American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Neolin (Delaware Prophet)

Also known as the Delaware Prophet, Neolin came to prominence during the period just before and during Pontiac's Rebellion against the English in the early 1760s. His visions, preaching, and calls for Native people to return to pre-contact traditions became one of the unifying features of Pontiac's Rebellion.

Moved off their lands in eastern Pennsylvania in the wake of the fraudulent Walking Purchase, most Lenpe (also rendered Leni-Lenápe, or Delaware) were forced to move west. One of the results of this upheaval was that beginning in the 1740s, a series of "prophets," individuals conveying religious messages, began appearing among the Lenpe and other Native peoples in western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and the Great Lakes region. Neolin was only the latest (and far from the last) in a long line of prophets when he came to the attention of British authorities in the early 1760s.

Neolin's religious experience began when he entered into a trance or dream in which he undertook an arduous journey to meet the Master of Life. The Master of Life showed him the path to heaven and how Europeans blocked it. He was instructed to relay a message to Native peoples that the lands the Creator made were for their use and that they should not suffer the presence of Europeans.

Neolin preached a militantly Nativistic stance toward Europeans beginning in the fall of 1761 and illustrated his message with the use of pictographs. The illustrations showed a straight path to heaven that Native people followed in pre-contact times, but sin, alcohol, and Europeans now blocked that route. The drawings also showed a grim alternative: a large fire where sinful Indians spent eternity.

Avoidance of Europeans and European goods were Neolin's overriding themes. Native people should wear animal skins instead of trade cloth, eschew European foods, use bows and arrows instead of firearms, and abstain from using alcohol. Neolin also taught his followers that fires kindled using flint and steel were not "pure." He also encouraged Native people to purify themselves by using an emetic potion known as black drink, which had long been used in the Southeast. One Shawnee community that followed Neolin engaged in the practice with such gusto that traders nicknamed their village Vomit Town. While Neolin's followers accepted his rejection of all things European in theory, doing so in practice was another matter entirely. Over the previous century and a half, Native peoples of the American Northeast had become dependent on European goods such as metal tools and cloth.

In 1763, the global conflict between France and England—called the French and Indian War in America and the Seven Year's War in Europe—came to an end. As part of the peace settlement, France surrendered all of its North American possessions, and the English garrisoned most of the former French posts in the Ohio country and the Great Lakes, including Detroit, Niagara, and Fort Pitt. Native peoples, many of whom had been allies of the French, waited to see how the British would treat them.

They did not have to wait long. Sir Jeffrey Amherst, the commander of his majesty's forces in America, ignored the advice of Sir William Johnson, the superintendent of Indian affairs, and ceased the practice of presenting Native people with diplomatic gifts. Gifts were regarded as a show of good will, and some gifts, such as gunpowder, were vital necessities to Native people, who needed it to conduct their fall and winter hunts and for warfare against their enemies. Amherst's prohibition on gifts and the high prices for British trade goods made more Native people receptive to Neolin's message, especially after it had been altered slightly by the Ottawa leader Pontiac.

The Ottawa chieftain Pontiac used Neolin's message, with its implicit and explicit hostility to Europeans, to argue for Native unity and for a war against the British. However, in his version of Neolin's teachings, Pontiac transmuted the French into friends of Native peoples who would give them trade goods for cheap prices. In many respects, this was a contravention of Neolin's (and the Master of Life's) message.

Roger M. Carpenter


Further Reading
Dowd, Gregory Evans. 1992a. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.; Richter, Daniel K. 2001. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard University Press.; White, Richard. 1991. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. New York: Cambridge University Press.
 

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