Doll beings

Today I’m visiting my cousins in Gloucester township, New Jersey – part of Lenapehoking, the traditional homeland of the Lenape Indians. We’re gathering for a joint birthday celebration for Eva and her second cousin Morgan, who is four. As I sipped my morning coffee, Morgan entertained me with impromptu narratives about her play castles and her Barbie dolls – a fascination that her mother Heidi, an erstwhile tomboy, can’t quite comprehend. Heidi worries that Morgan might be learning unhealthy gender stereotypes from Barbie, but has decided she can’t forbid her from playing with the dolls altogether, since they were gifts and since her playmates are also into Barbie.

“In earlier times the Lenape Indians enjoyed their social dances. But not wishing to be distracted by their children, they placed them with a baby sitter. On one such occasion the assembled children decided to hold a dance of their own. For this purpose a boy carved a stick in the shape of a doll and carried it throughout the twelve dances. This childish event went unnoticed until the boy became inexplicably ill. A meteinu (or medicine man of great power) was consulted. He perceived that the boy had some possession and demanded special attention. After questioning, the boy acknowledged making the miniature doll that he and the others had included in their dances. The meteinu realized that this was no ordinary doll but a spirit of considerable power. . . . The meteinu advised the boy’s parents to make a better doll with which to appease the offended spirit and to continue the dances until the boy got well. He further advised them to hold an Ohtas Kentkan (Doll Dance) every year, through which the family and the whole tribe would prosper and remain in good health.

“Thereafter, such dolls were carved from a piece of wood about twelve inches long. They were given human hair and were dressed in miniature sets of Lenape clothing. It was believed that such Doll Beings possessed life and could understand what was said to them. They had the power to protect their owner’s health, and they enjoyed offerings and dances and resented ill-treatment. . . . It was believed that failure to perform [ritual] obligations would make the doll’s spirit angry and would surely cause evil to befall the owners and their relatives.”

– Herbert C. Kraft, The Lenape: Archaeology, History and Ethnography (New Jersey Historical Society, 1986).

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