The Shinnecock Native Americans can trace their ancestry back more than 10,000 years to the very first people on Long Island. There are now about 1,500 tribal members, and many of them live on an 800-acre reservation in Southampton.
The Shinnecock no longer have native speakers, so in their quest to secure the future of their language, they’ve decided to enlist some of their youngest members: preschoolers.
The Wuneechanunk Shinnecock Preschool is the reservation’s only preschool. Early one morning, a handful of students, ages 1 to 3 ½, sat in a circle. Each child got a turn to beat a drum, while the other children sang “Aquay,” which means “hello” in Shinnecock.
They sing this song because of tribal members like Tina Tarrant. Tarrant is a Shinnecock linguist, who scours historical texts written in Shinnecock and English to bring back native words.
“What I’ve done was try to pick out portions of the language that we can use and build conversation, and we can pop in different vocabulary words.”
Like hakame for “welcome” and mos kunawush for “see you later.”
Tina Tarrant’s mother was Elizabeth Thunderbird Haile. She was a respected tribal elder and educator, who dreamed of a school like this Wuneechanunk where they could teach the language to their young. Thunderbird Haile died just two months after the school opened; a tree was planted in her memory.
Josephine Smith is the director of the language and cultural program on the reservation. She says the Shinnecock are like many Native American tribes who want to reclaim their language. They don’t like to hear their languages described as lost or dead.
“We have had over 400 years of people trying to take our language away from us and trying to stop us from using our language.”
Smith was one of the first on the reservation to give her children Shinnecock names – like Cholena, which means “snowbird.” Others like Tina Tarrant have done the same. Tarrant says it’s the early stages of a reclamation process that will continue for a long time.
“As everyone becomes familiar with this way of saying things then we’ll move onto another way. And that will go on for generations,” Smith said.
The tribe now offers Shinnecock language classes in the evenings for adults.