On Friday, June 17, the Lenape Center honored Jim Rementer in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, for his more than 50 years of dedication to the preservation of the language of the Lenape (luh-na’-pay) people. Now 75 years old, and looking somewhat timeless to those who know him, Rementer, began his relationship with the Lenape people when he traveled to Oklahoma at the age of 21. His deep interest in the Lenape language and culture was partly inspired by a summer camp he attended as a boy, “Camp Lenape” in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.
In 1961 he got on a bus in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in the traditional Lenape homeland, and headed west to Oklahoma where two Lenape Bands (Delaware Indians) have resided since 1867, when it was still the Indian Territory. He was traveling to meet a Lenape man named Fred Washington with whom he had been corresponding. The first Delaware (Lenape) man he met was John Fugate of the Whiteturkey family, who assisted him as a new arrival.
Rementer was excited to be traveling to meet Lenape language speakers. He didn’t know they would turn out to be some of the last of the fluent Lenape language speakers who had been born into the language. Those Elders are all gone now, and Rementer fondly remembers the time he was able to spend with them. He misses the days when he was able to converse with them in Lenape, and learn from fluent Lenape speakers.
Friday’s honoring dinner, with some 50 people in attendance, was sponsored and organized by the Board of the Lenape Center. The audience included Diane Snake, a Delaware language speaker and teacher from Moraviantown, Ontario, where she heads a Delaware language program. She and her traveling companions—Angela Noah, Barb Bann, and Kaylean Noah—some of her Delaware students, flew down to Oklahoma to visit their Lenape relatives and recognize Rementer for his decades of work.
The evening meal included corn soup, steam fried beef and gravy, frybread, grape dumplings, and sassafras tea. The menu was printed in the Lenape language. Before the meal was served, Curtis Zunigha, former Chief of the Delaware Tribe of Oklahoma, and co-founder and co-director of the Lenape Center, delivered a prayer in the Lenape language. He said he was “truly grateful for the food and the water,” and gave “praise and honor” for Rementer’s commitment to the Lenape people.
Zunigha acknowledged Rementer giving a life of service “to our Lenape people and our culture.” “Hold us up well,” he prayed, “that we may continue these traditions.” Zunigha’s 10-year-old granddaughter, Cayla Magee, later delivered a statement in both Lenape and English to show her commitment to Lenape language preservation. Zunigha’s daughter Erica Magee coordinated the evening’s events.
Joe Baker, the Lenape Center’s Executive Director, board member who was born and raised in Dewey, Oklahoma, served as the Master of Ceremonies. Baker said of Rementer: “We are very grateful for his friendship, his knowledge, and for his good spirit,” saying that Rementer “has touched many lives.” He recognized Rementer as “the go-to guy for his knowledge and his expertise,” Baker continued. He called Rementer “A scholar, a linguistic, and a historian” with whom many language experts have conferred over the years.
Hadrien Coumans, an adopted member of the Whiteturkey family, and co-founder of the Lenape Center, explained to the audience that the Center is a New York City-based non-profit foundation, incorporated in the state of New York. The mission of the Lenape Center, said Coumans, is “promoting Lenape language, and the creation, development, distribution, and exhibition of Lenape arts and culture” in the traditional homeland of the Lenape nation and people.
“Our commitment and focus,” he continued, “has been to recognize the creatives, the arts, and the bearers of the culture.” He also listed some of the Lenape Center’s accomplishments to date, including a concert opera, “The Purchase of Manhattan,” retold from a Native American Viewpoint. It was written by Brent Michael Davids (Stockbridge Munsee, Mohigan), and received a write up in the New York Times. The Lenape Center has also worked on environmental issues, such as opposing the continuation of the Indian Point nuclear power plant on the Hudson River. They recently had a dinner with Nobel Peace Prize winner and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore and his daughter Karenna Gore Schiff, to discuss environmental concerns.
At the end of the evening, Zunigha presented Rementer with a Pendleton Blanket and a plaque from the Lenape Center recognizing his many accomplishments. Chet Brooks, Chief of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, presented him with a Delaware Tribe of Indians resolution that recognizes him as “an honorary member” of the Tribe. Approximately $2,500 dollars in proceeds and fundraising for the event went to the Lenape Language Preservation Fund maintained by the Delaware Tribe in Bartlesville.
Rementer has served in a number of capacities for the Delaware Tribe of Oklahoma, including as the Director of the Lenape Language Project (1997 to the present); Interim Director of the Delaware Tribe NAGPRA Project (2000-2002), Acting Assistant Enrollment Director (2000-2001), Grant writer (1994 to present), Secretary of the Cultural Preservation Committee (1991 to present), and Coordinator of the Lenape Language Project (1992 to 1996).
Zunigha and the other board members of the Lenape Center decided it was important to recognize and honor Rementer for his monumental achievement recording and chronicling the Lenape language. Rementer has accumulated some 16,000 Lenape language sound files and developed the Lenape Talking Dictionary with grants from the National Science Foundation.
Not long after arriving in Dewey, Oklahoma in the early 1960s, Rementer was adopted by Nora Thompson Dean’s father, James H. Thompson (“Pop”), who was born in Kansas in 1867. When Rementer arrived “Pop” was in his early 90s, and he lived for another three years. Rementer went on to work with Nora for another 20 years before she passed. During that time he was given the Lenape name Mushhakwinunt—“He who appears like a clear sky.”
Rementer became so devoted to the Thompson Dean family that he eventually became a primary caretaker for Nora, her daughter Louise, and Nora’s husband Charlie, right up to the time that they each passed on. He dated Helen Fujiyoshi and they eventually married in 1999. They spent 16 wonderful years together until she passed on in 2006.
Rementer became selflessly dedicated to his adopted Lenape family and thereby added his name to the list of those non-Lenape men and women who, sometimes as a result of captivity during the wartime of colonial days, but as a result of Lenape adoption, refused to leave their Lenape families. Ironically, Rementer’s ancestor Nicholas Ramstein from Switzerland, came to North America with his family when he was still a boy. In 1776, when Nicholas was in his early 20s, he was taken captive by the Delaware. He was held for 15 months and then released, he most likely returned to the non-Lenape society as a result of a treaty agreement.
Rementer is a linguist who has mastered the intricate nuance and details of the Lenape language. Years ago he assisted Nora Thompson Dean to issue Lenape language tape cassettes, which are now available as CDs. Many years ago, Rementer also traveled to the Detroit Public Library to locate a Delaware (Lenape) language manuscript compiled in 1824 by Charles Trowbridge based on interviews he conducted with Delaware language speakers.
In 2011, Rementer published the 283-page Trowbridge manuscript as Delaware Indian Language of 1824 By C. C. Trowbridge (Merchantville, NJ: Evolution Publishing). Trowbridge’s work had been languishing all those years in a repository in Detroit. This example illustrates one thing: Rementer’s contribution to the Lenape nation and the Lenape people is immeasurable.
Through the years, Rementer has maintained a deep sense of humility and humanitarian spirit. He seems self-effacing and somewhat oblivious to the significance of his achievements. As he said in an email about the honoring: “I’m still trying to grasp all that was said about me. Makes me think I did do something right in life.”