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Saturday, May 18, 2024


Lenapi Storyteller Shares Virtues of 7 Grandfathers

Teri Hislop

By Karen Knight

COURT HOUSE – “We are here, which means we never left,” said Teri Hislop, a story keeper and language instructor of the Lenapi nation of Pennsylvania, as she lifted a wooden carving of a Lenapi dressed in traditional garb in the shape of the state of New Jersey. 
Hislop, whose Lenape name is Xeli Otaesak Pilsit Xkw, said she is “no longer afraid” of sharing her culture, which over the years has seen efforts to be erased by removing the Lenapi from their land, schools and culture.
“We are a culture of gratitude,” she noted, “and I am so grateful and humbled to share our very important traditions and try to bring back what we have lost. We start with a prayer, at every meeting, every event, giving thanks for everything from the oceans to the stars. We thank the Creator for all that we have.”
Hislop was part of Cape May MAC’s (Museums, Arts, Culture) Lunch and Learn program Nov. 2, where she spoke about the “virtues of the seven grandfathers.” She lives in Villas.
“The virtues illustrate the way we should live as part of the greater community,” she pointed out.
Adorned with some traditional elements, Hislop said she is a member of the Turkey Clan, considered a “grandmother and is called Uma,” and is a keeper of traditional crafts and stories.
“It’s a big responsibility,” she said, referring to her role as Uma, “because you have the responsibility for all we need to know. The parents are out taking care of the basics: the food, hunting, cooking. The grandparents are responsible for transmitting the culture, taking care of the children and teaching them the language, the traditions, the culture, because they have the time.
“When people started referring to me as Uma, I asked myself, ‘When did that happen?’,” she chuckled.
Hislop started by telling a Lenapi story about four crows. 
“The first crow flew in harmony,” she said. “The second crow tried to clean up the mess of the world and got sick and died. The third crow was our people hiding and going underground. And the fourth crow was flying in harmony again with the Creator and trying to restore the lands. 
“We must work together for the harmony of the world,” she stressed. 
Storytelling usually took place during the dark wintertime, when the Lenapi people don’t have much to do, Hislop said. 
“At this time, everyone is very busy because it is the height of the harvest time. If you are caught sitting around telling stories at this time, it is said bugs and snakes will bite the storyteller and bite the audience.”
As she took out 12 squeaky toy skunks from a bag and counted them, she said, “You put the skunks under your chair if you are storytelling when you shouldn’t be because it is thought that no bugs or snakes will bother you then because the skunks will stop them.”
After the second crow died, Hislop said the Lenapi people were in dark times. “We lost a generation of education after the second crow because children were taken from their homes, put in schools and removed from their grandparents.
“The best way to wipe out a generation and remove the traditions, the language, is by separating the children from their grandparents,” she added.
Hislop said today, “people don’t respect like they used to, are not kind like they used to be, they don’t stand up for what is right. By teaching the seven virtues, we are trying to bring back what we have lost.”
The first virtue is humility, depicted by a wolf. “The wolf knows its place in a pack, and no one is more important than the other,” Hislop said.
The second virtue is courage and bravery, depicted by a bear. “What’s courage without bravery,” she asked. “It’s a bully, arrogance.”
Honesty is the third virtue, represented by the raven. “Honesty is where you look deep inside yourself to see the good, the bad and the ugly. It takes a special kind of humility, bravery and courage to be honest with yourself and of yourself. You can’t be afraid to be honest about who you are.”
The fourth virtue is wisdom, represented by the beaver. “It’s not smart as in book smart or common sense, but in changing the world,” she explained. “How do you change the world with wisdom? The beaver knows the dam helps clean the water. That’s wisdom.”
Truth, represented by the turtle, is the fifth virtue. “Tell your truth, tell your story but don’t exaggerate or pump it up,” she said, “but also don’t diminish yourself. Your story will earn you respect or condemnation.”
Respect, represented by the buffalo, means respect for all resources – tools, clothing, food, natural resources and personal resources like the Elders. 
“The buffalo in the past provided everything people needed: food, clothing, resources,” Hislop explained. “The biggest responsibility we as Elders have is teaching our children our culture, our traditions. We have the time.”
Finally, the eagle represents love, the seventh virtue. “This means all-inclusive love,” she noted, “and the eagle is the only one strong enough to hold all the virtues.”
To make her point, she pulled out a cloth with 64, 101 beads depicting an eagle. She asked members of the audience to hold it, all noting its weight but also seeing how it lightened as more people joined.
“We need to help each other with all the virtues,” she explained. 
“It’s important that we bring back and share what we have all lost,” she added. 
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