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Rescue Mission: Linguistics Department to assist in an Effort to Reclaim the Languages of the Shinnecock and Unkechaug Indian Nations

The Shinnecock and Unkechaug peoples of Long Island have not spoken their native languages in many generations, but a recent collaboration between the tribes and the department of Linguistics seeks to revive the lost tribal languages. 

Both languages belong to a group of Algonquian languages, some of which are currently spoken, which the research team can use for help with missing words, phrases, and grammatical structure. According to Richard Larson, Chair and Professor in the department of Linguistics, the task is two-fold: one, to create grammars and dictionaries to establish a modern form of both languages; and two, to produce teaching materials so that the languages can be learned by members of the Native communities. 

RescueThe goal of the project is to create a modern language for the Shinnecock and Unkechaug tribes based on reconstructing the lexical, grammatical, and pronunciation characteristics of the original, historical languages, using Bibles and residual word lists (such as the yellowed document below that Thomas Jefferson wrote during a 1791 visit to the Unkechaug tribe), and the research effort is expanding to bring copies of the documents to the Stony Brook library.

Chief Harry Wallace, the elected leader of the Unkechaug Nation, and Elisabeth Thunder Bird Haile from the Shinnecock Nation are assisting in the efforts and are Visiting Scholars in the department of Linguistics. Thunder Bird Haile is collecting materials from the Cultural Center of the Shinnecock Nation, while Chief Wallace works with the Native American Student Association to instill a sense of community for the Native American students on campus, and help others become familiar with the cultures and norms of Native American society. 

Professors Robert Hoberman and José Elías-Ulloa are leading the efforts in the department of Linguistics. Hoberman has done fieldwork on endangered Semitic languages in the Middle East, while Elías-Ulloa has extensive experience in the documentation of endangered languages from the Amazonian region and is currently advising the Department of Education of Peru on two projects of linguistic revitalization that seek to propose writing systems for the languages Arabela and Urarina, which will benefit more than 3000 indigenous people living in the Peruvian Amazon.

The research effort is sponsored by Anthropology alumna Judge Lizbeth Gonzalez, NYC Civil Court of Bronx County. The College of Arts and Sciences is funding a graduate doctoral student in the department of Linguistics, Howard Treadwell-Smith, whose thesis project will be writing grammars, lexicons, and teaching materials for the tribes. 
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