In true Swattie fashion, Holly Smith '14 scoured the course catalog, guided by natural curiosity. She landed on a linguistics class, Lenape Language and Culture.
"I just thought it looked interesting," says Smith, a history major from Chicago, Ill. "It turned out to be probably my favorite class I took here."
Two years later, Smith and co-creator Jorin Schug '15 preside over the Lenape Language club, as awareness and appreciation of the extremely endangered Lenape language percolates on campus. In fact, Swarthmore students have become some of the most fluent Lenape speakers in the world.
"I tell them that when they finish the class, and it's the truth," says Shelley DePaul, instructor of the course and the recently appointed chief of Pennsylvania Lenape Nation. "My community has only three proficient speakers left."
DePaul originally developed her curriculum to help Lenape people in her community re-learn the language. After attending a conference at the University of Pennsylvania where DePaul presented her language program, Professor of Linguistics Ted Fernald invited her to teach at Swarthmore. She received funding from a grant, a fellowship, Penn, and the College to teach the language class between 2009 and 2012, before Swarthmore moved to support it on an every-other-year basis.
"Lenape is not taught at any other institution of higher learning in the world," he says. "The fact that it's being taught here, in the traditional Lenape homeland [of the Delaware Valley], makes a small contribution toward addressing past injustices suffered by Native Americans."
DePaul teaches students the basics of how to speak the Lenape ("Luh-NAH-pay") language and introduces cultural elements, such as artifacts and music, in a hands-on, holistic style. And the learning goes both ways, as DePaul values her students' talents in the ongoing efforts to revitalize the language.
"I've learned so much from them, especially the linguistics students," she says, "and our people are just amazed at the work they're doing. It's a wonderful collaboration."
That work ranges from transcribing pieces of Lenape language that linguists had collected and written in their vernacular to establishing standards for, say, conjugating verbs. They've also translated cultural ceremonies back into Lenape, so that the community can perform them as originally intended, says DePaul. They're making their mark on the field of linguistics in real time.
"It isn't like taking another language course where the text is already written," she says. "They don't feel a part of things there, but they're a big part of them here."
The students' special projects have also offered an array of online resources to Lenape language learners, from dictionaries and phonetic renditions to traditional Lenape jokes and culturally inspired songs.
"Our people are so grateful," says DePaul, "and that gratitude makes the students feel good and builds enthusiasm."
To stoke that enthusiasm in years for which the class isn't offered, Smith and Schug started the Language and Culture Club. There, students can practice what they've learned and generate awareness among the greater community. This spring, they posted fliers with Lenape key words and phrases all over campus, and in the fall they'll present a Cooper Series event on the importance of re-vitalizing Native American languages.
"As someone from the area, I'm really glad to have the opportunity to help raise awareness for the Lenape community," says Schug, a mathematics major from Wyndmoor, Pa. "It's a privilege, really."
The growth of the class and club and her designation as chief occurring in the sesquicentennial year of the College isn't lost on DePaul. She doesn't see those things or the chance to teach at a school founded by Quakers, with which the Lenape people have had close ties since the days of William Penn, as a coincidence.
"I don't believe in those."