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.|
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 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.|
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 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.
“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.