Shinnecock Youth Hold Language’s Future in Hands

Juan Gamble, 2, was having trouble speaking before attending the Wuneechanunk Preschool, his mother Vanessa Jones, 27, said. "His speech has come a long way."

By Jessica Opatich, Jordan Bowman, Kevin Urgiles

The Shinnecock Nation opened the Wuneechanunk Preschool on June 8 as part of longstanding efforts to revive the tribe’s dormant language.

The preschool located in Southampton, Long Island  is the first year-round, full-time program for childcare on the reservation. In the months since, its students, ages 18 to 36 months, have been learning a language that currently has no native speakers.

“Revitalization is a long-term, multigenerational process,” Leanne Hinton, professor emerita of American Indian languages and language revitalization at the University of California, Berkeley, said. “When there are no speakers, then the first issue is for motivated tribal members to find the documentation and learn how to work with it.”

The first efforts to revive the Shinnecock language were purely academic. A group of 16 linguistic scholars, graduate students and tribal leaders previously worked on gathering vocabulary. But beginning in 2009, the focus shifted towards tribal language education, according to Mary C. Pearl, former dean of Stony Brook Southampton.

Language education within the Shinnecock Nation became an active effort when the T.R.A.I.L.S. (Teaching, Restoring, and Archiving Indigenous Languages Software) program was created, according to Josephine Smith, the director of the cultural and language program at the reservation. The computer program allowed users to listen to the correct pronunciation of Shinnecock words and match pictures of objects with their Shinnecock names.

“We decided to purchase this program and that’s when the teaching started,” said Smith.

Over time, the late Princess Elizabeth “Chee Chee Thunderbird” Haile, a respected elder and cultural leader, geared education efforts towards the founding of a preschool, according to her granddaughter, Tohanash Tarrant, 31.

Wuneechanunk’s activities incorporate English and Shinnecock vocabulary. The children sing “Aquay,” which means “hello,” as part of a welcoming song. Toys and everyday objects are also labeled in both languages, according to Celeste Syas, 19, a teacher’s aide at Wuneechanunk. This is a key aspect of the community’s efforts to save the language.

“Right now, the students are just learning the basics,” Syas said. “We’re just trying to bring the language back—like as a tribe—everybody.”

There are nine students currently enrolled in the preschool. Two full-time teachers and five part-time teachers are in charge of teaching a condensed form of the Shinnecock Cultural Museum’s language course, but they are not fluent in the Shinnecock language, according to Ahanu Valdez, a teacher’s aid. Some scholars view this as a disadvantage.

“Very few programs are really successful in generating new generations of speakers,” Phillip S. LeSourd an associate professor of second language and anthropology at Indiana University, said. “It is hard when they don’t have native speaker models to learn from.”

Ultimately, it’s about reclaiming a piece of Shinnecock culture, Hinton said. For her, cultural revitalization and language revitalization go hand in hand.

“It’s all about positive, strong sense of identity within our community,” Tarrant, who is also the manager of the Wuneechanunk Preschool, said. She’s hopeful the preschool will grow, but currently there’s not enough funding for added teachers’ salaries. She is hoping to develop a future partnership with Long Island Head Start, a non-profit organization focused on early childhood education.

“A partnership with Head Start could mean opening two classrooms,” Tarrant said. There’s already a waitlist of students at Wuneechanunk, she added.

“It’s not necessarily the case that something extinct cannot be revived,” professor Robert Hoberman, who is leading a Native American language reclamation project at Stony Brook University said. “It’s not impossible.”