Why Care about Lënapei Lixsëwakàn? Ethnography of the Lenape Language Loss

By Hlebowicz, Bartosz | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Why Care about Lënapei Lixsëwakàn? Ethnography of the Lenape Language Loss


Hlebowicz, Bartosz, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


The Delaware Tribe of Oklahoma, which originated in the Northeastern Woodlands, today struggles to preserve the Lenape language of their ancestors, whose last fluent native speaker died in 2002. The tribe's language reclamation efforts are in large part connected with the works of Jim Rementer, a non-Indian who came to live with them at the beginning of the 1960s, learned their language, and in the course of time became the director of their language project. However, the "old ways" - former cultural patterns - have long since been abandoned or dramatically changed, and together with them their attachment to the language. Those few Delawares who do try to learn it must study it as a second language, without a natural/traditional learning setting. The 11,000 Delawares live, go to school and work among a much larger non-native society, which makes mastering the language extremely difficult. Yet, despite this situation, efforts to protect the language continue to be made, and an impressive source base for contemporary and future learners (Delaware language grammar, internet dictionary, CD lessons) has been continually enlarged. Today, when political divisions within the tribe weaken the community cohesiveness, a well-documented language, "alive in Delawares' minds", remains one of the most valuable elements of their heritage, a source of their ethnic pride, but also a challenge.

Keywords: Delaware Tribe, Indian Territory, Lenape, endangered languages, language preservation and reclamation, ethnic identity

My prayer is that my grandchildren will know that the Delaware Nation1 is still here and functioning. They will have heard their language spoken and their songs sung.

Dee Ketchum, 2001, (then) Delaware Tribe Chief

(Delaware Indian News 2001, 24(1): 1)

The Delaware Tribe of Oklahoma, whose members now all speak English as their mother tongue, is located in the two most northeastern counties of Oklahoma, Washington and Nowata, but has registered members living all over the US and in other countries. With a population of about 11,000, this is the twentieth largest Indian tribe in the US (USCB, 2002) and the largest of the Delaware groups living in the US and Canada. Like the majority of Native American groups today, the Delawares do not own their reservation. "The Delaware country", drained by the Caney and Verdigris rivers, may seem quite indistinguishable to an outside observer, but to the Delawares it holds 'a uniquely Delaware sense of place' due to their 150-year presence in the area (Obermeyer, 2009: 181). The tribal office is in Bartlesville, Washington County, the town that grew from the 1873 homestead of a mixed family (Jacob H. Bartles, a white businessman, and Nannie Journeycake, daughter of the Delaware chief Charles Journeycake) (Weslager, 1991: 445).

Lenape, the language of the Delawares (Lënapei lixsëwakàn), is not spoken on an everyday basis since all fluent native speakers have died out - the last one in 2002. Thus on Fishman's Graded Intergeneration Dislocation Scale (GIDS) it occupies stage 8, the lowest: those languages 'for which ample evidence is available but who have lost their native speakers to such a degree that these languages must first be learned as second languages before further sociofunctional repertoire expansion can be envisioned for them'. It is a language which is used - if at all - 'outside of natural social settings' (Fishman, 1991: 287). However, the Lenape language is very well documented and its archiving continues. This article discusses the historical and political reasons for the Delaware language loss, analysing both external and internal factors which have made language reclamation an extremely challenging task. It also offers a summary of contemporary efforts to preserve the language. By demonstrating how language (and language reclamation efforts) affect the group's identity, the article points out the importance of having members of the community formulate their own language expectations and discusses conditions which may help reclaim the language. …

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