Keepers of a lost culture

Beulah Timothy is a ghost of history. So is her brother, Richard Snake, and their childhood friend, Alma Burgoon.

Their home is the Delaware Nation Reserve, 3,000 acres of rich farmland 150 miles southwest of Toronto. Small, well-kept homes surrounded by corn fields dot the reserve, which is crisscrossed by gravel roads and bordered by a slow moving muddy river called the Thames.

Their ancestors came here 200 years ago in the company of missionaries. It was the end of a long journey. The Delaware had been on the run for generations after fleeing the region of the lower Hudson River and western Long Island in the early 1640s to escape certain extinction in a war waged by Dutch settlers.

Nearly 500 people live at Moraviantown, as the reserve is known. They are ghosts of a long lost homeland that has forgotten them as much as they have forgotten it. Their history in New York and on Long Island has been all but obliterated by the passage of 3 1/2 centuries and untold amounts of concrete and asphalt. Hidden away in Canada, the Delaware are a people forgotten by the land they were forced to flee.

But the lives of Richard Snake, Beulah Timothy and Alma Burgoon represent even greater anomalies within their world — they are the last speakers of a language called Munsee Delaware.

It was the language of New York, centuries before there was a New York, and Long Island, when no one but the Algonquian Indians knew it was an island. Munsee Delaware was the language that explorer Henry Hudson heard in 1607 as he sailed up the river that now bears his name; the language heard by another explorer, Adrian Block, who with his men spent the winter of 1613-14 on Manhattan Island building a ship they christened the Restless. It was the language heard by the Dutch as they expanded their settlements onto the western end of Long Island, pushing aside the Delaware and turning them into refugees. And it was a language spoken for thousands of generations on Long Island.

That the descendants of those refugees still live as a community — that anyone anywhere can still speak the language — seems incredible.

Read more: Newsday

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