Lenápe descendant works to preserve the language of Pennsylvania's indigenous people

She focuses her teaching on a dialect of Lenápe that is specific to Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Oklahoma.

TaRhonda Thomas Image
Wednesday, November 23, 2022
Lenápe descendant works to preserve language
The Lenápe are the Indigenous people of Pennsylvania. Their language has been on the verge of extinction, but Shelley DePaul is now focused on bringing it back.

Shelley DePaul is all smiles as she sits at the head of the table inside a classroom at Swarthmore College.

Surrounding her are students who are taking a course that can have an impact that extends far beyond the classroom.

"It's all I ever wanted to do, it's my calling," said DePaul of teaching. "If I know it, I can teach it."

But there's one thing she didn't know. She realized it as she was sitting on the banks of the Delaware River.

"I was trying to name the things around... it came to me that I didn't even know the names of them in my own language," said DePaul of her experience in 1983.

That was when DePaul's quest began to learn the language of her ancestors: the Lenápe Nation.

"My great-grandfather was mostly the one who talked to us about our Lenápe heritage," she said.

The Lenápe are the indigenous people of Pennsylvania. Their language has been on the verge of extinction. DePaul is now focused on bringing it back.

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"That's when I decided I was going to learn the language," she said.

Once she learned, she wrote a textbook on the Lenápe language.

"There are two levels in the book: intro and advanced," said DePaul, who focuses on teaching conversational language and phrases.

"She was reconstructing it from scratch, basically. That's really rare," said Paul Garrett who was one of DePaul's first students. He also studies languages.

DePaul used to teach her classes at Swarthmore College. She now teaches them online via Zoom. She focuses her teaching on a dialect of Lenápe that is specific to Pennsylvania, Southern New Jersey and Oklahoma.

"The Unami, which is the southern dialect, that's what I teach," said DePaul, who is now Clan Mother and Language Director of the Lenápe Nation of Pennsylvania.

"Shelley's program for learning, it really lays it out in a way that makes it accessible," said Jonathan Washington, an associate professor of linguistics at Swarthmore College, who also has taken DePaul's classes for years.

One of the classes gathers at Swarthmore College. They don't attend for course credit but for something far more important.

"Learning the language is one way to help combat their culture erasure," said Charlie Sywulak-Herr, a high school student who has been taking the class for over a year.

DePaul has taught hundreds of students, but perhaps the student who appreciates it most is her son.

"I couldn't feel more pride in what she does and what she's always done," said Adam Waterbear DePaul who is also with the Lenápe Nation of Pennsylvania.

The language classes focus on preserving Lenápe heritage by teaching the language to all.

"A lot of these people are not Lenape," Shelley DePaul says of the students in her classroom and on online classes that day.

"I love learning languages," said Alexandria Sasek, a student who does not have indigenous heritage but appreciates cultural preservation. "I think it's especially important to learn the Lenápe language."

A lot of people felt the same way as DePaul found out starting in 2020.

"This big boom that has happened recently. It was the pandemic," she said. "It was the first time I thought 'OK let's try going on Zoom.'"

Teaching Lenápe language courses has allowed DePaul to share the language with even more people. Her goal is to return the benefit to her people.

"My dream always has been to make it a living language," she said.

Anyone interested in taking the free online Lenápe language course can contact DePaul via email at: depaul@ptd.net