The Lenape tribe, also known as the Delaware Nation, lived for centuries on the land that English colonists later called New Jersey. But once America gained its independence, they were forced to move further west: to Indiana, then Missouri, and finally to the territory that became Oklahoma. These reluctant migrants were not able to carry much from their ancestral homeland, but they managed to preserve the stories that had been passed down for generations.
On the Turtle’s Back is the first collection of Lenape folklore, originally compiled by anthropologist M. R. Harrington over a century ago but never published until now. In it, the Delaware share their cherished tales about the world’s creation, epic heroes, and ordinary human foibles. It features stories told to Harrington by two Lenape couples, Julius and Minnie Fouts and Charles and Susan Elkhair, who sought to officially record their legends before their language and cultural traditions died out. More recent interviews with Lenape elders are also included, as their reflections on hearing these stories as children speak to the status of the tribe and its culture today. Together, they welcome you into their rich and wondrous imaginative world.
About the Author
CAMILLA TOWNSEND is Board of Governors Distinguished Professor of History at Rutgers University-New Brunswick. She has published widely on Indigenous history and language in the Americas. Her books include Pocahontas and the Powhatan Dilemma (2004) and, most recently, Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs (2021), which won the 2020 Cundill Prize in History.
NICKY KAY MICHAEL is a member of the Delaware tribe who earned her BA in American studies from Stanford and PhD in history from the University of Oklahoma. She is currently the interim president of Bacone College in Muskogee, Oklahoma, where she is also the executive director of Indigenous studies and curriculum. She is serving a seven-year term on the Delaware tribal council.
Exclusive Interview on All of It with Alison Stewart: "A New Collection of Lenape Folklore" — WNYC
“With On the Turtle’s Back, Camilla Townsend and Nicky Kay Michael offer a stunning edition of Lenape stories that have been told through centuries of cultural practice. They outline key historical struggles in Lenape history to contextualize the meaningfulness of the survivance of those stories. They draw together creation, big house, learning, and other stories. “Told [to] their grandchildren” gestures to a past in which Lenape cared for their stories and a future in which those stories are still meaningful. It is the book I have yearned for as a Lenape person and scholar.” — Joanne Barker
“On the Turtle’s Back offers an engaging and previously unpublished collection of Lenape/Delaware stories narrated in the early twentieth century. The scholarship is strong, and the research is impressive; there is no comparable volume in the field.”