Inside the Effort to Bring the Nanticoke Tribe’s Language Back to Life

The Nanticoke tribe of Sussex County lost its language in the 1800s. A new book is helping to bring it back to life.

Across the dusty expanse of Milton’s Hudson Fields, the distinctive sound of indigenous drums and songs carries between the vendor booths selling traditional crafts, Native American regalia and food.

On this warm September day, members of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe along with sister tribes from throughout the mid-Atlantic and beyond have gathered for the 45th Annual Nanticoke Indian Powwow to share and celebrate a culture that, despite the efforts of the larger non-Indian population, has survived through hundreds of years of invasion, forced relocation and assimilation.

But over the PA system from the sacred circle of the celebration come different sounds. The welcome announcements include words that may be unfamiliar to outside ears, but to the Nanticoke tribe members who still thrive throughout Sussex County and beyond, they are echoes from their own past—those of a language that was long thought lost to time and oppression. But thanks to tribe members and language specialists, these words are being reassembled and incorporated into daily life.

I thought, what a wonderful way to meld this esoteric interest of mine with something that can really help people.
—Keith Cunningham

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The reemergence of these Nanticoke words and phrases of greeting, welcoming and thanks are the result of a dedicated team of tribe members and language researchers whose goal is to revive the Nanticoke language for modern tribe members old and young.

Those Who Stayed

Based on the relics and artifacts at the Nanticoke Indian Museum in Millsboro, it’s easy to imagine the inhabitants of what would eventually be known as Maryland’s Eastern Shore and Sussex County fishing local waterways, farming, hunting and trapping across fertile tidal lands that stretched to the horizon.

European colonization, which began in 1608 when the Nanticoke encountered Capt. John Smith at the mouth of the Nanticoke River, did not bode well for the tribe. Colonial expansion stole tribal lands, and efforts to set aside territory limited the seasonal migration the tribe needed to make to preserve their lifestyle.

Amid American expansion and the violation of treaty after treaty in the 18th century, many Nanticokes and their sister mid-Atlantic tribes went on the move, either choosing to join tribes in Pennsylvania or upstate New York or being forcibly relocated to places like Canada and modern-day Ohio and Oklahoma.

Others, however, chose to stay. According to historical documents from 1748, one group of Nanticokes decided to migrate away from the tidal plains of Maryland’s Eastern Shore to a permanent settlement in an area near Millsboro at the head of the Indian River. There they formed an insular community where they took up farming and attempted to avoid racism and discrimination faced by anyone who wasn’t clearly of European descent, existing in plain sight from the mid-1700s on, even as the larger community denied, ignored or tried to erase their existence.

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Treatment as an “other” persisted to modern times, says Avery “Leaving Tracks” Johnson, chief of the Nanticoke Indian Tribe.

“As a kid growing up, it was very obvious that we were different, and people did not have a problem letting me know that I was different,” he says.

Today, tribal rolls stand at around 700 people, and with the rapid growth and development of the land that once made up their close-knit community, the tribe is ready to be heard clearer than ever before.

Breaking the Silence of Generations

As a part of the tribe’s gradual assimilation, the original Nanticoke language fell out of use. Lydia E. Clark, the last fluent speaker, died in 1856 at age 75. With her passing, the language was thought lost to history, Johnson says.

However, in the past two decades, the Nanticoke tribe has renewed efforts on multiple fronts to reclaim its ancestral language, with help coming from both inside and outside the tribe.

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Those efforts culminated in 2023 with the publication of Once It Has Been Spoken…It Cannot Be Unspoken, a Nanticoke language primer designed to introduce the basics of the tribe’s language to both children and adults. The format is simple and engaging, using Native American imagery and storytelling to share lessons.

This publication was by no means an overnight endeavor. It took the alignment of multiple contributors—plus the recent pandemic—to bring all the disparate pieces together and result in the finished volume, its authors say.

Among the first steps was working with a member of the Ojibwe First Nations in Canada who visited Delaware between 2006 and 2008 to provide language instruction to members of the Nanticoke tribe, says RagghiRain, a Nanticoke educator and storyteller and one of the book’s co-authors. The Ojibwe and Nanticoke languages share many similarities, as they are both descended from the Algonquian “mother language” shared by many East Coast tribes. While helpful in teaching words, the visits didn’t have the consistency students needed to learn effectively, she says.

“She would come down from Canada, and she would stay, and she was teaching the classes,” RagghiRain says. “But then when she would leave, you would be practicing, but it was really hard because she was gone, and you couldn’t just pick up a phone and call her and say, ‘What is this?’”

Enter Keith Cunningham, a doctoral candidate in linguistics at Georgetown University. A lifelong interest in East Asian languages had led him to take an undergraduate course on Chinese phonology—the sound systems in a language—and how it changes from the ancient to modern forms of a language.

“That’s of course a very esoteric interest that I had. And it wasn’t until much later [that] I saw the documentary called We Still Live Here about the Wampanoag language revitalization,” he says.

The PBS documentary tells the story of Jessie Little Doe and her efforts—prompted by a dream of familiar faces from the past addressing her in an unknown language—to reconstruct the language of her Massachusetts tribe, whose ancestors had ensured the survival of the Pilgrims who arrived on the Mayflower. Learning the story of her quest inspired Cunningham to apply his knowledge to help others who might be attempting the same thing, he says.

“I thought, what a wonderful way to meld this esoteric interest of mine with something that can really help people,” he says. “I went up to visit my aunt and uncle up in Delaware and I suggested we go to the Nanticoke Indian Museum. Being that the Nanticoke are related to the Wampanoag, I was curious about what efforts they had to revitalize their own language.”

There, Cunningham met Sterling Street, who recently retired as the director of the Nanticoke Indian Museum, and he learned of the previous efforts to revitalize the language. Sterling provided some 19th-century research on individual Algonquian words, and suddenly Cunningham found himself with a new project, he says.

“I just started working on it as kind of a linguistic puzzle of sorts, but then I realized it’s not something that I can really do as a dilettante avocationally,” he says. “I needed to get really serious about it. And while I had learned a great deal about medieval Chinese phonology, the techniques, while mostly similar, don’t necessarily completely overlap with those Algonquian linguistics.”

Realizing he needed more education on the topic, Cunningham decided to resume his studies, applying to Georgetown to pursue his Ph.D. in linguistics focusing on American Indian languages and their revitalization.

Meanwhile, Street also reached out to Karelle Hall, a Nanticoke tribe member who, after graduating from Dartmouth College, was living in Washington, D.C., and put her in touch with Cunningham. By 2017, he had been working consistently with the tribe, sharing the results of his research and working with Street to develop formal learning materials, YouTube tutorials and classes.
native tribe

Honoring the Past and the Future

The goal of using Cunningham’s research to create a usable and accessible teaching tool was the birth of Once It Has Been Spoken…, says RagghiRain, who credits Jean Norwood, the late wife of former Chief Tee Norwood, with inspiring her to move forward with the project by pursuing grants to help pay for it.

Before the 2020 shutdowns surrounding the pandemic, the book was merely an idea. But once all the parties involved found themselves in isolation, Hall said they realized they had time to make it a reality.

The pair based their lessons on language learning for preschoolers, starting with the basics of numbers, colors and animals. They then submitted the lessons to Cunningham for translations based on his research.

In the meantime, the team was insistent that the eventual printed book also include a CD to allow students to hear the words being spoken rather than just sounding them out from phonetic descriptions, RagghiRain says.

“The basis for the recording was how I believe it should be spoken in Nanticoke, then in English, and then repeated three times, which would give us the sacred number four, three times in Nanticoke, slow so that they could understand, break it down,” she says. “Because if we can’t do that…it’s on a shelf.”

RagghiRain also credits Jennifer Kirby, a non-Native member of the book’s production team, with managing all the ins and outs of tracking funding and expenses and serving as a thoughtful editor.

As a non-Native contributor himself, Cunningham notes that understanding and respecting the importance of such a project is crucial to his participation.

“It’s important to realize when you’re working on an indigenous language, do not think that it belongs to you,” he says. “So for scholars, especially coming from outside the communities, there are ways in which I think outsiders can still make very positive contributions to indigenous language revitalization, but it must be done so recognizing that they’re guests and also that if they benefit in some way from the study, it does come with a solemn obligation that [the researcher] must kind of return the favor to the community. Something that [the communities] can use, it necessarily must help their language revitalization efforts.”

Sahkakwenao Ridgeway, son of Chief Urie Ridgeway of the Nanticoke Lenni–Lenape Tribe, performs a Native dance at the 45th Annual Nanticoke Indian Powwow in Milton.

For tribe members, the book stands as a symbol not just of their past but of their future and what they can achieve, says tribal elder Bonnie Hall, Ph.D. (no relation to Karelle).

“This first edition of this language book, I call it a foundational footprint for future publications because our goal and our hope is that we’re going to be able to do some children’s stories and maybe even do some advanced language books,” she says. “My hope and goal is that in 2024 we will be presenting and facilitating some language classes, and not just for the Nanticoke community but even for the community at large. I really would love to see this as a way for us to embrace the community and help them to immerse themselves in some of our traditions and particularly our language.”

In a ceremony that was both celebratory and solemn, the co-authors presented the first copy of the completed version to Johnson in the sacred circle of the September powwow. It was a moment that Hall, the tribal elder, says, mixed celebration and solemnity.

“We were grinning from ear to ear,” she says. “We were so heartfelt knowing the sacrifices that had been made to bring that publication to life.”

For Johnson, who as chief has overseen the acquisition of more than 30 acres of conserved land for tribal use, as well as the growth of the Nanticoke Indian Center and the Nanticoke Indian Museum with planned expansions, the language book marks another important step forward for the Nanticokes.

“It’s great for the tribe, it’s great for our people, it’s great for the community. It’s great for Native Americans all over the country because the Nanticokes aren’t the only one that lost their language,” he says. “We’ve been able to go and get our language and revive it and we just keep pushing the needle forward. There’s going to be challenges, there’s going to be constraints, there’s going to be roadblocks. But [the book] was huge. And if we can do that, the sky’s the limit.”

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