Nanticoke try to bring tribe's ancient tongue back 4-29-07

MILLSBORO, Del. (AP) - There is no surviving word for “goodbye” in the Nanticoke language, and perhaps that is fitting.

Even though it has been more than 150 years since the last conversation in Nanticoke took place, the tribe refuses to say farewell to the words of its ancestors.

Joining a growing trend of American Indians reviving dormant languages, the Nanticoke recently embarked on a quest to reclaim a nearly lost part of their heritage.

The Millsboro-based tribe has a list of about 300 words and the insights of a native speaker of a similar language. Right now, many of them feel pride when they construct simple sentences.


But the Nanticoke, whose population is 150 to 200 locally with 1,000 active members nationwide, eventually hope to call each brother a nee-e mat and each sister a nimpz. Eventually they hope to recognize an eagle flying overhead as an ah-whap-pawn-top and refer to a river as a peemtuck.

An estimated 175 Indian languages are still spoken in North America, according to Leanne Hinton, a linguistics professor at University of California, Berkeley, but few are still learned at home.

Nanticoke Chief James T. Norwood said, “A lot of tribes don't understand how you can survive without a language,” he said. “It's a certain bond that you have. It just connects you more.”

The Nanticoke's journey to the language of their ancestors started with a more than 200-year-old book. In 1792, Thomas Jefferson ordered the words of the Nanticoke language to be written. It's the only surviving record. The last fluent speaker died more than 150 years ago.

To fill gaps, the tribe called upon Myrelene Ranville, a Canadian who speaks and teaches the Anishnabay language. Anishnabay and Nanticoke are part of the Algonquin language family, so Ranville was eager to help.

“To work with a tribe who essentially has not heard their language and it has not been spoken in over 200 years and to work with a vocabulary that was recorded at the request of Thomas Jefferson is just incredible,” she said. “It gives you shivers. This has not changed since 1792.”

In November, she left Manitoba for Delaware to lead classes on Nanticoke, using the old book. Financed by donations to the tribe, she applied her language's grammar and supplied words in Anishnabay when none was available in Nanticoke. It was like recreating Spanish with the help of a speaker of Italian.

Sterling Street, assistant treasurer for the tribe, said he learned that the language is often literal. The word for “river,” peemtuck, actually means “water by the tall trees.” The word for man is wohacki, and the word for boy is wohacki-a-wauntit, which means little man. “For a fox, they might not have called it a fox, they might have called it 'four-legged red animal,”' Street said.

But Ranville soon returned to her life in Canada, where she regularly converses with other tribe members in Anishnabay and has taught the language in an elementary school.

The Nanticoke were left with tapes of her classes, which they play at sessions Thursday nights at the Nanticoke Indian Center in Millsboro. Street, who has a good aptitude for the language, leads the review sessions. But he does not call himself a teacher. As students reviewed words for hand, arm and eye at a recent class, he reminded them that he was still learning, too.

Hinton said that while the Nanticoke may not regain their language in its purest form, their efforts may not be in vain.

“It's certainly feasible that they could be speaking ... fluently,” she said. “The question as to whether fluent speakers could develop really depends on how much reconstitution they do and how much drive there is.”

Kim Robbins, 41, hopes to teach her younger brother and niece and nephews. A tribal dancer has written a song in Nanticoke. Others hope to document their legends in the revived language.

They're learning their truest Indian names: Street, for example, is known as Earth Keeper in English and Ahkee Ganuhwandung in the Nanticoke-Anishnabay hybrid.

And once again, tribe members can greet each other as their ancestors did.

Eweenitu. Peace.