Monday, March 4, 2024

Language Lessons Breathe New Life into New Jersey’s Mother Tongue

Nikole Pecore, Native language teacher from Wisconsen, Came to Ringwood. Photo by C. O’Chang, 5/2023

In the gathering space of a church in Ringwood, about ten people sit in a circle and practice an unfamiliar language. The language is new to them, but it’s not new to the region at all.

“Koolamalsi?” the teacher, Nikole Pecore asks: how are you feeling?

“Noolamalsi,” most of us reply. We’re fine.

One woman breaks the pattern. “Nzhiiwasani,” she says, and people chuckle. She’s tired. By now, it’s past seven on a Wednesday night; aren’t we all?

The language is Munsee, a dialect of the Algonquin family of languages. Munsee is the native language of the Lenape (also spelled Lunaape), the indigenous people who originated in an area that included New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware.

Now, only one fluent Munsee speaker remains: an octogenarian in Moraviantown in Ontario, Canada. This makes the language critically endangered. Without efforts to preserve it, Munsee will be extinct– lost and impossible to revive.

Thankfully, those efforts are underway. The language lessons in Ringwood came about thanks to an equitable partnership between the Ramapough Lenape Turtle Clan and the NYU School of Medicine.

Many members of the Ramapough in Ringwood live close to the former site of a Ford manufacturing plant. The plant’s dumping procedures contaminated the surrounding land so badly that the Ringwood site was classified as a Superfund site not once, but twice. Today, the local community continues to experience higher levels of heart disease, diabetes, and hypertension, due in part to continued contamination from the Superfund site.

Judith Zelikoff, Director of Community Engagement with the Division of Environmental Medicine at the NYU School of Medicine, has worked in partnership with Chief Mann of the Turtle Clan for the past 10 years helping to assess and address the needs of the community.

The School of Medicine has conducted soil and water testing and hosted nutrition classes and health fairs but acknowledged a repeated request for help in bringing back the Munsee language.

That’s why language teacher Nikole Pecore has traveled here all the way from Wisconsin,
where she is an enrolled member of the Stockbridge-Munsee Band of Mohican Nation/Community.

Pecore saw that the Munsee Three Sisters Farm in Andover, a central site for the Ramapough Lenape, has made significant strides in revitalizing Lenape culture. She
came to learn from them in exchange for her help with their language revitalization.

Her teaching work preserves not only the knowledge of Munsee’s vocabulary and grammar, but also the culture behind the language.

“Language in itself is a worldview understanding of a people,” Pecore said. “Their connections with everything around them is held in their own language. The way they see the world, the way they understand the world, the way they communicate with the world is all held in that language.”

Pecore gives some quick examples. One immediately noticeable difference is Munsee’s
pronouns. English uses different third-person pronouns depending on a person’s gender:
she/her for girls and women and he/him for boys and men.

In Munsee, there is only one third-person pronoun: neeka. For Pecore, this is no linguistic accident. “Equality is built into the language,” she says.

Likewise, she points to Munsee’s word order as another sign of cultural values. In English, the sentence “I love you” emphasizes the first person, the subject, while the direct object of “you” signifies lesser importance.

The same meaning expressed in Munsee would translate to “It is you that I love,” a syntactical order that places more importance on the other person. Pecore sees this as a reflection of how people relate to one another in her community.

“Respect in our lodges is the number one rule,” she says. “And not respect just for human
beings, but all of existence,” said Pecore.

Pecore’s interest in language revitalization started as a little girl, when her aunt started bringing the language back to their community. She would practice the language with her cousin. When her aunt and cousin weren’t around, though, Pecore would practice using Munsee words and sentences alone.

“For years I had to speak in my own head to myself,” she said. “So as I was walking round,
that’s what I did with the natural world. I looked at it and I used the language in my head.”

Learning the language of the Lenape, Photo by C. O’Chang, 5/2023

As Pecore became a young adult, she joined language revitalization conferences and found a formal teacher in Glen Jacobs, who worked extensively in language revitalization efforts. She worked as a language teacher in the community, schools, and after-school programs before getting contracted with the tribe as a language teacher.

In 2021, Pecore joined other members of her community in founding the nonprofit organization Nova Nations, Inc. “And what it is, is language and cultural revitalization, telling our own story, putting the pieces back together,” she said.

The need for that work is extensive. European colonization brought famine, disease, and
violence, pushing many of the Lenape west to Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and other states in
fractured groups separated by long distances. Publicly practicing tribal traditions, religious
ceremonies, and even native languages was illegal in many areas until the passage of the
American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978.

“So my goal is to take that power back,” Pecore says, “and my way is through language.”

1978 was not so long ago, which means that in the living memory of many Lenape people and their descendants, public language lessons like this one would have been illegal. That can spark conflicting emotions in the older generation, Pecore acknowledged.

“Most of the participants are 60 years or older,” she said. “So you know it’s something that they’ve longed for and they know that they’re missing. But to come to terms with it… There’s so many emotions and trauma that has to be overcome for the older generations ,” she said. “Part of the language program has to be creating an environment of acceptance, comfort, and knowing that… you have to be sensitive to all those different emotions.”

But as for the younger generation of Munsee learners? “You can see a fire light in them,” she says. “An energy that pulls them in and they want to learn more.”

In addition to her language teacher, Pecore also works with Montclair State University and
Princeton University to document her community’s stories and further her language revitalization work.

In all of her work, Pecore sees herself as a steppingstone for the next generation. She herself is not a fluent speaker, but she hopes to make Munsee more accessible and easier to learn, so that the younger language learners can go further than she could.

“Our whole communities are set up that way,” she said. “Everything that we do is for the next seven generations. We look seven generations behind us in respect, we look seven generations ahead of us in all of our decisions that we make.”

For more information: Nova Nation has a work-in-progress website and a Facebook account. This session of Munsee language lessons will run through May 17th. Another session is tentatively planned for this summer. Updates can be found on
https://www.facebook.com/RamapoughLenapeTurtleClanNYU/

Chip O'Chang
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Contributing Writer

Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.