Nora Thompson Dean

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

Nora Thompson Dean (1907–1984), also known as Weenjipahkihelexkwe, which translates as "Touching Leaves Woman" in Unami, was a member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians. As a Lenape traditionalist and one of the last fluent speakers of the southern Unami dialect of the Lenape language, she was an influential mentor to younger tribal members and is widely cited in scholarship on Lenape culture.

Early life[edit]

Nora Thompson was born ten miles east of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, USA, at Glen Oak, on July 3, 1907, to James H. and Sarah (Wilson) Thompson, both full-blood Delawares. She received her education in the Oklahoma Public Schools. She graduated from Midway School in 1921, as salutatorian, and from Dewey High School in 1925. Nora Thompson also had some nursing training and several university credits. In 1941 she married Charley Dean, who was also born and raised in northeastern Oklahoma.[1] She died on November 29, 1984.

Her name "Touching Leaves Woman," has some complexity, which requires some explanation, as follows: Nora Thompson Dean, Lenape /luh-NAH-pay/, 1907-1984, Dewey, Oklahoma. Normally indigenous blessing names are kept quiet, but Nora was such a wonderful woman that it should be shown why she additionally had such an appealing demeanor. It would be sad to let it pass from memory by silence. The Unami (= /w’NAH-mee/ ‘downriver [person]’) name of Nora Thompson Dean and the genealogy of her ancestors is now readily accessible on the Internet after someone in 2008 adapted the spelling Wenjipahkeehlehkwe, intending it to be limited to one cultural event, but it spread widely on the Internet; instead it is properly, as on the Talk-Lenape website, Weènchipahkihëlèxkwe, ‘Touching Leaves Woman’, or, as Nora herself had proposed, ‘Leaves-that-touch-each-other-from-time-to-time woman’, phonetically Weεnčipahkihəlεxkwe, /way-en-jee-paH-kee-hull-EKH-kway/, morphologically segmented (We:εnt-ipahk-ihəle:)-xkwe, ‘on.both.sides/on.either.side/together-leaves-moving–woman’. The initial stem shows a rare reciprocal reduplication (in Unami, as if *we:we:- for -), ‘the leaves (of the trees) on either side (of the path) come together (overhead rustling)’. This is the kind of blessing name that is derived from a vision recitation. Her name was bestowed on her by her mother, Sarah Wilson Thompson. The woman with whom Sarah Wilson was riding on a horse was not her biological mother but her aunt, Way-lay-luh-mah (‘the esteemed one’), as supplied by Weslager, and it was not Kweiti, Sarah’s biological mother, but Way-lay-luh-mah who raised her and whom she called her mother, and so Nora called Way-lay-luh-mah her grandmother. This naming pattern is in line with Lenape kinship ideas. The vision occurred after Sarah was riding horseback one day holding onto Way-lay-luh-mah’s waist when Way-lay-luh-mah had fainted from a probable heart attack. Sarah tried to hold her, but her grip slipped, and both had fallen off the horse. Sarah was very frightened, but some of the trees turned into people who told her not to be afraid and wanted to help her. Sarah stood listening, and the tree leaves by rustling started to sing a song to her, one that she sang in the Big House. [Paraphrased by Carl Masthay per NTD’s interview by Katherine Red Corn, April 1968:, and compiled with help from Ives Goddard, Raymond Whritenour, and James Rementer.]

Cultural revitalization efforts[edit]

Dean was raised in the traditional ways of her people, and she dedicated herself to keeping these alive. Throughout her adult life, she taught about the Lenape religious ceremonies, social functions, dances, craftwork, herbal medicines, and language. She was consulted by tribal members and numerous academic specialists, including anthropologists, linguists, historians, botanists, and ethnomusicologists.

In 1967 Dean founded a mail-order business, Touching Leaves Indian Crafts, through which she sold the traditional clothing of the Lenape and other items. Dean received awards for her craftwork, and in recognition of her work to promote the traditional ways of her Lenape people. These included commendations from the Oklahoma House of Representatives and the Governors of Oklahoma, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, and a Fellowship Award from the Archaeological Society of New Jersey.[2]

In 1972, Dean participated in the Delaware Indian Symposium, which brought together scholars and tribal members from Oklahoma and Canada. She also presented at another Delaware cultural gathering in 1981.[3]

In the later part of her life, Dean divided her time between artwork, working with students who came to her home to study, lecturing at universities, working at museums demonstrating Lenape artwork, working at different universities as a resource person, and preparing educational material for sale through her business.

Oklahoma governor George Nigh declared Dean an Oklahoma Ambassador of Good Will.[4]

Unami language[edit]

Nora Thompson Dean created material included four Lenape Language Lessons; these sound recordings, as well as others made with Dean and other Lenape elders during the twentieth-century, have been digitized to provide the voices of the Lenape Talking Dictionary, a project funded by the National Science Foundation.[5] Dean's brother Edward Leonard Thompson (1904–2002) was the last living native speaker of Unami in the United States.[3]


Dean died on November 29 of 1984[3] and is buried in the Delaware Indian Cemetery in Dewey, Oklahoma.[6]


  1. ^ "Obit of Dean, Nora T - Washington County, Oklahoma." Washington County Archives. Retrieved 2010.06.03.; "Nora T. Dean, Herbalist, 77; of Delaware Indian Heritage." New York Times. Retrieved 06.01.2010; Sue Smith, "'Touching Leaves' Seeks to Preserve Old Ways," Dewey Herald Record (August 3, 1983) p. 10.
  2. ^ "Local Woman Honored," Dewey Herald Record (March 4, 1981) p. 4; "Indian Customs, Crafts to Go on Display in Dover," Evening Journal (September 28, 1973) p. 38; Herbert C. Kraft, "Society Mourns Nora Thompson Dean," Newsletter of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey, 136 (February 15, 1985) 3; Sue Smith, "'Touching Leaves' Seeks to Preserve Old Ways."
  3. ^ a b c Chambers, Steve. "The vanishing voice of the Lenape." Star-Ledger. 17 Nov 2002. Retrieved 8 Dec 2013.
  4. ^ Oestreicher, Paul. "Touching Leaves Woman." Sculptureworks. 2008. Retrieved 22 Jan 2012.
  5. ^ The Lenape Talking Dictionary. Retrieved 06.04.2010
  6. ^ "Nora Thompson Dean." Find-a-Grave. Retrieved 8 Dec 2013.

Selected bibliography[edit]

Works authored or co-authored by Nora Thompson Dean[edit]

  • "Recipes of Indian Dishes." American Indian Crafts and Culture 7:8 (October 1973) 21.
  • "A Personal Account of the Unami Delaware Big House Rite." Pennsylvania Archaeologist 48 (April 1978) 39-43. Co-authored by Jay Miller.
  • "Delaware Indian Reminiscences." Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey 35 (1978) 1-17.
  • Lenape Language Lessons: Lessons One and Two. Dewey, OK: Touching Leaves Indian Crafts, 1979. (Tape and book.)
  • Lenape Language Lessons: Lessons Three and Four. Dewey, OK: Touching Leaves Indian Crafts, 1980. (Tape and book.)
  • Songs of the Lenape: Social Dance Songs, Tape 1, Dewey, OK: Touching Leaves Indian Crafts, 1980. (Tape and written insert.)
  • Songs of the Lenape: War Dance and Social Dance, Tape 2, Dewey, OK: Touching Leaves Indian Crafts, 1982. (Tape and written insert)
  • "A Baker's Dozen Do-Nots: Some Guidelines for Linguists, Anthropologists, and Their Related Tribal Members," Algonquian and Iroquoian Linguistics7:2 (1982)
  • Touching Leaves Woman, "Some of the Ways of the Delaware Indian Women," in NOW Yellow Pages: A Feminist Guide to North Eastern Oklahoma, Bartlesville, Oklahoma, 1983. Also published in: Turtle Children: A Handbook for Delaware Children, Anadarko, OK: Delaware Tribe of Western Oklahoma, 1985.
  • The Spiritual World of the Lenape or Delaware Indians, in Many Trails: Indians of the Lower Hudson Valley, Katonah, NY: The Katonah Gallery, 1983. (Exhibition catalog.)
  • "Remembrances of the Big House Church," in Herbert C. Kraft, ed. The Lenape Indian: A Symposium. South Orange, NJ: Archaeological Research Center, Seton Hall University, 1984.
  • "Lenape Funeral Customs," in Herbert C. Kraft, ed. The Lenape Indian: A Symposium. South Orange, NJ: Archaeological Research Center, Seton Hall University, 1984.
  • Lenape Indian Cooking with Touching Leaves Woman, James Rementer, ed. Dewey, OK: Touching Leaves Indian Crafts, 1991.
  • “Delaware Indian Religion: A Talk by Nora Thompson Dean.” James Rementer, ed. Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey 50 (1995) 27-30.

Works for which Nora Thompson Dean was a consultant[edit]

  • Adams, Richard C. Legends of the Delaware Indians and Picture Writing, ed. by Deborah Nichols, Syracuse University Press, 1997.
  • Cranor, Ruby. Talking Tombstones. Bartlesville OK: R.A. Cranor, 1983.
  • Cranor, Ruby. Caney Valley Ghost Towns and Settlements. Bartlesville, OK: R.A. Cranor, 1985.
  • Goddard, Ives. Delaware Verbal Morphology: A Descriptive and Comparative Study. Garland Publishers, 1979
  • Hilbert, Alfred G. "That Word 'Chemung' - What It Means" The Chemung Historical Journal 20: 3 (March, 1975)
  • Hill Jr., George A. Delaware Ethnobotany Newsletter of the Oklahoma Anthropological Society (March 1971).
  • Howard, James H. "The Nanticoke-Delaware Skeleton Dance." American Indian Quarterly, (Spring 1975) 1-13.
  • Howard, James H. "Ceremonial Dress of the Delaware Man." Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey, 1976
  • Howard, James H. Shawnee! The Ceremonialism of a Native American Tribe and Its Cultural Background OH: Ohio University Press, 1981.
  • Kraft, Herbert C. "Archaeological Evidence for a Possible Masking Complex among the Prehistoric Lenape in Northwestern New Jersey." Bulletin of the New York State Archaeological Association 56 (1972) 1-11.
  • Kraft, Herbert C. ed. A Delaware Indian Symposium, PA: The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, 1974.
  • Kraft, Herbert C. The Archaeology of the Tocks Island Area NJ: Seton Hall University Museum, 1975.
  • Kraft, Herbert C. The Lenape: Archaeology, History, and Ethnography, Newark, NJ: New Jersey Historical Society, 1986.
  • Kraft, Herbert C., and Kraft, John T. The Indians of Lenapehoking. NJ: Seton Hall University Museum, 1985.
  • Lederer Jr. Richard M. The Place-Names of Westchester County in New York. Harrison NY: Harbor Hill Books, 1978.
  • Masthay, Carl. ed. Schmick's Mahican Dictionary, Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, vol. 197, 1991.
  • Miller, Jay. "Kwulakan: The Delaware Side of Their Movement West." Pennsylvania Archaeologist (December, 1975)
  • Miller, Jay. "Delaware Alternative Classifications," Anthropological Linguistics, 17: 9 (December, 1975) 434-444.
  • Miller, Jay. "Delaware Anatomy." Anthropological Linguistics 19:4 (April 1977) 144-166.
  • Newcomb Jr., William W. "The Culture and Acculturation of the Delaware Indians," Anthropological Papers 10 Ann Arbor, University of Michigan, 1956.
  • Oestreicher, David M. "Unmasking the Walam Olum: A 19th-Century Hoax." Bulletin #49 of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey, 1994.
  • Pearson, Bruce L. "A Grammar of Delaware: Semantics, Morpho-Syntax, Lexicon, Phonology (dissertation)." (©1972 Bruce L. Pearson), Touching Leaves Co., 1988.
  • Prewitt, Terry J. "Tradition and Culture Change in the Oklahoma Delaware Big House Community: 1867 - 1924" Contributions in Archaeology no. 9, University of Tulsa, 1981.
  • Rementer, James A. "A Lenape Family Named Thompson." Bulletin #49 of the Archaeological Society of New Jersey, 1994.
  • Stewart, Ty. "Oklahoma Delaware Women's Dance Clothing." American Indian Crafts and Culture Magazine (1973).
  • Teague, Margaret W. History of Washington County and Surrounding Area, Bartlesville, OK: Bartlesville Historical Commission, 1967.
  • Twaddle, Andrew C. and Hessler, Richard M. A Sociology of Health. The C. V. Mosby Co., 1977.
  • University Forum: The Delaware Indians Then and Now, a two-part educational video featuring Nora Thompson Dean and Terry J. Prewitt, hosted by Fran Reingold, University of Tulsa, 1980
  • Weslager, C.A. "Name-Giving among the Delaware Indians." Names, Journal of the American Name Society (December 1971).
  • Weslager, C.A. The Delaware Indians: A History. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1972.
  • Weslager, C.A. Magic Medicines of the Indians NJ: Middle Atlantic Press, 1973.
  • Weslager, C.A. "The Wolf, Turkey, and Turtle." Delaware Conservationist, 18: 4 (Winter 1974) 75.
  • Weslager, C.A. Red Men on the Brandywine, 2nd ed. Wilmington, DE: Delmar Agency, Inc., 1976.
  • Weslager, C.A. "New Castle, Delaware - And Its Former Names." Names, the Journal of the American Name Society, June, 1976
  • Weslager, C.A. The Delaware Indian Westward Migration. NJ: Middle Atlantic Press, 1978.
  • Weslager, C.A. "Lenape Ethnology from William Penn's Relation of 1683." Bulletin of the Archaeological Society of Delaware18 New Series (1985)
  • Williams, Joe. Bartlesville: Remembrances of Times Past, Reflections of Today. Bartlesville OK: TRW Reda Pump Division, 1978.

Further reading[edit]

  • Cranor, Ruby, ed. Pioneer Profiles, Bartlesville OK: Washington County Historical Society, 1982.
  • Klein, Barry T. ed. Reference Encyclopedia of the American Indian: Who's Who, 3rd edition, vol.. II, Rye, NY: Todd Publications, 1978.
  • Kraft, Herbert C. "Plants, Herbs and the Healing Arts Among the Delaware Indians," The Herbarist, 51 (1985)
  • "Nora Dean: She Lived Here When Legends Were A Way of Life." Oklahoma Character Magazine (June, 1983).
  • Oestreicher, David M. "In Search of the Lenape: The Delaware Indians Past and Present." Scarsdale Historical Society, Scarsdale, NY, 1995.
  • Streznewski, Marylou. "A Real American Comes Home." Bucks County Panorama 12:12 (1970)
  • Ward, Mary Sam. ed. Delaware Women Remembered Wilmington DE: The Modern Press, Inc., 1977.
  • Weslager, C.A. "Name-Giving among the Delaware Indians." Names, Journal of the American Name Society (December 1971).
  • Weslager, C.A. Magic Medicines of the Indians. NJ: Middle Atlantic Press, 1973.
  • Weslager, C.A. and Rementer, James A. "American Indian Genealogy And A List of Names Bestowed By A Delaware Indian Name-Giver." The Pennsylvania Genealogical Magazine, 30:1 (1977)

External links[edit]