Published on July 29, 2012 by Amy
Nora Thompson Dean (1907–1984), whose Lenape name, Wenjipahkeehlehkwe, translates as Touching Leaves Woman, was a member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, a Lenape tribe. As a Lenape traditionalist and one of few remaining fluent speakers of the southern Unami dialect of Lenape, she was an influential mentor to younger tribal members and is widely cited in scholarship on Lenape culture.
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Nora Thompson was born ten miles east of Bartlesville, Oklahoma, at Glen Oak, on July 3rd, 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.
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.
In the later part of her life, Dean divided her time between craftwork, working with students who came to her home to study, lecturing at universities, working at museums demonstrating Lenape craftwork, working at different universities as a resource person, and preparing educational material for sale through her business. This 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.
Oklahoma governor George Nigh declared Dean an Oklahoma Ambassador of Good Will.