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Canku Ota

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(Many Paths)

An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America


November 30, 2002 - Issue 75


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The Vanishing Voice of the Lenape

by Steve Chambers Star-Ledger Staff
Lenape Relocation MapCAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- In a tiny cubicle a block off Harvard Square, Bruce Stonefish sits alone, a Delaware language dictionary open on his desk.

A photo of his three young children is pinned to an otherwise blank bulletin board behind his head, framing his spiked black hair. His modern office chair seems too small for his 6-foot-2, 250-pound frame.

In the second year of a Harvard fellowship, Stonefish has made the painful decision to leave his family behind in Canada while he pursues a quixotic quest.

All his life, Stonefish has spoken, thought and dreamed in English, but he felt drawn to another rhythm beating deep inside, strong and steady, like the heartbeat of mother earth.

Stonefish, 30, is Lenape, a proud member of the Delaware Nation and descendant of a sad and bloody history. Growing up in Ontario, on the world's only reservation of his far-flung tribe, he came to recognize that the drumming he felt was the sound of an ancient culture, the language of his people.

The Lenape once dominated a broad region that included all of what is now New Jersey, but by the time Stonefish was born, their language and culture were careening toward extinction. Stonefish believes he can change that.

"In my heart, I think I'm going in the right direction and doing the right thing," he says softly. "I think this language can be saved."

To accomplish that goal, he spends hours consulting his dictionary or surfing the Web for guidance on a language he desperately wants to speak fluently and already has begun teaching to willing students.

The secret is in the words that sound so friendly and foreign at the same time.

Nii Dushiinzii Bruce. My name is Bruce.

Dulaangoomawak takwax. My clan is Turtle.

Nii Noonjiiyea Moraviantown. I am from Moraviantown.

By 1609, when Henry Hudson sailed up the river that now bears his name, the Lenape had been living in what is now New Jersey for more than 10,000 years.

They had evolved from nomadic hunters into a sophisticated network of loosely connected clans with cultural and linguistic similarities. They planted vegetable gardens, built sturdy bark houses, hunted with bows and worshipped nature.

Gradually, they adopted a common language that originated in the Great Lakes region, part of a far-reaching language family called Algonquian. As Italian and French are members of the Romance language family, Lenape and dozens of other languages are members of the Algonquian family.

Although no political structure connected these bands, they referred to themselves as Lenape, or "common people." Their territory sprawled across four present-day states -- New Jersey and parts of Pennsylvania, New York and Delaware. When the English arrived, they gave the Lenape the name "Delaware." (Tribal members today use both terms -- Delaware and Lenape -- interchangeably in conversation. Most linguists also refer to the language as Delaware.)

Although some of the initial contacts with Europeans were friendly -- the Lenape famously sold Manhattan to the Dutch and deeded land to William Penn -- the tribe was eventually decimated, stricken by smallpox and caught in the cross fire of warring Colonial interests.

By the mid-1700s, the Lenape had been driven from New Jersey. They joined with other displaced Lenape and began a seemingly endless search for a place to root their new Delaware Nation.

But promises of land were often broken as the American frontier moved west. The tribe settled for a time in Kansas, but by the time of the Civil War was caught once again between warring parties. The tribe agreed to relocate once more, this time to Oklahoma.

Today, the largest group of Lenape is clustered north of Tulsa, in and around the little town of Bartlesville, while a smaller group is based to the west in Anadarko. In the 2000 Census, about 16,000 Americans declared themselves to be of Delaware descent.

The forced march to Oklahoma took its toll on the language, and in 1878 the government began opening boarding schools that made matters worse.

"Kids were taken from their parents and there was no choice," said Alice Anderton, executive director of the Intertribal Wordpath Society in Norman, Okla., which promotes the preservation of native languages. "They were forbidden from speaking their language or wearing their clothes or practicing their customs. They were forced to become more like white people."

These days, there are no more Delaware speakers in Oklahoma, nor are there any in the homelands of the New Jersey region, where traces of the language survive in the names of towns, rivers and parks -- Hoboken, Hackensack, Kittatinny.

To find speakers, one must go to Canada.

A splinter group of several hundred Lenape in the Colonies had accepted the teachings of German missionaries called Moravians. A pacifist order intent on establishing self-sufficient Christian communities among the native peoples, the Moravians were frequently unable to protect their converts. In 1782, a mob of settlers massacred 90 Lenape Christians, 34 of them children, in Gnadenhutten, Ohio.

The fearful survivors moved north. These Lenape converts eventually settled along the Thames River, in the thumb of Southwest Ontario that juts between Lakes Huron and Erie. They named their settlement Moraviantown.

Today the two-square-mile reservation is a sleepy place of gravel roads, cornfields and modest one-story homes, population 400. A collection of simple tribal buildings is clustered around a crossroads, including a day care center with a colorful mural featuring Delaware words of inspiration.

On one end of town, a hulking church with peeling white paint stands as a remembrance of the town's Christian history.

The Moravian missionaries were strict in their worship and lifestyle, but they had some progressive ideas. They encouraged the translation of sermons and hymns into Delaware and wrote the first dictionary for what had been until then only a spoken language.

The Moravians eventually died off, but the Anglicans who replaced them were similarly interested in the language. This encouragement helped maintain the Delaware language in Moraviantown even as many other native traditions slipped away.

There were families who retained the language, and others who passed the knowledge of herbal healing on to their children. There were families who still danced and prayed to the Creator, usually in their homes. Many children recall parents or grandparents huddled around the kitchen table at night, speaking of the traditions in Delaware.

It was on this tiny reservation, so filled with history and significance for the tribe, that Bruce Stonefish was born in 1972.

Stonefish's mother, Myrna, came from one of those families who remained proud of their native roots. Her father had moved the family off the reservation to Detroit, where he worked in the steel industry, but her mother, the late Hannah Aikens, always stressed their heritage.

Aikens was a Delaware speaker, and when, clad in traditional buckskin, she gave cultural lectures to elegantly dressed members of Michigan social clubs, she often brought her daughter along in full tribal regalia to dance.

Years later, while visiting her daughter in Moraviantown, Aikens looked out on the front lawn and saw her grandson organizing the other children into some kind of sporting event. As was the tradition, she gave Bruce Stonefish a Lenape name: Liileunow, or Leader.

When Stonefish was old enough for school, his mother read him "Valley of the Shadow," an account of the massacre at Gnadenhutten as told by a young survivor, and she encouraged him to learn native dance.

Stonefish's father, Barry, didn't have the same interests. Shortly after their marriage in 1970, he forbade his wife from dancing publicly and discouraged her efforts to get his first son involved. To him, these were unnecessary things for succeeding in the white man's world.

Although Stonefish remembers happy times hunting squirrels and playing in the wooded paths of the family property, there are other memories as well.

Moraviantown in the 1970s wasn't the utopian enclave envisioned by the missionaries. There was high unemployment, heavy drinking and the occasional spark of violence, a dark period that tribal leaders believe had a lot to do with lost traditions and shattered cultural identity. Often unemployed, Stonefish's father was an alcoholic with a quick temper.

"A lot of people I knew thought my kids were older than they were," Myrna said. "But we had a lot of tough times. We talked about a lot of things. We exposed the family secrets."

While violence occasionally flared at home, Stonefish also was finding that prejudice was a way of life in the public schools he attended off the reservation.

Tall and strongly built like his father, he was a gifted hockey and baseball player. But it seemed to him that the battles on the ice or field got personal when they pitted Indians against whites. In school, the groups rarely mixed.

More and more frequently, Stonefish found himself turning to alcohol to forget the pressures, soothe the pain and fit in with his friends. It was on a night shortly after his mother fled Moraviantown to a shelter for battered women that Stonefish, at the age of 19, slit his wrist.

Bruce Stonefish still bears the scar from the suicide attempt, a physical reminder of the event that changed his life. From that day forward, he stopped listening so much to his peers and started listening to his tribal elders.

One of the first people who made sense to Stonefish was Jim Tobias, a veteran of the violent 1973 standoff between federal law enforcement officers and Native Americans at Wounded Knee, S.D. Tobias was an alcoholism counselor, and he stressed native traditions as a way for troubled youth to find their way to sobriety.

Stonefish helped Tobias build the first sweat lodge in Moraviantown since World War I, when members of the tribe had entered the steam-filled enclosure to pray before shipping off to Europe. He joined a drum group, pounding out his troubles to the rhythmic chants of the ancestors.

He also became interested in tribal history, helping form a historical society and making his first emotional visits to New York and New Jersey with a former chief, Richard Snake, known as Uncle Richard to the teenagers he mentored in tribal traditions.

Finally, Stonefish began to study the language of his people.

Like other children from Moraviantown, Stonefish had been taught some Delaware fundamentals by a tribal member named Dianne Snake who, today, at 61, is the youngest surviving native speaker. But when he went to public school, much of these early lessons were forgotten.

"I could say wiimbat, which means 'ten,' because it sounded so funny, but that's all I really knew about language," Stonefish said.

When Dianne Snake offered a class to older students, Stonefish threw himself into the study. He now credits Snake for getting him started on a life's path. He headed eagerly to the native-studies program at nearby Trent University, determined to improve the status of his people and their culture.

Over the years, Stonefish became increasingly involved with the native movement to revitalize the ancient culture. With friends from two other tribes, he founded a consulting firm, Myaat Wteeh, or One Heart, which advises tribes on community development.

Spurred on by his partners and tribal elders, Stonefish went on to earn a master's degree and, finally, win a fellowship to Harvard. He vowed to use his credentials to fight the annihilation of his culture and the death of his language.

Linguists believe half the world's 6,500 languages may die off in the next century. They compare the loss of language -- an increasingly common phenomenon in a world of global economies -- to the extinction of a species or the paving of a rain forest. They ponder whether the world will lose something vital without ever knowing or understanding it.

"The foundation of our cultural and ethnic identity is the language, and the language is what makes us different from all other Indians," said Curtis Zunigha, a former Lenape chief in Oklahoma. "We cannot preserve our unique identity in English. We cannot go to the sacred circle and pray in English."

But if the language of the Lenape drifts into oblivion, it won't vanish without a trace.

Scientists have studied it since the 1960s, visiting members of the tribe in Oklahoma and Ontario and recording hundreds of hours of conversations with fluent speakers.

In addition to a dictionary by Canadian researcher John O'Meara, a Web version that will allow students to hear words spoken in Delaware is in the works. A grammar guide is nearly finished. Most serious students of the language have a copy of O'Meara's dictionary on their desks, as Stonefish does at Harvard.

The linguists love the language's unique gutturals and whispers. They are fascinated by its marvelous descriptive qualities and verb-based structure. A verb can grow with the addition of prefixes and suffixes until it becomes an entire sentence. The verb "to put," for example, is mbiind, but the sentence, "I am putting on my shirt," is expressed in one word: mbiindunahéémbta.

Linguists acknowledge that not all languages can survive in a world linked by television, radio, computer and jet. But they believe there will be ramifications if the world writes off a whole family of languages, the way the U.S. government once tried to extinguish Native American tongues.

(In one striking indication that government policy has been reversed, the tribe in Bartlesville, Okla., won a $209,000 grant from the National Science Foundation this year to study how its language could be preserved.)

"Every language is not just a collection of words," said Ives Goddard, the first modern linguist to study Delaware in the 1960s. "It's a different way of labeling the world and the environment and personal experiences. It's a different take on how the human brain can wrap itself around things worth talking about."

The value of indigenous languages was driven home during World War II, when the American military used Navajo speakers to pass messages about bombing missions and troop movements, a tactic that stymied Japan's code breakers.

How could a language, so different from English that it could trick expert code breakers, also be so similar that it could accurately convey complex sets of military orders?

Rutgers University professor Mark Baker, a linguist and author of "The Atoms of Language," wrote that linguists discovered similarities in even the most far-flung languages. There are common sentence orders and grammar rules that defy coincidence and migration patterns. Some theorize that the only possible explanation is similarities in the human brain.

But because it is a relatively modern science, linguistics has yet to connect the dots between all the world's languages. That mission is growing increasingly difficult as more and more languages vanish, and hundreds of others stop being passed along to large groups of children.

Stonefish wants to remedy that situation, and he is doing so one small group at a time. He has taken on a group of willing students in New Jersey, and he has begun to drum up support for a large-scale crusade within the tribe.

On one windy day a year ago, Stonefish stood in a field in southern New Jersey, in Cumberland County, and talked about his dream of uniting the lost remnants of the Delaware Nation.

He had come with a vision to the tribal grounds of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape -- one of four New Jersey groups who claim Lenape ancestry but have never been recognized by the federal government. There were representatives from other parts of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and as far away as Oklahoma.

As Stonefish spoke, his deep voice resonating through the crowd, the elders nodded their approval. They laughed when he joked about not wanting to be viewed as a prophet, a hero or even a "good-looking" man, and they grew sober when he turned to more serious matters.

"We grew up with something of an identity crisis, not knowing who we were," he said as murmurs of recognition spread through the crowd. "I don't want my kids to go through the same things, the same search for their identity and their family."

This dream of rebuilding one Delaware Nation that could revive the tribe's culture and language is a controversial one. It faces political hurdles, because it would graft groups that lack federal recognition onto those that have it. It is viewed with skepticism by anthropologists wary of "wannabe" Lenapes popping up with increasing frequency in the homelands.

Even many tribal leaders in Oklahoma -- where they have proven to the satisfaction of government experts that their ancestors once lived in the New Jersey region -- view many members of disputed East Coast groups as interlopers.

But Stonefish believes it is essential for the tribe to cast off bureaucratic designations if the language is to survive. His idea has roots in another meeting, held on the campus of Seton Hall University in South Orange the year he was born.

The Delaware Indian Symposium was the brainchild of Herbert Kraft, a somewhat eccentric archeologist and anthropologist considered at the time of his death on Oct. 31, 2000, to be the world's pre-eminent Lenape scholar.

Kraft's May 6, 1972, gathering of academics also united tribal members from Oklahoma and Canada for the first time since the 1700s.

"After the American Revolution, the Delaware Nation was scattered to the four winds," said David Oestreicher, an anthropologist and longtime student of Lenape culture. "The knowledge had been lost, particularly by the younger people, that they even came from the Hudson Valley or the Delaware Valley."

The symposium, and a subsequent gathering in 1981, sparked tribal members' interest in their own history. Among those in attendance was Nora Thompson Dean, or Touching Leaves Woman, who had lectured eloquently on the beauty of native ways and what appeared to be their inevitable demise.

Soon the tribal groups were holding their own regular gatherings and talking about themselves again as one Delaware Nation.

Dean died in 1984, just about the time her lifelong ambition of restoring Lenape culture was starting to win serious converts. She had watched many fellow speakers die, and more would follow. When her brother, Edward Thompson, died Aug. 31 in Oklahoma at the age of 98, he was the last native Delaware speaker in the United States.

But in their place were a new breed of Lenape, people like Stonefish, who held similar aspirations for ancient tribal ways and were more defiant about the cause.

When Stonefish talks about his children's future, a note of urgency creeps into his voice. He is determined to save them from the kind of identity crisis he faced as an adolescent. He has learned, however, that passing along a dying language to the next generation is no easy proposition.

Stonefish and his wife, Cindy Jo, met in high school. She was a 15-year-old farm girl of English, Dutch and Belgian ancestry, blond-haired and blue-eyed. He was a handsome athlete 18 months her senior. Although she lived nearby, she knew little about Moraviantown.

As Lenape culture began to dominate Stonefish's professional and personal life, his wife remained supportive, attending the annual powwows at Moraviantown and other tribal functions. But she drew the line at learning the language.

"That was always a hard thing for me, just like I had trouble with French," she said. "Bruce picked it up so easily."

The couple's two older children, Kyla, 9, and Jesse, 6, complain when Stonefish tries to teach them basic Delaware, and he hasn't made much progress with 2-year-old Jo Lynn, either.

"It's hard for them to understand why they should be learning these words when everyone else is just speaking English," he said. "They know their animals, and when I'm upset with them, I scold them in Delaware. They know those words."

Even fluent speakers have struggled to pass on a language in decline.

Rita Huff, 80, who lives on one of the quiet gravel roads of Moraviantown, said she regrets not working harder at it with her children. She and three other women living on the reservation are the last living native speakers.

Huff remembers singing Christian hymns at Lenape wakes into the wee hours and struggling to learn English when government teachers came to the reservation.

"I really miss that language, I do," she said one afternoon as she sat in the corner of her living room, her head framed by ancient family portraits. Seated on a couch against another wall papered with family photos were her daughter and granddaughter. "My children know some words," Huff said, "and they ask me, 'Why didn't you teach us?' But I tell them: 'You wouldn't learn it. You weren't interested.'"

Huff's daughter and granddaughter agreed. Although they often sing Delaware hymns at their Pentecostal church and occasionally share a secret joke with the help of a word or two in their native tongue, there is little chance they will ever be fluent.

"I think when I was being raised, the people were ashamed of it," said Gwen Williams, 56. "It seemed like nobody wanted to hear it. Now it's too late. There isn't anyone hardly left to teach it."

This is the situation that Bruce Stonefish finds himself in:

The last fluent speakers are dying off, even as the interest in the language has started to build. Far from fluent himself, he has been put in a position of being both student and teacher.

Almost daily, he finds some new piece of evidence on the Internet. One recent afternoon at Harvard, Stonefish pored over a series of lengthy Bible passages that had been translated into Delaware during the time of the missionaries. He was searching for usages that would help him unscramble difficult grammar questions.

Two weeks later, on an overcast October morning, Stonefish rose before dawn and drove a rented pickup truck down to Mahwah for a visit with the Ramapough Mountain People, another New Jersey group who claim Lenape lineage.

Stonefish had agreed to teach a two-day language class, but he had come down with a fever the night before and arrived at the Ramapough's cement-block headquarters ragged and coughing. The class began with Stonefish wearily distributing a lengthy handout to a handful of students.

Seated at the head of a conference table, he dispensed some of the hard truths about the state of the language. He looked tired, but as he began to quiz the group -- which gradually grew to a dozen parents and children -- he came to life. He stood up and roamed the room, encouraging students to speak in Delaware.

"You guys are good at this," he said after two had rattled off a brief introduction.

He began to laugh at obvious blunders, and his humor was infectious.

When he went around the table, having the students explain why they wanted to learn the language, he nodded appreciatively at their mention of culture and identity.

Suddenly upbeat and determined again, Stonefish said: "For me, this is not a depressing thing. This is a challenge. This is a matter of finding the right people and working with them. We are in this together."

The linguists who studied Delaware say there is more interest in it among tribal members than they have ever seen.

"People are still preoccupied with the events of everyday life, and that means English," said Bruce Pearson, a retired professor of linguistics at the University of South Carolina. "But just as there is increased interest in powwows and other cultural expression, there is growing interest in language."

There are other instances where "sleeping" languages have been revived. Hebrew, for example, was all but dead until the creation of Israel in 1948 gave it a reason for being.

Linguists foresee something far less ambitious for Delaware. They believe an increasing number of tribal members will learn to pray and chant in their native tongue, helping maintain the culture and leaving the language lingering something short of death.

Stonefish has bigger plans. When he was studying for a master's in education at the University of Toronto, a professor once asked him if he really thought his language could be saved.

"I've spent many years of my life doing this, and I'm going to continue doing it," he recalls answering somewhat indignantly. "If I didn't believe that the language was going to come back, why would I do what I'm doing?"

He is not the only member of the Delaware Nation intent on keeping the language alive. The larger Oklahoma group has a language-preservation office, which is putting together the interactive dictionary with the help of the federal grant, and tribal members say there is growing interest among the youth.

At Moraviantown, Dianne Snake runs a language-preservation office and is grooming her 22-year-old assistant, Tara Jacobs, to take her place. Jacobs is slowly learning the language and is teaching the young children of Moraviantown at the kindergarten and day care center.

Jacobs, who has never been to college, plans to begin attending nearby Lakeland University this summer to earn a teaching certificate. She wants to follow her young students off the reservation when they enter the Ontario public school system.

"That's where the future lies, the Taras and the Bruces," Chief Phil Snake, the husband of the language preservationist, said one morning as he sipped coffee on his porch.

"I have great faith in those people. I'm not afraid of the future. It's going to be great to be a Delaware Indian in the next 30 to 40 years."

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