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Former Unkechaug chief discusses efforts to preserve language and culture

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Harry Wallace

Written by Nicholas Grasso
Video produced by Rabia Gursoy

Harry Wallace, the former chief of the Unkechaug Nation who lives on the Poospatuck Reservation in Mastic, is dedicated to preserving his predecessors’ language and continuing their battles.

Wallace, 66, the owner of the Poospatuck Smoke Shop on the Poospatuck Reservation, is in his third decade of reconnecting with the Algonquian Language, and since 2016, has taught courses at Stony Brook University as part of the linguistics departments’ Algonquian Language Revitalization Project, which he cofounded.

In an interview with GreaterMoriches, Wallace discussed this journey.

“One of the things I have learned is that the language was never gone,” he said. “We just disconnected ourselves from it.”

His endeavors began with the discovery of reel-to-reel tapes archived at Dartmouth College, one of his alma maters, which contained tribal elders’ voices in the Algonquian language. The tapes were treated, converted to cassettes and eventually digitalized.

These recordings became the foundation for Wallace’s work. He said he had help from “speakers and non-speakers, linguists and non-linguists” over the course of his reconnection with the native language.

Wallace said it is important for the Unkechaug to learn the Algonquian language by engaging in ceremonies and traditions which he said are dependent on a proper understanding of how it is spoken.

“Language is more than just a translation of words, or learning to speak a certain way,” he said. “It is understanding a way of life.”

Wallace has lived on the Poospatuck Reservation since 1991 and opened up his shop before he was elected chief in 1994.

During his 25-year tenure as chief, Wallace helped establish the Native People’s Scholarship for Unkechaug members seeking higher education and a community healthcare initiative which supplements members’ medical expenses.

He has also endured his share of legal and environmental struggles.

In 2018, he led a lawsuit against the New York State Department of Conservation seeking independence from DEC regulation based on native sovereignty, religious freedoms and historical treaties.

The lawsuit is rooted in a summons issued by the DEC in 2014 and a 2016 incident in which the DEC confiscated fishing equipment from Unkechaug members in the Forge River.

For Wallace, his fight is a continuation of his predecessors’ efforts to secure rights for their people.

“Tobaccus, John Mahue, William Cooper protected those rights of our people to make sure that we would continue to hunt and fish in our common areas,” he said. “Not just in the territory that we occupy, but all the agreements that we ever entered into had those rights of preservation to hunt and fish in the common areas of our territory.”

The former Unkechaug chief has also encountered the contemporary conundrum of climate change. He has witnessed water levels rise during his tenure, and after Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012, many homes needed to be elevated. “We have no place to go so we have to live with that,” Wallace said. “We have to go up, instead of trying to go in.”