Bringing American Indian Lore to Life

History, Odd Jobs, People, Traditions
on April 29, 2001

Most wouldnt think of northern New Jerseys Monmouth County as rich in American Indian lore, but the traditions of the Lenape are flourishing there today, thanks to Janet Ryan.

Ryan, a recreation program specialist for the Monmouth County Park System in New Jersey, facilitates a camp for 9- and 10-year olds at the Huber Woods Environmental Center, where kids learn the customs of these American Indians. The Lenape once were considered a grandfather tribe whose power, position, and spiritual presence served to settle disputes among rival tribes.

Ryan, a ranger for the county park system for 14 years, conducts weekly storytelling gatherings for kids and participates in fossil digs. She and other rangers offer snake shows at the Monmouth County Fair and the reptile house at Huber Woods.

Ryans office overflows with the mementos, research books, and craft materials she shares with school children from throughout the county. Her message in the weeklong summer camps: the Lenapes ability to use and be grateful for all aspects of land and wildlife.

The Lenape, called Delaware Indians by European settlers, were divided into three clansWolf, Turkey, and Turtle. Ryan is the conduit through which the Wolf Clan program was born in 1995. It was a lot of parts coming together, she says. I took pieces of what Ive learned and combined it with what other people here had to offer.

On the first day, children choose an American Indian name for themselves after listening to a tribal legend. I encourage them to choose something from the environment, a reflection of a trait or skill, Ryan says. And I share how each Lenape child was given a nickname at birth.

Campers take daily hikes on trails in the 300-acre park. She loves seeing the confidence children develop as they learn to recognize natures offerings.

Ryan describes the time they came across a tiny wasp eating a giant cicada. I had no idea how this wasp had the ability to destroy a cicada. And the kids wanted to know! Her eyes light up as she recounts the story. So I asked one of the naturalists and found it was actually called a cicada killer wasp. I was able to show the kids the picture in the insect guide, and we learned together.

Activities include modeling clay replicas of animals found in an Indian tale and learning how the Lenape roasted and crushed acorns to make flour. They study Lenape hunters by identifying tracks and imitating animal calls and make a turtle rattle from pie tins, corn, plaster, and cloth.

But the main event is recreating a miniature Lenape long house. Mac McDermott, another park employee, designed and built the kid-sized version. The disassembled pieces are used during the camp.

It takes the children all five days to recreate the structure. In a traditional long house, pieces were lashed together with plant fiber and covered in bark. Modern-day campers use cotton cord and paper bags decorated with wildlife drawings.

The week culminates in a skit based on the tale of The Rabbit Dance, from the Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities series by Michael J. Caduto and Joseph Bruchac.

I was reading the story to my first group of campers, Ryan says. It tells about a group of hunters and their encounter with the Rabbit People. The Rabbit Chief acknowledges the gratitude the Indians have for all the rabbits providefood, pelts for clothingby creating a dance to celebrate.

All of a sudden, one of the girls stood up and began pantomiming as I was reading. She stalked an imaginary rabbit and drew back her bow, Ryan recounts. Then the rest of the kids got up, one by one, and followed suit. When I got to the part about the rabbits dancing, they all began hopping and jumping. It was incredible!

Ryan already is preparing for next years campers. A group of friends going out on an adventure, she smiles. Thats what the camp feels like to me.

All who have been touched by Ryans imagination would shout an enthusiastic Wanishi! (Lenape for thank you.)