure. No metal objects of any kind were allowed in the Big House, and ritually impure persons, such as menstruating women, were denied entry.

Forty feet long, 14 feet high, and 24 feet wide, the building originally resembled a longhouse in form and construction, with its front facing east and its rear facing west. By the early 1800s it was often built of logs or boards, with gabled ends. The eastern door, facing the direction of the rising sun and moon, represented the beginning of everything. The western door, which faced the setting of the sun and moon, symbolized both the end of everything and the Good White Path, which one travels from birth to death. The building’s hard-tamped floor represented the lesser manitou, Mother Earth, and the underworld; its four walls, the four cardinal directions; and its vault, the sky’s dome, the domain of the Elder Brothers, sun and moon. Two smoke holes were located in the roof, one above each of the two sacred fires.

The great central post supporting the roof’s ridge pole represented Manitou’s staff, on which his hand rested and through which he transmitted power to the Delaware. A carved face hung on its east and west sides. A single smaller carved face also decorated the 6 smaller posts that supported the roof along the building’s north and south sides as well as the posts of the 2 doors. These faces weren’t the object of worship, but simply served as channels for worship. All of them were painted red on the right side and black on the left, with red symbolizing life and black, death.

The leader, or “Bringer-in,” managed every aspect of the ceremony. The 6 ceremonial attendants he appointed—1 man and 1 woman from each of the tribe’s 3 divisions, Wolf, Turkey, and Turtle—camped in tents on the square yard at the eastern end of the Big House, the men on the north and the women on the south side during the 12 days of the ceremony. On the first night the 3 male attendants built two fires of elmwood using the sacred fire drill reserved for that purpose. When the fires were lit the 3 female attendants entered and swept turkey wing fans on both sides of the fires 12 times to banish all dirt and evil influences from the building and to open a road to heaven. Two guards were stationed outside the building.

Sketch from The Magic Moccasins by Jane Barks Ross.
For the ceremony, all the people, including visitors, camped outside the Big House beyond the attendants’ tents, arranged by gender, tribal division, and sex. During the day the people spent their time in games and other activities, and the women cooked the hominy, corn mush, meat, and berries for the nightly feasts in large kettles as well as food for daily meals. When it came time for the ceremony, adults and children old enough to stay quiet entered the Big House by the eastern door, dressed in their finest clothing. Everyone sat in separate sections according to their tribal division, with the men and women seated separately within their sections. The Bringer-In or leader, the attendants, and the drummers occupied separate places of distinction. Two drummers began the ceremony by beating on a rolled up deer hide on which wooden slats were tied. This was followed by a long prayer of thanksgiving to Manitou.

Dreams and visions are very important among the native peoples, and the first 11 nights of the ceremony were devoted primarily to reciting visions as a form of worship. The Bringer-in began the service by chanting his story while dancing and shaking a turtle shell rattle, accompanied by the singers and drummers. One at a time other mature men took turns  reciting their visions and leading the songs and dances. The hard-trodden dancing path that led counterclockwise from the east door down the north side, past the fires to the west door, then doubled back on the south side to its beginning symbolized the Good White Path, down which man winds his way to the western door where all ends. Dancers paused at each carved face to recite verses to them. Between the dances both men and women swept the Good White Path twelve times with turkey wings, recited prayers to the Manitou twelve times, and smoked tobacco. Bowls of food were passed around counterclockwise, with each person taking only one spoonful so everyone could share. The dances continued until no one else wished to take up the rattle and recite their vision.

On the 4th day, ceremonial hunters went out, and that night the Mask Being, or Misinghalikun, the creator and keeper of game animals, appeared to lead the Mask Spirit Dance. The person impersonating him appeared frightening and imposing wearing a floor-length bearskin coat and a great wooden face painted red on the right side and black on the left and carrying a stick, a turtle-shell rattle, and a bearskin bag. Around the 6th or 7th day the hunters returned, bringing in more meat for the nightly feasts.

On the 9th night the fires were allowed to go out. The ashes were carried out the Big House’s western door, and new fires were kindled with the sacred fire drill. The carved images in the Big House and the face images on the drumsticks received a fresh coat of paint. Then the cheeks and foreheads of the participants were rubbed with red in a sacred rite of consecration.

On the final night of the ceremony, the women danced and recited their visions. In the morning the fires were extinguished, first the eastern fire and then the western fire. The ashes were thrown out the western door, then the participants filed out the eastern door to form a row north and south facing east. Everyone cried out the prayer word “Ho-o-o” in unison six times standing and 6 times kneeling, then the ceremony was concluded and the Big House closed up for another year.

Do you see any similarities in the Delaware’s religious beliefs and worship to Judeo-Christian beliefs and practice? If so, what are they?

“The Delaware Big House,” H. L. McCracken 
“The Big House,” Lenape History
“A Study of the Delaware Indian Big House Ceremony,” Frank G. Speck, American Anthropologist 
The sketches of the central post, the Big House encampment, and the Misinghalikun are from The Magic Moccasins by Jane Barks Ross (1985).

J. M. Hochstetler is a descendant of Jacob Hochstetler’s oldest son John. An author, editor, and publisher, she is the daughter of Mennonite farmers and a lifelong student of history. Northkill, Book 1 of the Northkill Amish Series, written with award-winning author Bob Hostetler, won ForeWord Magazine’s 2014 INDYFAB Book of the Year Bronze Award for historical fiction. Her American Patriot Series is the only comprehensive historical fiction series on the American Revolution. One Holy Night, a contemporary retelling of the Christmas story, was the Christian Small Publishers 2009 Book of the Year.


  1. Boy! How interesting! Never knew all that!

    1. I just love delving into Native American customs and religion, Beverly. It's fascinating!