to James Crew, developer of T.R.A.I.L.S., a software that teaches,
restores and archives indigenous languages, Wickham Cuffee was the
last Shinnecock Indian Nation member to fluently speak the native
language. Cuffee passed away in 1925. But the Shinnecock language
wasn't buried along with him. Though it has lain dormant for many
decades, now a team of eight Native Americans, mainly comprised
of members of the Southampton-based Shinnecock and Mastic-based
Unkechaug nations, hope to wake this sleeping language giant through
the revitalization of the Northeastern dialect of Algonquin, the
language of the Shinnecock's ancestors.
Tuesday afternoon, the committee, which formed in August under the
auspices of the Shinnecock Nation Cultural Enrichment Program, met
in the basement of the Indian Education Program building on the
reservation. The members swapped information about computer keyboards
specially tailored to Native American languages and discussed the
search for funding to host linguistic speakers at the Shinnecock
reservation. For the past six months, this committee has vetted
nearly every aspect of the emerging language education program
from the proper pronunciation of words to researching the best way
to teach the Shinnecock language.
efforts have been many years in the making," noted Josephine Smith,
the cultural enrichment and language program coordinator. She pointed
out that the committee's efforts are piggybacking on a number of
projects. Committee member Tina Tarrant added that in 1990, she
and several others started a three-year project with grant monies.
The group, she noted, combed through historical documents, hoping
to help piece together the full Shinnecock language. Smith explains
that though the Shinnecock language isn't dead, it isn't spoken
with the same level of fluency as it once was.
1876, [after 10 Shinnecock men died trying to save a stranded freighter,
called the Circassian], there were all of these reports that that
was the last of the Shinnecock," remarked Smith. "That is like saying
we aren't here. We are still speaking the words and there is a degree
of fluency. We know the colors or phrases. A number of us have learned
words and teach those, like the words for 'come here' or 'thank
noted Algonquin words are used in the traditional Shinnecock songs,
at special events and written into the program at the Shinnecocks'
famous pow wows. Many words have been incorporated into the English
language, like moccasin and papoose, added Smith.
language isn't dead. As long as you know one word in your language
it isn't dead," argued Smith. "This is about revitalization and
maintaining the language."
Smith, and other members of the committee, language acquisition
is vital to maintaining the Shinnecock culture. With the introduction
of European settlers to the Southampton area in 1640, the fluency
of the Shinnecock people in their native tongue has slowly eroded,
said Smith. She added that English and the Christian religions of
the settlers were imposed upon the indigenous tribe.
isn't expressive of all things. For some reason the language has
always been in our hearts. A lot of times people say, 'I don't know
how to say [this emotion or concept],' and this is because we aren't
speaking the language of our ancestors to express or describe something,"
noted Smith. "Disconnecting people from their language is a way
to disconnect them from their value system. Many people are seeing
this and that is why there is a drive for language."
to a press release distributed by the Shinnecock, in August, 12
people from teenagers to tribal elders received four days of language
training with T.R.A.I.L.S. The multimedia system trains students
to become educators of an indigenous language on several learning
levels. Committee member Deborah Arch said the phonetic nature of
the program allowed her to retain more information. She has expanded
her vocabulary of phrases and is working towards becoming a conversational
committee members noted language acquisition and retention is often
easier for children than adults. This is why the group is paying
particular attention to teaching the native language to the youth
in the community.
infants are the teachers of the future; and the future is bright
for the native people," said Crew. He recalled a recent story in
which a Native American woman taught her daughter from infancy the
language of her ancestors. The daughter became the first fluent
speaker of the language since the 1700s.
speaking the Shinnecock language, Smith's daughter Cholena said,
"If we could do that, we could think and do as they thought and
did. Our people would be stronger and more unified for a better
committee hopes to kick-off formal language classes by the end of
May; and in the meantime will start a series of fundraising initiatives
to raise money for educational supplies, conferences and speakers.
The Shinnecocks are also working with the Stony Brook University
Southampton campus to create an Algonquin language institute, which
would be the first of its kind in the country.
a fair amount of work is yet to be done, Smith believes it is worth
the effort: "Language builds a better community."
Since the beginning, Shinnecock time has been measured in moons
and seasons, and the daily lives of our people revolved around the
land and the waters surrounding it. Our earliest history was oral,
passed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, and
as far back as our collective memory can reach, we are an Algonquin
people who have forever lived along the shores of Eastern Long Island.