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"It's so alive right now": Community-university collaboration for Lenape language education in Pennsylvania

By Miranda Weinberg, Haley De Korne and Shelley Depaul


The Unami dialect of the Lenape language may be called "an extinct language of the United States" in the Ethnologue database (2009), yet it is currently the focus of classes, materials development, and research by the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania and members of Swarthmore College. This paper provides an example of an initiative to increase the use of a local Indigenous language in a region often ignored by endangered language scholars. We provide an overview of Lenape language education initiatives in Pennsylvania, particularly the program at Swarthmore College, from multiple perspectives. First, we present history of Lenape language revitalization in Pennsylvania, including how the class at Swarthmore college was started in 2008, and some of the successes and challenges for the program, including the influence of the class on the Lenape community. The negotiation of language norms, development of learning materials, and logistical and funding barriers are common challenges for Indigenous language education initiatives in North America, and continue to be addressed by the Lenape program. Secondly, we discuss the impacts of the class on the university community, drawing an ethnographic study conducted during the fourth year of the program. Discussions of community-university collaboration often emphasize the resources that the university can bring to community members, while the benefit for academics is primarily characterized as enabling theoretical or comparative linguistic research and archiving. This study draws attention to a wide range of benefits that the university community has gained from this partnership, as well as the benefits for students learning Lenape as a subject, including heightened cultural sensitivity, awareness of local, national and international histories of marginalized populations, development of research skills, and a sense of contribution to a worthwhile social project. Students have engaged with the language as new speakers, authors, and linguistic researchers forming a new community of Lenape language learners without Lenape tribal affiliation, a very different outcome than in many revitalization projects. We propose that Linguistics programs can benefit both Indigenous communities and linguists-in-training by offering classes in local Indigenous languages as subjects at the university taught by, or in close collaboration with, community members. This kind of collaboration may push the bounds of university bureaucracy, and present challenges between different norms and agendas around the study of language, yet it can be a valuable step in creating more ethical and productive communities of practice for endangered language conservation

Year: 2013
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