views updated


NEOLIN , known as the Delaware Prophet; a religious leader active among the Ohio Delaware Indians in the 1760s. Neolin (whose name means "the enlightened") was one of several Delaware prophets who arose in the latter part of the eighteenth century along the Susquehanna and Allegheny rivers in Pennsylvania and the Cuyahoga and Muskingum rivers in Ohio. The teachings of the prophet were widely known throughout the tribes of the frontier. Pontiac, the famed Ottawa chief, saw in the prophet's message divine authority for his own attempts to unite the frontier tribes. Through Pontiac, Neolin affected the policies of nearly twenty tribes from Lake Ontario to the Mississippi, including among them the Ojibwa, Ottawa, Potawatomi, Seneca, Huron, Miami, Shawnee, and Delaware. Pontiac may have tempered Neolin's message somewhat by affirming the rights of the French and opposing the British. Nevertheless, whatever setbacks the British suffered during the 1760s west of the Alleghenies were the result not only of Pontiac's leadership but also of the appeal of the Delaware Prophet's message.

This message came from a great dream-vision journey of the prophet to the mountain home of the Master of Life, or Great Spirit. The Master instructed him to tell the people that they must give up their drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, internecine fighting, witchcraft, and medicine songs dedicated to the evil spirit. In addition, they were to cast off all of the influences of the whites and return to hunting with bow and arrow. Ritually, they were to purify themselves through sexual abstinence and the use of emetics, and they were to reinstitute sacrifices. These reforms would result in a revitalization of their power that would enable them to drive the whites from the continent.

The Master of Life also gave the prophet a stick on which was written a prayer, in native hieroglyphs, to be recited by all of his followers every morning and evening. John Heckewelder, a Moravian missionary who lived with the Delaware at this time, reported seeing a map used by the prophet in his preaching. In the center of the map was a square that represented the dwelling place of the Great Spirit. This land, full of game and forests, had been the goal of the soul's journey after death. Now, however, it was all but inaccessible because of the barriers set by the whites, and only a very few souls could reach that land. Most fell into the hands of the evil one when attempting to overcome these barriers and were taken to his land of emaciated game animals and parched soil.

East of the inner square the prophet had drawn a map of the lands formerly occupied by the Delaware but now in the control of the British. Once the Delaware had dwelt beside the ocean and in the coastal areas, where they hunted, farmed, and fished with great delight. Then they allowed the Europeans to settle, gave away or sold their land, and became dependent on the white people's goods. The result of their own follies and English acquisitiveness was migration, fragmentation, and deterioration. If they followed the instructions of the prophet, however, they could have their land and their old ways back again.

Neolin played an essential role in helping his people interpret their situation. In Neolin's image of heaven, the Delaware saw their own recently lost state. In his image of the evil spirit's land, the Delaware perceived the despoiled land of the white settlements. The entry into paradise was not only a difficult eschatological event, it necessitated a historical expulsion of the whites. A further dimension of Neolin's message was not always grasped by Pontiac, that is, that the Great Spirit had allowed the whites to control the land and had taken away game animals as a punishment for the immorality of the Indians. Neolin's map depicted not only the barriers on earth and in heaven but also within the hearts of the people. They had corrupted themselves by their dependence on the whites. More importantly, the increasing dependence on the whites eroded the Indians' previous dependence on the spirit-forces of forest, field, stream, and sky. Only a spiritual purification and moral reform could give them the inner strength to cut loose from the whites and supply them with the capacity to enter again into the paradisal state they had abandoned. The prophet interpreted the social and historical situation using the religious symbolism of death and rebirth. His paradigm allowed for no compromise. This rite of passage from a state of degeneration and chaos to one of rebirth and a new order could not be entered halfheartedly. Nor could it be successful if halted before completion. The recovery of lost innocence and the regaining of lost land were intimately linked.

The prophet had faced squarely the problem that confronted his people, a problem that would continue to confront Native Americans: how does a people recover its identity and pride in the face of social, cultural and economic deterioration and a calculatingly aggressive foe? Yet, Neolin's answer was not necessarily wrong; it came, however, too late. Nevertheless, it was a course that others would follow, even when they knew it was too late, for it seemed to them the only honorable course to take.


Gregory Evan Dowd's A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 17451815 (Johns Hopkins, 1992) masterfully interprets Neolin and other prophets of the era within the context of the Indian worldview and the pressures from Euro-American expansion. Neolin's mission is situated within the context of other Delaware revitalization movements in Anthony F. C. Wallace's "New Religions among the Delaware Indians, 16001900," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 12 (1956): 121. A paraphrase of Pontiac's version of the prophet's teaching recorded by Robert Navarre, a Frenchman witnessing the siege of Detroit, may be found in Henry R. Schoolcraft's Algic Researches, vol. 1 (New York, 1839), pp. 239248. The prophet's teachings as summarized by a Moravian missionary may be found in John Heckewelder's History, Manners and Customs of the Indian Nations (1819; rev. ed., 1876; reprint, New York, 1971). A standard if occasionally biased account of the life of Pontiac and the influence on and use by him of the Delaware Prophet's teaching is Howard H. Peckham's Pontiac and the Indian Uprising (Princeton, 1947).

Donald P. St. John (1987 and 2005)