Chief Munsee Did Not Exist
I recently broke a cardinal rule I try to follow when interacting on social media — do not commence or engage in an online argument. Much like trying to park correctly at the Rural King, there’s no point in being right when sheer chaos governs the system.
The subject of the disputation was Chief Munsee, or as I argued, there has never been a Lenape (Delaware) chief with the name Munsee at any time in recorded history. The federally recognized Lenape tribes today do not acknowledge such a chief and no contemporaneous written record from the Lenape’s time in Indiana contains the name.
“Chief Munsee” simply did not exist.
Furthermore, the statue at Walnut and Granville is titled Appeal to the Great Spirit and was placed in 1929 as a memorial to Edmund B. Ball, who died in 1925. The statue is a copy of Cyrus Dallin’s original, located at the Boston Museum of Art and depicts a romanticized Sioux Native American. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Lenape.
All communities have residents who traffic in tall tales; oral traditions based in folklore, not fact. Most of the time, the historically educated just roll their eyes and attempt to disabuse such notions with primary documentation, or perhaps, ignore them altogether. What’s the harm in a little historical fable?
However, the problem with the Chief Munsee untruth is that it undermines an accurate understanding of the Indigenous origins of our communities, and, most importantly, serves as a prime example of how non-natives blatantly disregard Native American history. In other words, “your culture does not matter enough to me to get your story right.”
Prior to European colonization, the Lenape lived in autonomous, decentralized farming and fishing villages along the coasts of what are now New Jersey and Delaware, as well as in the Delaware and Hudson river valleys. As the Europeans pushed inward, the Lenape coalesced politically, forming more centralized tribal arrangements over the centuries.
Lenape just means “the people.” After Thomas West, the 3rd Baron De La Warr became the governor of the Colony of Virginia in 1610, the British named a river in his honor. The Lenape living around it became known as “De La Warr’s Indians” and later just Delaware.
Prior to European conquest, the Lenape spoke several related languages. Around 1700 or so, the only two remaining were Unami (broken into northern and southern dialects) and Munsee. The Munsee language was originally spoken by Lenape who lived inland along the Delaware and Hudson rivers. The principle village in this area was Minisink, located on an island in the middle of the Delaware River. Accordingly, Minisink translates to “place of the island.” Over time, the word Minisink was corrupted to Munsee (or Muncie, Munsey, Monsi, Montsi, and other spellings). Close your eyes and say Minisink 50 times in a row and you’ll get the idea.
The Lenape use a matrilineal kinship system, meaning that children are born into their mother’s family. The three matrilineal divisions are Tookseat (wolf), Pokekooungo (turtle), and Pullaook (turkey). Each group was further divided into clans, 10–12 for each delineation. Sometimes the divisions are conflated with the languages, but this isn’t accurate. Munsee and Unami speakers were found in all three groups.
When the Lenape arrived in Indiana in the 1790s, they lived in villages along the West Fork of the White River. In what is now Delaware County, the Unami speakers lived at Wapikamicoke near where Inlow Springs Road meets Burlington Drive and Owenchaki, where Priest Ford Road meets State Road 32. The Munsee speakers lived at Wapikamikunk on the bluff overlooking the bend in the White River.
Immediately after the Lenape removal in 1821, American settlers referred to the Munsee-speakers’ village site at the bend as Munsee Town. When Goldsmith Gilbert platted his community to the south, he named it Muncietown (sometimes spelled Munseytown) as an homage. In 1845 Goldsmith’s Muncietown was shortened to just Muncie.
Many chiefs led the White River Lenape including Tetepachsit, Hockingpomsga, Buckhongehelas, Amotchke, Killbuck, Tahunqueecoppi, Ketchum, Tunis, Quenaghtoothmait, and several others. There was also Chief Kikthawenund, known to many as William Anderson, whom our neighboring city is named after. My guess is that this is where the Chief Munsee nonsense originated.
Today, our federal government recognizes three Lenape tribes, the Delaware Tribe of Indians, the Delaware Nation, and the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. The state of New Jersey recognizes the Nanticoke-Lenni Lenape and the Ramapough Lenape Nation. Canada recognizes three Lenape First Nations, the Munsee-Delaware Nation, Moravian of the Thames First Nation, and the Delaware of Six Nations.
Lenape history is complex and deserves a factual treatment in history. As the late Senator Daniel Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts.”
(Originally appeared in the Star Press on July 21, 2019: https://www.thestarpress.com/story/news/local/2019/07/21/native-american-history-deserves-better-than-false-chief-munsee-tales/1734924001/).