Located close to the village of Melbourne, on Highway 2, in southwestern Ontario, is my home community of Munsee-Delaware Nation. It is one of two Lunaapeew communities in Canada. The other — the Delaware of Moraviantown — is located farther downstream on the Thames River, near Thamesville.
At the time of first contact with Europeans, in 1607 the Lunaapeew people lived on the Eastern Seaboard of North America in territory that stretched from New York City to Chesapeake Bay. In the 200 years that followed, they travelled from the coast as far west as Oklahoma, pushed out by war, settlers, and government initiatives. After the end of the American Revolution, the Lunaapeew crossed the Niagara River and settled along the Thames River, becoming one of the first groups to move into what is now Ontario. The Delaware of Moraviantown left Ohio in 1780, fording the Detroit River and establishing themselves near Thamesville.
The Lunaapeew are distinct from other Indigenous groups in Canada: their language, culture, and history have evolved with the forced movement away from the ocean. The Lunaapeew language is vital to identity. Science, family history, stories, cultural understanding, and religion are all interpreted through it. As with many other First Nation languages in Canada, the number of first-language speakers in both Lunaapeew communities has declined: there is now just one. Between 20 and 25 people understand Lunaapeew — all are second-language learners, with varying ability levels.
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When I was growing up in the mid-1970s, the Lunaapeew language was spoken in my house. There were people who would share stories and teachings. After that generation of speakers passed away, I lost my familiarity with Lunaapeew. Living off-reserve, three hours away, meant that my immediate daily life was dominated by learning the two main European languages spoken in Canada.
While talking with family at a Hamilton restaurant in the mid-1990s, I realized that, while I could read, write, and speak in English and French, I could not remember many Lunaapeew words. This was troubling, as I realized that I had neglected my original language. When I returned to London for university, I began to research opportunities for learning it: I was determined to relearn it. At that time, there was no one who could help me on Munsee, so I went to Moraviantown to learn from one of the few first-language speakers.
For the better part of two years, I drove from London to Moraviantown to spend time with the speaker. I was reintroduced to learning the language by “doing.” This meant reading and speaking right away. I did not build a vocabulary to start: I read and reread books that the Moraviantown community had created. The speaker also gave me insight into the rules of the Lunaapeew language — when and in what situations words can and cannot be used.
New learners are often given a basic vocabulary to start with. Laaweewi wiiskiimapamukswuw is a way to describe a colour in the Munsee (Lunaapeew) language. While these two words could not fit on a crayon, they form a rich description of the colour purple. Translated into English, they mean “the colour of wild grapes,” which are picked in September and October. The ability to interpret the Munsee language, then, allows students to make connections with the world around them.
The Lunaapeew calendar also reflects what is going on in nature at a particular time of year. For example, Shayeewi Koon Niipaahum, which falls in November, describes the first snowfall. It is important to remember that Lunaapeew evolved as people moved westward from their original homelands. The first snowfall along the Thames River might have happened earlier than it would have farther south. By gaining such knowledge, learners are able to connect with their culture and history as Lunaapeew people.
There are many opportunities to learn Lunaapeew, all of them provided by second-language speakers. There are books for many reading levels and a dictionary. The language is taught in two elementary schools, as well as through weekly programs in both communities. Longer weekend sessions incorporate language, culture, and history. Community publications use the calendar and some Lunaapeew words, and the annual powwow is opened with a prayer spoken in the language.
The Lunaapeew language is supported by a small and determined group of volunteers who have started various initiatives. A “new words” committee, for example, creates new words — such as kshi-miichuwaakan (“fast food”) and malamwusuw kshaxun (“online shopping”) — for modern use. Social media is being harnessed to support language-learning for those who live off-reserve. The Lunaapeew language is connected to the land, and, as such, the language work is connected to the rich history and culture associated with the land. With this in mind, the Lunaapeew language will be spoken and used by the next generation.
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