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Neolin

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A contemporary portrait bust of Neolin, artist unknown
A contemporary portrait bust of Neolin, artist unknown

Neolin (“The Enlightened” in Algonquian), known as "the Delaware Prophet," was a Native American visionary prophet of the Lenni Lenape people. He lived during the middle to late 18th century, but his exact birth and death dates are unknown. His visions inspired a traditionalist movement that extended all along the Mississippi Valley and invigorated the rebellion led by himself and Chief Pontiac. The Lenni Lenape first came into contact with Europeans — Dutch fur traders — in the early 17th century. European traders and the Lenni Lenape had different ideas of what a trade relationship should be; whereas the Europeans reacted to market pressures and fluctuations, trade for the Lenni Lenape was part of a social relationship. The dealer in merchandise was viewed as a “father” who was responsible for providing high-quality goods as gifts, which the “children,” the Lenni Lenape, were obliged to reciprocate at a fair value. Rather than constantly watching for other suppliers who could supply higher quality or lower prices, the trade relationship — actually a gift exchange — was a solemn covenant. In fact, some exchanges were intentionally uneven; when one party was in need, the other party would “subsidize” the exchange, which would be made up in future trade. The capitalist principle of “buy cheap and sell dear” had no place in this relationship. All of this meant that the two trading partners were no longer strangers, but symbolic kin. Anything that upset this balance threatened the whole relationship between nations. Gradually, this trade relationship made the Delaware dependent on Europeans, as demand for manufactured goods made their traditional skills “obsolete,” so that they were no longer passed on. Starvation brought about by overhunting for the fur trade forced the Lenni Lenape to migrate North and West of their original land in Eastern Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Southeastern New York. The forced migration destroyed much of their culture, leaving them extremely receptive to the new messages of both indigenous prophets and Christian missionaries. The prophets’ messages were often influenced by the missionaries.

In 1761, after a period of fasting, incantation and dreaming, Neolin was called in a vision to visit The Master of Life (Keesh-she'-la-mil'-lang-up, or "Being Who Thought Us Into Being”). His vision began with a journey to The Master of Life; the first two attempts led to fiery dead ends, but the third was unobstructed. Along this road he was directed through various trials: a cleansing bath and the ascent of a mountain using only his left foot and left hand. The Master of Life directed the Lenni Lenape to return to the traditional ways of their ancestors, renouncing all cultural trappings of the White colonists, including not only alcohol, but also European clothing and diet. Furthermore, it was revealed that their gravest sin was tolerating the colonists on their lands; it was time to wage a holy war. Neolin proclaimed that if these conditions were met, the Lenni Lenape territory would once again be rich in game and the people would prosper. In 1762, Neolin was taught a prayer by the Master of Life, to be said every morning and evening. His teachings attracted hundreds of disciples. Local tribal chiefs in the area now known as Ohio adopted Neolin's prophecy, and organized a confederacy of tribes. Neolin's thus came to influence the political policies of nearly twenty tribes from Lake Ontario to the Mississippi, including the Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Seneca, Huron, Miami, Shawnee, and Delaware. His most prominent follower was the Ottawa chief Pontiac, who was a charismatic political leader. In 1763, Pontiac and his allies went to war against the British, trying (and failing) to take Fort Detroit. Neolin had rejected this plan and called for the warriors to lay down their arms. His direction was disregarded.

Neolin’s most revered creation was the Great Writing, a diagram of the path to heaven, which he drew on a deerskin. Influenced by the wisdom-teachings of the Christians with whom his people had traded, he also offered his followers Bibles, which they exchanged for deerskins.

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