Richard “Quiet Thunder” Gilbert is a traditional Lenape Indian elder and chief residing in the state of Delaware. For three decades, he has inspired thousands of grade-schoolers and adults in Delaware, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Southern New Jersey, thrilling them with his authentic presentations and stories.
While surrounded by hundreds of handcrafted cultural items, the chief’s delivery is relaxed and sprinkled with humor, captivating his audience with his description of a time and place when nature was the only world. To his ancestors, “The roof was the sky, the ground was the floor, and life was so simple.” It is a way of life long forgotten.
The Original People is a compelling collection of the chief’s childhood memories and a history of his tribe. He describes tribal ceremonies, traditions, and social life before contact with Europeans. The book is a tribute to an esteemed Native American and extols the wisdom of his people who enjoyed a peaceful existence for many thousands of years. It is a story few people know. Working for over seven years recording and transcribing hundreds of interviews, stories, and conversations, author Greg Vizzi allows Quiet Thunder to speak in his own voice. His voice, like his name, has a restrained power that is hard to resist. As thunder accompanies lightning, his words bring new light to our understanding of American Indians.
In his early eighties, this “peaceful warrior” has an important message to share coming straight from his heart and native culture: “The earth is our mother, and we all have a sacred obligation to learn to live in harmony with her and protect her for future generations.” His message has not changed over the years and becomes even more relevant as our planet comes under escalating environmental impacts from industrial extraction and over-consumption.
He not only leads by example, but gives his readers a philosophical road map for using what he calls our "power of balance” to protect future generations. His message is especially intended for the children in his audiences. As he says in the book, “It is their world we are leaving them, and we have not done a very good job.” Often, in their letters thanking the chief, they promise to remember him and his words for the rest of their lives.
In his introduction to The Original People, Quiet Thunder writes: “I developed my beliefs through time spent in the wild, talking to elders and maintaining the traditional ways. While many Indians prefer to keep their culture, traditions and beliefs secret, sharing only within their tribes, I believe strongly that it is through sharing our rich past that Native Americans can have the greatest positive impact on the modern world. In my presentations I try to do more than simply entertain people with colorful outfits and trinkets. I try to pass on ideas that meant something to my family and my ancestors, ideas that still have significance today."
From the first line of The Original People, you will be drawn into Quiet Thunder’s almost forgotten world. Read on, you will be delighted and surprised.
Government: Who’s In Charge?
In the Lenape Indian world, women carried a lot of political power. Just to give you an idea of how powerful it was, when young people married, the man went and lived with his wife’s people. All the children from that marriage took on the mother’s clan, not the man’s. So, if I married you and we moved into your village or amongst your people, our children would not be Gilberts, they would be of your clan. Now there are also some real spiritual things involved here.
In the past, the Clan Mothers were the principal power behind the selection of a Lenape chief. My understanding is that they selected chiefs on their merit, their ability to make good decisions, and their generosity. The final decision was made by mutual consent within the tribal council, but the Clan Mothers carried a lot of influence in the election of a chief. Originally, if you had been elected a chief you remained a chief all your life. With some tribes, if a new chief is elected then you lose that chief status. With others, you keep it. In the case of my tribe, I am still considered a chief. Today the Tribal Council usually handles disputes. Sometimes they might appoint committees for specific duties, disputes, or specific programs. The Council has the final say.
Law: Tribal Justice
Remember the expression “Honest Injin”? You don’t hear it anymore. People who don’t know take it as some kind of joke. But it was no joke. Lying was a mortal sin! You learned that early in life. Before a person would lie, he wouldn’t say anything. At times that was used against him. The people could tell what was going on just by what he wouldn’t say. If someone were caught in a lie they would be banished from the tribe and the village. Runners were sent to the other villages to inform them that this person was a liar. He was a lost fawn in the high weeds because nobody would have anything to do with him.
War and Peace: Keeping the Peace
Some of the history books give the impression there were a lot of conflicts among the Eastern Woodland Indians. This is not true. Before European contact, there were conflicts among the Iroquois people but the other tribes were very peaceful. Many woodland tribes married into the Lenape, which made them all relatives. Keeping the peace was everyone’s responsibility. Prior to European contact, they did not fight a war. They were a peaceful people. They made no weapons of war. If they were attacked, their hunting bow would become a weapon. Their fish spear would become a weapon. Their stone knife or hatchet would become a weapon. They never really made weapons of war. That didn’t enter into it.
Health: A Natural Lifestyle
Meat and fish were a part of our diet but it was also mixed with vegetables, nuts, fruits, roots, and herbs. It was a varied diet and from everything I can gather, it was an exceptionally healthy diet. The Lenape were exceptionally healthy people not just because of their diet, although diet played a big role, but also because of their beliefs. They believed they were a part of nature, not separate, that they were a part of that naturalness, and spiritually connected to everything. I think this tended to make them not just physically exceptional, but mentally exceptional.
They were in a natural function, not set apart from nature. They were very robust people. They lived outdoors most of their lives and this was all conducive to a very healthy person. They wore few clothes so their bodies could breathe, except during very harsh winters. At that time there were no chemicals and no alcohol or anything that did not go with the natural functions of the body. So they were exceptionally healthy people.
Food Preparation and Storage: No Refrigeration Needed
Food that was dried and smoked was stored underground. Jerky and pemmican were placed in containers made from rawhide. There were special areas for storage. It was usually high ground with sandy soil. They dug pits and stored food such as corn, acorns, and nuts in these pits. Many of these storage pits were lined with limbs and branches and were used repeatedly. Today, archaeologists and anthropologists are finding these pits. They can tell they had been opened and closed more than one time, sometimes many times by the different colors of the layers of soil. If the people found an area with plenty of resources that was convenient to the village, they would maintain those pits for generations.
Real Estate: Fact or Fiction?
The European concept of real estate was that you lived where you built your house, your barn, your outbuildings, where you had your livestock, and your fields. That was their concept, where the Lenape concept was so different. We did not stay in one spot forever. We would follow the harvest through the seasons in several locations. In the spring we traveled from the winter villages to the Delaware River and Bay area for the fish migration. Later on, we walked to the seashore for the shellfish. In the winter we came back to our winter villages and villages in the forest. In this way, we gave nature a chance to rejuvenate itself. The Europeans’ concept was that life must be stationary, but we moved around.