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Unearthing a buried language on Long Island

The US is the second leading country in having endangered languages,
according to a recent UN report. But one language, which was thought to
be lost, is now being revived on Long Island, NY.

The Unkechaug Indian Nation, located on the Poospatuck Reservation in
Mastic, holds the key to reviving its language and it takes up 11
gigabytes on an iPod.

No one really knows when the Unkechaug stopped speaking their language
at home, since they were in danger of persecution for speaking it. It
slowly dissipated from Long Island and the reservation altogether.
However, the tribal elders had recounted the story for generations –
their language had never died, it was simply brought somewhere and
“buried” to protect it.

This oral history prompted the tribe members to conduct research in the
1990s leading them to explosive documentary evidence – 72 deteriorating
reel-to-reel tapes containing over 6,000 hours. It was the first time
Unkechaug tribe members were hearing their own language. The tapes
featured elders who sang and told stories of creativity and history. It
also had Unkechaug classroom lessons going over grammar, numbers and
days of the year. However, the language spoken did not come from tribe
members on Long Island.

The research found that some Unkechaug, like many tribes, had fled to
the north in the 18th century as European settlers encroached upon the
land. They settled at St. Francis, an Indian reserve in the Province of
Quebec. It was an ethno historian who had made the recordings in the
1930s. Those tapes had since been sitting at Dartmouth College’s
archives slowly dilapidating until the Unkechaug Nation made an inquiry.

The tapes have since been digitally re-mastered. Now Harry Wallace,
Chief of the Unkechaug Indian Nation, uses his iPod to learn and
practice his language. The tribe is focusing its efforts on the tribal
children because their ability to absorb language is second nature and
“so it can be known for generations,” says Chief Wallace.

The Unkechaug Nation received a grant from the Long Island Community
Foundation, which is part of the New York Community Trust, to create a
formal language program. It has hired a language specialist to implement
a class by the end of the year and create an online program, much like
the Rosetta Stone language software which uses speech recognition.

If you would like to learn more about the Unkechaug language, I can
arrange an interview with Chief Wallace.

Nick Abadjian

If you are interested in knowing more on the Unkechaug, I’ve included a
brief history below.

The Unkechaug Indian Nation – A Brief History

The Unkechaug Indian Nation are descendants of the original inhabitants
of Long Island, New York who have continuously occupied the area for
over 9,000 years and settled along the Poospatuck Creek and Moriches Bay.

As a maritime tribe that did not migrate, the Unkechaug shared a
similar political structure and social customs with other Algonquin
coastal communities. The tribe was organized around a structured kinship
system, which links families to a network of relations that stretch
across Long Island and southern New England and connect with other
tribes such as the Shinnecocks, Montauks and the Matinecocks. Today, the
Unkechaug travel as far as Wisconsin and Canada for spiritual retreats
with other Algonquin speaking peoples with whom the Unkechaug maintain
close kinship ties.

The Unkechaug remained on their homeland for practical reasons including
access to traditional food, clothing and shelter. The Moriches Bay and
Long Island Sound provide a rich supply of highly valued clams and
whelks the Unkechaug used to produce wampum. The wampum was manufactured
into several forms including belts, strung and loose beads and
figurines. Wampum was used in spiritual ceremonies and in treaty
negotiations. It was also worn to symbolize social status.

Whales, stranded in the bay or hunted offshore, served as an important
source of food for the Unkechaug. Whale meat was typically distributed
throughout the community and its arrival was often accompanied by a
powwow. The Dutch and English appreciated the Unkechaugs’ hunting skills
and recruited them as whalers up until the near extinction of the right
whale in the early 19th century.

Congregational and Presbyterian Missionaries introduced Christianity to
the tribe in the 18th century. The Unkechaug creatively adapted
Christian beliefs, melding them with their own spiritual way of life. In
1750, the Unkechaug established a church on the Poospatuck Reservation,
standing today as the oldest Mission church in New York State. Thomas
Jefferson, then Secretary of State, and James Madison visited the Church
in 1791 and recorded the Unkechaug language as part of a fact-finding
trip in the northeast.

Since the arrival of the first Europeans settlers on Long Island, the
Unkechaug have had to endure continuous struggles for their survival and
the preservation of their culture and identity. In many ways, these
struggles define them today as the Unkechaug continue to fight to
observe their ancient traditions. During Colonial times, the King of
England entered into an agreement to reserve 1,500 acres of land for the
Unkechaug. The Poospatuck Reservation has since been reduced to its
present-day 55 acres.

The Unkechaug identity came under assault in the mid-19th century when
Census takers and other authorities made presumptuous of cultural
identity based on their own racial prejudices, rather than on the
cultural ethnicity of the Poospatuck community. The Unkechaug and
African Americans intermarried as both groups worked closely together as
laborers and servants on the larger farms on Long Island.

In 1936, the Unkechaug identity and homeland came under attack by a
wealthy landowner, William Dana, who attempted to illegally eject the
Unkechaug from their remaining land and challenged tribal claims. The
attack was met with a firestorm of opposition as the Unkechaug rallied
to defend the validity of their history and land. Local town officials,
ministers, historians, and the New York State Attorney General also came
to the defense of the Nation. The victory reaffirmed the tribe’s
community and provided a renewed sense of identity and unity, backed by
colonial, federal and state documents acknowledging the tribe.

The Great Depression and post war periods brought hard times not only
for the U.S., but for the Unkechaug and the Poospatuck Reservation. The
Unkechaug became one of the most poverty stricken communities on Long
Island. As economic conditions deteriorated, many tribe members left the
Poospatuck Reservation to find work. They returned in the summer for the
annual June Meeting or to retire on their ancestral land.

In the 1960s, a younger generation in the tribe became more outspoken in
calling for the preservation of their culture and rejection of
assimilation, while also looking for ways to improve ties with the
outside world. In the 1970s, New York State passed legislation
confirming that the Tribal Customs, Rules and Regulations of the
Unkechaug Nation is the law which governs and controls the Nation’s

Today, the Nation is a thriving community with effective leadership.
Chief Harry Wallace, who was elected in 1994, is a graduate of Dartmouth
College and New York Law School and the first chief to have a graduate
degree. Wallace’s tenure as chief has brought about a new era of
economic stability, improved community services, and a strong sense of
identity to the Unkechaug Indian Nation.

Not without controversy, Wallace opened the first smoke shop on the
Poospatuck Reservation, which asserted the Nation’s sovereignty. Soon,
other entrepreneurs on the reservation followed his lead. The new
business activities provided employment opportunities and decreased
poverty on the reservation while also providing funds for economic
stability, introducing new community services and enhanced educational
opportunities to tribal members.

Recent lawsuits, including one initiated by the City of New York, are
disputing the Unkechaug’s right to operate smoke shops on the
reservation without collecting taxes, thereby challenging the Nation’s
sovereignty. Under the provisions of the New York State Constitution,
the Unkechaug Tribal Council has jurisdiction over its land which
includes the right to sell good on its land without taxation. Chief
Wallace is currently working with State leaders to devise a reasonable

Chief Wallace and the Tribal Council have improved the quality of life
on the Poospatuck Reservation through a number of community initiatives.
With the help of a full-time work crew, the Tribal Council helps to
preserve the reservation’s facilities and traditional culture by
restoring and maintaining the burial and powwow grounds and repairing
roads and houses. The Chief also developed a summer youth program that
employed 14 young people, helping to build a dock for community
recreation and fishing. Wallace also established a tutorial program for
school-age children, helping to bring certified teachers to the
reservation four days a week and enabling the Unkechaug to develop
relationships with local schools in the Suffolk community.

Nick Abadjian
+1 (646) 652-5206
101 6th Ave., 15th Fl.
New York, NY 10013

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