Keeping the Lunaape language alive in Munsee-Delaware Nation

The Lunaape language is considered critically endangered with approximately 100 speakers left in Canada but there are efforts to revitalize it in Munsee-Delaware Nation.

Community near London, Ont., one of only 2 Lunaape-speaking communities in Canada

Karen Mosko and Ian McCallum collaborate on cultural weekends that infuse Lunaape language into lessons. (Submitted by Ian McCallum)

The Lunaape language is considered critically endangered with approximately 100 speakers left in Canada but there are efforts to revitalize it in Munsee-Delaware Nation.

Munsee-Delaware is a First Nation about 20 km southwest of London, Ont., with around 150 on-reserve community members and 600 who live off-reserve. It is situated within the Chippewas of the Thames reserve. 

Ian McCallum is a language teacher and educator who grew up in Barrie, Ont. He remembers his mother made sure he and his sister visited family on the reserve as much as possible as children, where his grandmother and great-grandfather spoke the language around them.

"I think she tried very hard that we should absorb as much as of the culture, the language and history as possible because of that generation and how old they were," said McCallum. 

Karen Mosko is McCallum's neighbour and together they run weekend culture and language classes in their community. She's from Munsee-Delaware Nation and is completing her teacher's certificate so she can teach the Lunaape language in schools. 

The Munsee, also known as Delaware, Lenape or Lunaapeew, came across the Niagara River after the American revolution and settled along the banks of the Thames River. 

There is another community in Chatham-Kent, Ont. — the Delaware Nation at Moraviantown — that speaks the same dialect of Lunaape and is where the majority of remaining Lunaape speakers live, although there is only one first language speaker still alive. These are the only two Lunaape-speaking communities in Canada. 

Archival photo of the Thames River. (Submitted by Ian McCallum)

'You can't just let something go'

McCallum suspects a number of reasons for the language's decline, including the presence of Mount Elgin Industrial Institute, a residential school that operated from 1845-1946 at Chippewas of the Thames, and the prioritization of English over traditional languages. 

"When I was younger, a lot of people were not supportive of language learning because they felt that it would mess up English and there was no point in bringing back something that maybe didn't have a place any longer," said McCallum. 

Ian McCallum is from Munsee-Delaware Nation in Ontario. 0:04

When he was 20, McCallum decided he wanted to learn the language and sought out a first language speaker in Moraviantown because there were none left in his community. 

"In the back of my mind, I always thought you can't just let something go, because within the words is the deeper meaning of science, history, culture and religion," he said.

"All of those are within Lunaape. If you choose to let that go, then that bond is going to be broken."

He was able to connect with Dianne Snake in Moraviantown where she would have him and a friend read books in Lunaape, correcting their pronunciation as they went along. 

An Aash basket making class at the Munsee-Delaware community centre. (Submitted by Ian McCallum)

How do you revitalize a language with so few speakers? 

Twenty-three years later, McCallum is working on creating language resources in his community. While studying in Moraviantown, he had access to Lunaape books and cassette tapes that were a result of government grants from the 1980s.

"Because we don't have material in our community, I sort of set aside the fact that we need to build that first," he said. 

He also has taken to social media to reach out to community members who live off-reserve and are not able to access language classes in person. 

McCallum and Mosko collaborate on cultural weekends that infuse Lunaape language into lessons. This past spring, they held a weekend around the planting moon. 

"We were planting seeds, so we would have our hands in the dirt and we'd say something like 'We're creating mounds of dirt,' in the language," said Mosko. 

"It just seemed more powerful doing the actions while you're saying what the phrase is."

Karen Mosko is from Munsee-Delaware Nation in Ontario. 0:15

Mosko fell into teaching the language after attending a class with her mother. The teacher told the class that 200 years ago the community was all fluent in Lunaape and there were less than 10 fluent English speakers, where now those numbers have reversed and there are less than 10 fluent Lunaape speakers, all of whom live in Moraviantown. 

"At that point, I felt like it was going to be my responsibility to bring this back to our community," she said. 

Mosko said revitalizing a language with so few resources and fluent speakers is difficult but necessary. 

 "It's part of who we are."

CBC Indigenous is highlighting a few of the many diverse Indigenous languages that exist across the country. Read more from the Original Voices project.


Rhiannon Johnson is an Anishinaabe journalist from Hiawatha First Nation based in Toronto. She has been with the Indigenous unit since 2017 focusing on Indigenous life and experiences throughout Ontario. You can reach her at and on Twitter @rhijhnsn.