Walk into the Wuneechanunk Preschool on a typical weekday morning and you’ll be greeted by the smell of burning sage and words unheard anywhere else in the world: Children singing in the Shinnecock language.
Yes, this is the only Shinnecock reservation, and it’s a small one, about 650 people. But the reason the sound of Shinnecock being spoken is so unusual is that there are no fluent speakers of Shinnecock left — haven’t been for more than a century. With New York City only an hour and a half drive west, the pressure to assimilate has always been intense for the Native Americans of Long Island. That's the topic of this week's World in Words podcast.
“It didn't seem like a reasonable thing to spend their time and effort on for their children if it wasn't going to be helpful for their future,” says Tina Tarrant, the tribe’s language researcher. “And people don't imagine that your language is going to disappear entirely. That's, like, such a strange concept that people don't think of it."
But a few years ago, Tarrant came up with an even stranger concept: bringing that vanished language back. Even as a child, she had collected Shinnecock words the way other kids collected baseball cards.
“Well I just always wondered why people weren't saying more things in our language, because we always talked about culture, we always did the songs and the dances, [but] we didn't use our own words to describe what it was we were doing. So I started looking for the words, common phrases, nicknames — little bits and pieces.”...................
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