Unfortunately, the words — meaning, respectively, “father” and “to stand” — aren’t recognizable to present-day members of the Unkechaug Tribe, either. That’s because neither the language of the Unkechaug nor the Shinnecock, both of whom live on Long Island, has been spoken in more than two centuries.
Now Stony Brook university on Long Island is helping the tribes to revive their lost languages, according to this story by Patricia Cohen in today’s New York Times.
They’re relying on sources as diverse as a vocabulary list drawn up by Thomas Jefferson when he visited New York in 1731 and interviewed three elderly women — the source of the two words above. The idea is to help tribal members become proficient in their own languages:
Chief Harry Wallace, the elected leader of the Unkechaug Nation, said that for tribal members, knowing the language is an integral part of understanding their own culture, past and present.
“When our children study their own language and culture, they perform better academically,” he said. “They have a core foundation to rely on.”
The Long Island effort is part of a wave of language reclamation projects undertaken by American Indians in recent years. For many tribes language is a cultural glue that holds a community together, linking generations and preserving a heritage and values. Bruce Cole, the former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which sponsors language preservation programs, has called language “the DNA of a culture.”
At the University of California, Berkeley, the Breath of Life program has seen people whose heritage includes 25 languages in its workshops. The people who created that program are looking to start a similar one in Washington, D.C. And at the Myaamia Project that’s a joint effort between the Miami Tribe and Miami University in Ohio, director Daryl Baldwin has helped his children become fluent.
That’s really important. As Cohen reports:
Of the more than 300 indigenous languages spoken in the United States, only 175 remain, according to the Indigenous Language Institute. This nonprofit group estimates that without restoration efforts, no more than 20 will still be spoken in 2050.
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