Teaching and Saving the Lenape Language at Swarthmore College


Teaching the Lenape language is Shelley DePaul’s calling, with repercussions that reach beyond the classroom, writes TaRhonda Thomas for 6abc.

DePaul was teaching the course at the Swarthmore College campus. These days her course has expanded online, on Zoom.

Lenape is the language of her ancestors and it is nearly extinct. 

It became her mission to save the language one day in 1983 while 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.

The Lenape are indigenous to Pennsylvania. DePaul teaches a dialect specific to Pennsylvania, southern New Jersey and Oklahoma. 

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

Her language instruction to hundreds of students, Lenape and not, holds great value for her people.

“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.

“My dream always has been to make it a living language,” DePaul said.

Read more about the preservation of the Lenape language at 6abc.

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