A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters among the Delaware Indians

A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters among the Delaware Indians

A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters among the Delaware Indians

A Nation of Women: Gender and Colonial Encounters among the Delaware Indians


A Nation of Women chronicles changing ideas of gender and identity among the Delaware Indians from the mid-seventeenth through the eighteenth century, as they encountered various waves of migrating peoples in their homelands along the eastern coast of North America.

In Delaware society at the beginning of this period, to be a woman meant to engage in the activities performed by women, including diplomacy, rather than to be defined by biological sex. Among the Delaware, being a "woman" was therefore a self-identification, employed by both women and men, that reflected the complementary roles of both sexes within Delaware society. For these reasons, the Delaware were known among Europeans and other Native American groups as "a nation of women."

Decades of interaction with these other cultures gradually eroded the positive connotations of being a nation of women as well as the importance of actual women in Delaware society. In Anglo-Indian politics, being depicted as a woman suggested weakness and evil. Exposed to such thinking, Delaware men struggled successfully to assume the formal speaking roles and political authority that women once held. To salvage some sense of gender complementarity in Delaware society, men and women redrew the lines of their duties more rigidly. As the era came to a close, even as some Delaware engaged in a renewal of Delaware identity as a masculine nation, others rejected involvement in Christian networks that threatened to disturb the already precarious gender balance in their social relations.

Drawing on all available European accounts, including those in Swedish, German, and English, Fur establishes the centrality of gender in Delaware life and, in doing so, argues for a new understanding of how different notions of gender influenced all interactions in colonial North America.


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. Therefore, I began mining archives and published primary sources for anything relating to the Lenapes (or Delawares, as they were subsequently known) written by English, Swedish, Dutch, German, or even French colonists. This is where I met a woman named Notike, a woman who more than anyone else came to change the direction of my research. She appears—so far as I know—in only three documents, and the circumstances of her emergence was a land dispute, ostensibly between Swedish and Dutch colonists concerning land along the west bank of the Delaware River. But her very appearance in these documents unveiled an equally important internal confrontation among Lenapes regarding control over and alienation of land. Clearing the brush surrounding Notike’s intervention in Swedish and Dutch colonial politics forced me to come to grips with issues of gender, and as I did so I discovered that Delaware history, as well as contact history, cannot be told intelligibly without reflecting on gender and its function in human societies.

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. Reading Swedish, Dutch, and English sources from the seventeenth century more or less convinced me that a friend of mine was correct when she commented that her people had thought that “the Swedes were a race of only men, as they had to do all the labor of planting themselves.” That the colonists were predominantly male was true of some colonial ventures, although Sweden did indeed encourage (or force) families to emigrate. However, looking at the same sources, the Native populations emerged as equally unbalanced. This of course was not true then or now, and the only reasonable explanations for the absence of women that I could . . .

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