A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians, by Gunlog Fur (Review)

I think this book adds some needed information about the intersection of gender, women’s status, and religious/spiritual perspectives.

Gunlog Fur says in her preface, “I did not set out to write a book about gender. In fact, I was not particularly interested in the topic at all. What did interest me was trying to understand as much as I possibly could about how Lenape Indians lived their lives around the time that they first encountered people from across the great sea and how that encounter altered their society and the world they knew….Thus, I stumbled on my subject by chance, or so I thought, caught by the nagging notion that I was observing a picture where one object stood out of place. The problem I had with the picture I was beholding was that it contained only men.” As Fur began collecting scraps of information referring to women, a new picture of Delaware/Lenape history and society emerged, one with a complex understanding and expression of gender which the Eurocentric mind has difficulty comprehending.

Researching colonial history of the Delaware peoples is a challenging proposition, because these nations were among the first to encounter European explorers and traders, and the location of Delaware territories, which were highly strategic from the point of view of seafaring Europeans, meant that the Delaware peoples came in contact with many nationalities. Early accounts were written in Swedish, Dutch, French, and German, as well as English, so a facility with all of these languages is necessary to examine first-hand sources. Many European traders spoke one or more of the principal native languages, making the language in which discussions occurred and the degree of comfort of the observer with that language an important piece of information. Fur’s knowledge of the languages of early written sources lends credibility to her analysis.

A question I had when I first ran across this book was whether the author had enough understanding of the structure of the Delaware languages to make any inferences about gender. Although it is axiomatic that concepts do not necessarily translate easily between languages, where gender is concerned these conceptual difficulties are magnified. My concern was probably unjustified. Although Fur does not claim to be fluent in any Delaware language, she appears to be aware of the structure of this language group, enough to question the primary observer’s account in places. Fur emphasizes throughout the book that her sources are unreliable. They are thoroughly patriarchal and view interactions with American Indians from the prism of their own agenda – usually commerce, land acquisition, or religious fervor. She compensates for this by examining the wide range of written data for congruencies and anomalies.

I will present a summary of Fur’s analysis in my next three blog posts. I will write about the status of Delaware women within the tribes, the changes and challenges created by Christian contact, and the Delaware/Lenape conception of gender.

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7 Responses to A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters Among the Delaware Indians, by Gunlog Fur (Review)

  1. Den Poitras says:

    I look forward to your summaries. Little is known about how women were regarded before the arrival of Europeans. However, in Black Elk Speaks, women were at the center of the Sacred Hoop, and, of course, the Earth Mother was, and remains, highly important. Fur’s book is a great find!

  2. Claudia H. Blanton says:

    thanks for sharing this book with us, sounds like something my daughter and I would love to read

  3. Pingback: A Nation of Women (part II) | Hearth Moon Rising's blog