Touching Leaves: A Look Into the Life of Nora Thompson Dean

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Nora Thompson Dean in buckskin dress, on a visit to Pennsylvania, ca. 1973

Nora Thompson Dean was born with the name Nora Thompson in the rural area to the east of Bartlesville, Oklahoma on the Delaware Reservation. Both of her parents were what are termed “Full Blood” Delaware, or completely Delaware lineage. Her mother was Sarah Wilson and she married James H. Thompson. Dean’s household was raised on a farm and they spoke the Unami Lenape language, so Dean was raised knowing her ancestral language. This is rare, considering that the Lenape language has been endangered for many decades.

Growing up in the Xingwikaon

The Thompson family was traditional, meaning they believed in and practiced a religion that was close to what their forefathers practiced. It was termed Xingwikaon, or Big House ceremonies. Her whole childhood was centered on the Xingwikaon, learning the old ceremonies, herbs, the language, stories, and games, until it closed when she was seventeen, in 1924.

At some point, Dean joined the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, and was a frequent practitioner. This did not quell her traditional teachings, as she kept the two separated. Formal education at public schools was also being done at the same time as her traditional teachings. She excelled in the public schools as well as at universities, and made sure to learn everything she could to help her people excel in the world, and yet maintain their identity as the Delaware Nation.

A Modern Traditional Life

As Dean grew up, she continued to learn her people’s customs, and began to be consulted in traditional customs. Many tribal members would ask Dean to speak at religious ceremonies, act as herbalist for their families, and speaker at their schools. Scientists, such as botanists, historians, anthropologists, linguists, archaeologists, and more came to her to ask for her information concerning the Delaware culture.

In 1941, she married Charley H. Dean, and they had a daughter, Louise Dean. It was in 1967 that Dean began a mail-order business catalog that was full of books, clothing, language lessons, and crafts relating to Delaware culture and knowledge. Dean named the company catalog ‘Touching Leaves Indian Crafts’. Her cousin, Lucy Parks Blalock, helped with the company until her death in 2000.

In her Lenape Language Lessons, Dean made it a point to travel to other Lenape speakers and record their voices so that future generations could hear the pure form of Unami Lenape. Dean received many awards and recognition for her work within her company. These awards came from Oklahoma, Delaware, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Most of her life was dedicated to teaching the Delaware Nation, both indigenous and non-indigenous children, and anyone else who was interested about the cultural, religious, and traditional life of the Delaware/Lenape people. Her bibliography, works where she was consulted, as well as books focused on her are numerous.

Nora Thompson Dean is thought to be one of the most well respected indigenous traditionalists of the twentieth century. On a trip to the East Coast, Dean stopped in Iron Hill Village, Newark, Delaware. It is known that the area was the location of jasper pressure flaking by the Lenape men for many generations until their removal. In the lobby of the small Iron Hill Museum, her picture stands proudly amongst artifacts of her ancestors that once made tools from the land in the woods.

Not many know who she was or what she accomplished, but her life was rich and full of teaching. Dean passed away in Oklahoma in 1984 after a long illness, leaving a wealth of knowledge. Her company, the name intact, is still in existence, and it is spearheaded by dedicated conservationists. If anyone today wishes to learn Unami Lenape, chances are it’s her voice as well as other long deceased Delaware elders that will do the teaching.

Sources

  1. Brown, James W. & Rita T Kohn, editors. (2008). Long Journey Home: Oral Histories of Contemporary Delaware Indians. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.
  2. Dalton, Ann. (2005). Library of the Native Americans: The Lenape of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, and Ontario. New York, New York: The Rosen Publishing Group, Inc.
  3. New York Times. (1984). “Nora T. Dean, Herbalist. 77; of Delaware Indian Heritage.”