Indigenous teacher shares power of cultural preservation

Ramapo students and staff welcomed indigenous language teacher Nikole Pecore on Sept. 29 for “Lunchtime Talk: Indigenous Language Revitalization.” The event — funded by a Platinum Co-Curricular Grant from the Office of the Provost and the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Compliance — was an insightful discussion about the history of the Munsee language and her efforts to preserve it.

Pecore’s talk felt less like a presentation and more like an informal chat as she sat with the audience in a circle. Speaking in her strong Midwestern accent, she had full command of the room while she shared her story.

Pecore began by speaking in Munsee, then switching to English to introduce herself as part of the Stockbridge-Munsee band of Mohican Native Americans. Her community was originally from New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island but was later relocated to the Wisconsin area.

“This is the land where my people originally came from,” she said.

The Munsee language is one of the oldest members of the Algonquian language family. While there are still many Munsee teachers like Pecore, there is only one fluent speaker left today, indicating how much has been lost. Munsee is still valuable to various Algonquian communities now because the language system has not changed much over the centuries.

“When you learn about language, it gives you a whole new perspective about the world,” Pecore said. “In the Algonquian language, there are different things that are built into the language that tell about our culture and the way that my ancestors were seeing the world.”

Pecore took the time to explain some of the differences between Munsee and English. For one, some words cannot be translated into English at all because the sounds simply do not exist. Munsee also always puts the other person first in the phrase to express love, which roughly translates to “It is you I love,” and does not have pronouns to distinguish gender.

“Equality is built into our language,” she said.

Pecore pointed out how much of a barrier language was for the Native Americans when they first came in contact with European colonists. At that time, they had no concept of ownership, meaning that everything in their community was shared, even children. As soon as they passed on an item, they would have no more attachment or responsibility for it. This difference in language and culture allowed the colonists to take advantage of the Native Americans because all they knew were relationships founded on mutual respect.

“When [the colonists] said, ‘We’re going to take your land,’ we thought that they wanted to take care of it,” she said.

In the present, Pecore is doing as much as she can as a Munsee language teacher within the Stockbridge-Munsee community, as well as with her nonprofit organization, Nova Nations, to preserve the culture, whether it be language, medicine, food or songs.

“My biggest goal right now is to bring the community back together through the language,” she said.

Some of her most prominent projects are creating an accessible talking dictionary, training new Munsee language teachers and developing a program that includes videos, QR codes, worksheets and more to help the community grow comfortable with knowing and using the language.

Native Americans were granted the legal ability to practice their beliefs in 1978 with the Indian Religious Freedom Act. Before that, they were forced, whether through boarding schools, assimilation or colonization to hide their language and culture. These experiences caused trauma for many older Native Americans, which has become generational. Pecore wants to combat this by helping them feel safe within their culture again.

During the Q&A, a student asked how non-natives can help create a safe space for Native Americans to practice their culture. Pecore suggested asking questions and treating them with respect before everything else.

“The only way you’re going to learn is by asking,” she said.

She also recognized how the people that live on Native American ancestral lands, such as where Ramapo College is located, don’t hold responsibility because it’s all based on the actions of their ancestors. She believes it’s better to focus on what can be done to help currently instead of focusing on the past.

“There’s nothing that any of us can do to change what is today, right?” Pecore said. “The only thing we can do is build what we’re going to create for our future.”

Photo by Rebecca Gathercole.