By Marissa Maier
According 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.
On 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.
“These 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 The group, she noted, combed through historical documents, hoping to help piece together the full Shinnecock language.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.
“In 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 you.’”
Smith 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.
“Our 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.”
For 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.
“English 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.”
According 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 speaker.
The 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.
“The 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.
On 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 community.”
The 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.
Although a fair amount of work is yet to be done, Smith believes it is worth the effort: “Language builds a better community.”