• On Preserving the Lenape Language (and Trying to Get Face Time with an NYC Mayor)

    Margie Cook in Conversation with Preservationist Jim Rementer

    Forty years ago, Jim Rementer drove east in a “little Ford Falcon station wagon” with Nora Thompson Dean, heading for Dean’s ancestral homeland of New York and New Jersey, which her people called Lenapehoking. Dean—a member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, who described herself as a Lenape traditionalist—was at the time one of the last fluent speakers of the Lenape/Unami language, and Rementer’s mentor. The purpose of their trip east, Rementer recalled in an interview conducted by videoconference and email, was “to attend the Lenape Indian symposium held at Seton Hall University where Nora gave a paper.” But a legend grew up around another leg of the trip, a meeting with New York City Mayor Ed Koch, who never showed up.

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    It was the spring of 1981, and the Lenape Symposium at Seton Hall was a great success, with an “overflow crowd of 800 people.” A week later, Rementer recalls, “we went into New York City for the meeting with Koch.” Instead of Koch himself, his assistant finally turned up to give Rementer’s mentor a cheap souvenir for tourists. It upset the group, particularly Nora’s student who set the meeting up. What sort of cultural return could have been jump-started then, forty years ago, if the mayor had given the group a proper hearing? The welcome home gesture, or lack thereof, has been typical of New York institutions in light of the Lenape Center’s efforts to tell their own histories and offer their own cultural story in a city crowded with tales from everyone but its original people.

    In the interview that follows, Rementer discusses his work as a preserver of the Lenape language at the Delaware Tribe of Indians’ home site in Bartlesville. The work is very much in the footsteps of “traditionalists” like Nora Thompson Dean herself. Rementer, the Delaware Tribe of Indians’ Language Project Director, began his study of the Lenape language in the summer of 1961. He returned the following summer and resumed his study with James H. Thompson, then one of the oldest tribal members.

    After Thompson’s death in 1964, Rementer continued his study with James Thompson’s daughter, Nora Thompson Dean. Some of the other people Rementer has worked with to preserve and revitalize the Lenape language over the years include Lucy Parks Blalock, Fred Fall-Leaf, Freddie Washington, Leonard Thompson, Anna Davis, Reuben Wilson, and Tom Wilson. He has also worked with tribal elders among the Western Delawares.

    The rest is history, a history he shares below as part of the Lenapehoking exhibition housed at Brooklyn Public Library during the winter-spring of 2022, and in an interview excerpted from a new anthology, Lenapehoking, co-published by Ugly Duckling Presse and Brooklyn Public Library to commemorate that exhibition. Edited by Joe Baker, Hadrien Coumans, and Joel Whitney, the anthology launched at an event in Prospect Park.

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    Margie Cook: So, from what I understand, you are not Lenape. What led you to study the Lenape language?

    Jim Rementer: Yes, that’s correct. No Lenape blood. I think my interest really started from a summer camp. My folks sent me to a camp in the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania, and it was called Camp Lenape. At that time, we didn’t really know how to say Le-na-pe properly, so Lenape is what a lot of people back east called the Delaware Indians. I think that’s what sparked my interest, going to that summer camp.

    And over the years, since I grew up in an area where the Lenape people lived, of course, there was a lot of Lenape place names, Passyunk, Manayunk, Conshohocken, Tamaqua, Wapwallopen. Those are all Lenape names. And my interest kept up until, in 1961, I was doing some research in a library in Philadelphia, and I found some old letters between an anthropologist and a Lenape man here in Oklahoma.

    So I took a chance that the address was still good. I wrote to him and he answered and we corresponded for a while. And finally he said something like, Well, if you want to learn, why don’t you come out here? And the next thing I knew I was on the bus for three days on my way to Oklahoma. And that first summer, I’m not sure exactly how long I stayed. I think a couple of months. But I can remember my first night out here, because I was at his house and another Delaware man came by and said, “There’s a stomp dance tonight.”

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    And Fred, the fellow I was visiting, said, “Well, I’ve got company.” The other man said, “Well, bring him along.” And he said, “I’ll come and pick you guys up.” So when he left, I had to ask Fred. I said, “What’s a stomp dance? I never heard of it.” So he told me. And I said, “How long does it last?” And he said, “All night.” And I went, “Well, Gosh, I didn’t sleep well on the bus coming out here. So I hope I can survive this.” But we went to the dance and we stayed until about 2:30 AM. So I got sudden total immersion into Lenape language and culture.

    MC: How old were you?

    JR: Twenty-one.

    MC: How long did you stay that time?

    JR: The first time, that summer, I was out here probably about two months. And then I went back east and I took some courses at the University of Pennsylvania. But the more I thought about the people I’d met out here, especially the older people, the ones who still spoke the language and their interest in trying to preserve it, I decided to come back to Oklahoma and try and work on it for a few years. That’s over 50 years ago, and, so, I’m still here.

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    MC: Are there many Lenape speakers?

    JR: Not fluent. Unfortunately, our last fluent speaker died in about 2005, I think. We have partial speakers and we have younger people who are learning the language. But fluent speakers we don’t have, at this point.

    I would like to see the younger generations carry on, because those were the wishes of the elders.

    MC: How would you rate your fluency?

    JR: That’s hard to say, because my fluency at one point was a lot greater. But not having people to converse with, I’m sure there’s a lot of things I’ve forgotten. Fortunately, I can refer to the dictionary and various recordings to refresh my memory on things.

    MC: On that question of other fluent speakers, could you tell us a little bit more about Nora Thompson Dean?

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    JR: I met Nora on the first summer out here. But I didn’t see her until near the end of my time out here. Actually there was a man from the Smithsonian named William Sturdevant and he showed up, and he was going to different Delaware homes and asking questions mainly about the language. So he came to Fred’s house and Fred was trying to tell him where other speakers lived. And I could tell that Sturdevant didn’t quite catch on exactly how to get to their homes.

    So I said, “Well, I’ll guide you around if you’ll bring me back.” And he said, “Oh, sure, sure.” So we went to a number of Delaware homes, including Nora’s, and she had company there. And they were visiting, they both spoke Lenape, and at one point she told me she almost went in the house to get us some coffee and she was just going to stay in there because we seemed to be more interested (or Sturdevant was) with talking with the older women.

    And about the time she was ready to get up, I offered her a cigarette, and she stayed. And before we parted company, she told me I could come back anytime to work with her. And her dad was one of the oldest speakers. He was 96 when he passed away. So the following summer, when I returned to Oklahoma, he was kind of my main teacher.

    MC: I understand that you were able to take some trips with Nora to Lenapehoking. What were those like?

    JR: It’s kind of a strange story. But Nora had been corresponding with a Delaware man from Canada, and they had hoped to meet sometime. But he passed away. And meanwhile, they were planning a rededication of a Delaware chapel up there on Six Nation reserve in Ontario. So they invited Nora to come up and give the Lord’s Prayer in Delaware. (I use Delaware and Lenape interchangeably, because there’s a story about that, why the Delaware accept that term.) So anyway, we were going to go up there. But we really didn’t have funds to get there, and someone else heard about it and they contacted a large company, and next thing we knew, we got a call from a woman. She said, “Well, would Nora like to go to Canada, if you can fly up there for free?” So next thing we knew, within a week, we were in a private jet on our way to Toronto.

    After that, there were a number of times that Nora went back east. I can send you a list. It’d be better than trying to recall. It was almost like every two years that she would be invited to come back there. We didn’t just take a notion to go back there (just to travel). We did it on invitations, and I was pretty much the driver for those trips. She would give lectures at universities like Seton Hall and Bryn Mawr, places like that. Or the University of Delaware.

    MC: Wasn’t there a meeting with New York City Mayor Ed Koch?

    JR: Yes, although the main purpose for this trip was to attend the Lenape Indian symposium held at Seton Hall University where Nora gave a paper. We actually left Oklahoma in our little Ford Falcon station wagon heading for the east, and that was on March 25, 1981. On March 28 was the Lenape symposium, and it was attended by an overflow crowd of over 800 people. We then drove to a different part of New Jersey for a few days to rest up. On April 3, we went into New York City for the meeting with Koch. But instead of meeting with him, we met with a representative who greeted Nora and gave her a letter opener like one you could buy in any souvenir store. There was a Mohawk Indian woman there (whom we didn’t know), but she did ask the representative in a rather pointed way if that thing had come from Hong Kong.

    After that greeting session was over, we were seated in the hallway for a while and that’s when Koch came walking by and stopped to say hello. There’s a picture of Koch shaking hands with Louise, Nora’s daughter (and not with Nora herself). The meeting had been set up by one of Nora’s students from New York whose name was David Oestreicher. I know David was very unhappy at how this event turned out. After that we continued on to other events in the area and finally arrived back in Dewey, Oklahoma. On the way home, we drove to Canada to visit some of the Delawares who lived there. As I said, we tended to plan these trips where there would be several things happening and some people we knew and visited.

    MC: Could you say more about what you mentioned earlier about using Delaware and Lenape interchangeably.

    JR: There’s a Delaware story about that. They said, “Well, some white people first got here, and they were asking, ‘Well, who are you? You people, you Indians.’” So, they say, “Well, Lenape.” But for some reason, these white people couldn’t say Lenape properly and they just keep trying and trying. And, finally one of the white guys was able to say Lenape properly, and this Lenape man said, Nal në ndëluwèn. And that means, “That’s what I said.” Well, the white people heard ndëluwèn and they thought they were saying Delaware. So they said, “Okay, well, you’re Delaware.” And it’s kind of a joke among the Lenape people that they don’t mind using Delaware, because they just figured the white folks just couldn’t say Lenape properly. So they just say Delaware.

    MC: Some people say Lenni-Lenape. But isn’t that redundant?

    JR: Yes, Lenni-Lenape is redundant. Speakers here reject it, and it seems to have started with Moravian missionaries. I remember when a reporter asked one elder here if she is Lenni Lenape, and she said, “No, I am not, just a common Lenape.” The name Lenape means something like “the people.”

    MC: If Nora were still with us, what might she say about the state of Lenape language and culture?

    JR: Well, I know she would be glad to see that we do have some younger people who are learning the language, and I know that would please her as well as some of the cultural activities that they are keeping going. And I’m working with Curtis Zunigha at the present time at Delaware tribal headquarters to set up a museum. So I think a lot of those old people would have been glad to see things like that.

    MC: Were those types of things happening when they were still alive?

    JR: Not too much. There really didn’t seem to be too much interest among the younger people in the language until about the 1970s. That’s when Indian things were suddenly popular. You’re too young to remember. But Cher suddenly became an Indian. And there was all kinds of Indian things that were going on. There was suddenly people claiming to be Indian, usually Cherokee, for some reason, maybe cause of so many Cherokees. But all kinds of people claimed Indian ancestry. But they couldn’t prove it.

    MC: What do you think spurred that interest culturally at that time?

    JR: That’s a good question. I’m not sure I can give you a hundred percent correct answer. There seemed to be a lot of shows on TV and the movies that suddenly were portraying Indians in a favorable light because a lot of the earlier ones, you know, the Indians were just out there and their only purpose in life was to kill these white settlers. And so they finally were producing movies that showed that they were actually people living just like people all over the world. They’re trying to live as best they can in a way that they can and live off nature. And so on.

    MC: What efforts are underway presently to keep the language from extinction?

    JR: We’ve had classes with several of our last speakers, and we also have the Lenape Talking Dictionary, and that has been pretty much my project. Of course, I’ve been taking down notes on the language ever since I first came out here. I wish now that I had made more recordings. But it seemed like when we did have linguists come around that they didn’t do too much in the way of recording unless there were stories or conversations between several people. But, mainly, if they were just doing, like, verb forms or things like that, they would just write it in their notebooks and, of course, hindsight is perfect. If I could go back, I’d be setting up a recorder, every chance I’ve had.

    MC: Could you tell me a little bit more about the talking dictionary?

    JR: That’s a project that I’ve been in charge of since the 1990s. Of course, at that time we didn’t have a talking dictionary. But kicking and screaming, the Tribe also decided I should become a grant writer, which I did.

    It started out with a grant I wrote for the Tribe to put on a symposium here in Bartlesville, and that was in 1996. Then we got a grant to do a study, I guess you’d say, among the Lenape people to determine how much interest there was and the like; and that was called a planning grant. And after that ran out, we applied for an implementation grant and we applied to one place. But they had gone over to total immersion-type classes. Unfortunately we no longer had enough fluent speakers to do total immersion-type classes. That’s basically where no English is used.

    So we applied to another place and we got a grant for three years to create the talking dictionary. The original plan was to do it as a book, like a dictionary and probably put a CD in the back for people to listen to. But on discussing this with people that were more familiar with computers, they said, “Well, why don’t you put it online?” I wasn’t too familiar at that time with computers, myself, other than doing data entry. So we checked into the possibilities, and next thing I know we’re creating an online dictionary, and we started that in 2002. And it finally went online in 2005.

    MC: Is there a role here for tribal government in the preservation effort?

    JR: Yeah. In fact a lot of the impetus we’ve had to keep going with this has come from tribal government leaders who were interested in seeing the language preserved, as well as other customs.

    MC: Are there differing views around what needs to happen to get this right, within the Lenape community?

    JR: So far, for the most part, people have been happy to see what’s in the dictionary, because over the years, it’s also been enlarged, where originally we just had vocabulary. We started adding stories to the dictionary. And then we added historical examples, because people said, “Well, how long was Lenape spoken?” We don’t know. But they first wrote it down in the 1600s. So you start there, and, we think, we’ve got sentences also in the dictionary. Let me say that again. The dictionary also contains sentences. And just recently, we’ve added some videos, and these are some that Curtis Zunigha wanted to do, and they’re like little skits. And I wrote most of them, and we would have younger people who are learning the language come in and act out these parts. If you go to the talking dictionary, the line at the top says Video. So you can click there. And we put a couple of the traditional dance songs on there as well.

    MC: Have there been attempts to offer the (Lenape) language to children at an early age like at the Freedom School?

    JR: There really have not been attempts to introduce the language to children at an early age other than we suggest that families use the Talking Dictionary and the parents learn enough so they can use even basic expressions with their children. It’s a complicated subject about why this has not been done in schools and perhaps we could discuss that at a later date. It actually involves outside influences not from within the tribe.

    MC: Wikipedia lists Unami as being extinct. What’s your response to that?

    JR: Yes, I hate when I see someplace listing it as extinct, because when we have functions we have a number of people who give prayers in Lenape. We also have times when we have class sessions (at least pre-Covid, we did). And there are a number of people who understand basic phrases and greetings. I think one linguist actually from the Miami Tribe has classified some languages not as extinct but rather sleeping. Tell those who say it is extinct to go here and play the videos and then call it extinct: https://www.talk-lenape.org/videos

    MC: Is there a phrase everyone in Lenapehoking should know, maybe as a starting point?

    JR: Wanìshi.

    MC: Wanìshi.

    JR: Thank you.

    MC: Thank you.

    JR: The other word is basically Hè. It’s like hi in English. Just, Hè. It’s not long and drawn out. It’s not a “Hey, good buddy” type thing. It’s just, Hè. And if you want to inquire of someone else’s health or whatever, you say Kulamàlsi hàch? Which means, Are you feeling well? So that’s the two main things you would use to greet someone.

    MC: Looking forward, now, Jim, what is the best-case scenario regarding your vision for the future of the Lenape language?

    JR: As we continue to add more material to the Talking Dictionary, and also some type of classes here [in Oklahoma], we hope that more of the younger people will learn even the basics of the language. I know a friend of mine, Daryl Baldwin, has pretty much revived the Miami Indian language, which was spoken in Indiana. And sometimes it’s what you do that works. In his case, he was learning it. Unfortunately, there were no recordings to work from, and no speakers left when he started learning it.

    But there was really good information put down by linguists and everything was written phonetically. And so he was able to learn some, and he had two sons, and he thought, I think I better start teaching them. So he did. But he kind of joked. He said, “When I start talking Miami, the boys run over to their mom cause they thought I was having some kinda spell or something where I was talking weird.” He finally told his non-Indian wife, “Well, you have to learn some, too.” And she did. Now they have, I think, four sons who all are fairly fluent in the Miami language, plus he’s had classes. So other tribal members have also benefited from it. And I hope to see something like that with the Lenape people as well.

    I would like to see the language preserved, because that’s what most of the elders I work with who spoke the language wanted to see done. And in many cases, the language was lost because the younger people had to go off to “Indian schools” where they were forbidden to speak their native languages. And that’s one reason the language had disappeared. So I would like to see the younger generations carry on, because those were the wishes of the elders.

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    Excerpted from the Lenapehoking Anthology, a project of the Brooklyn Public Library and Lenape Center.

    Margie Cook
    Margie Cook
    Margie Cook is the Associate Manager of Public Programs at the New York Public Library. She is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s Oral History Master of Arts Program.





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