The Shinnecock Indian Nation has realized a decade-old dream with the opening of a culture-centric preschool on its 800-acre Southampton reservation, one the tribe hopes will encourage fluent speakers of a fading language.

The Wuneechanunk Shinnecock Preschool opened this month to provide early schooling and care for children starting at 6 weeks old to just over 2 years, in an environment that emphasizes the Shinnecock language, history, songs and the local environment. The seven enrolled children are 18-36 months; full enrollment is expected in the fall and could increase that to its capacity of 20.

The 3,500-square-foot building, built at an estimated cost of just over $1 million, has one infant classroom and two toddler classrooms. Each bears a name from the Shinnecock dialect of the Algonquian language: Ohke (Earth), Nippe (water) and Kesuk (sun).

More coverageComplete coverage: Shinnecock Indian Nation

Large windows throughout the center present children with views of the land their ancestors have occupied for thousands of years.

"Shinnecock culture is integrated into their day all day long," said Tohanash Tarrant, manager of the center. "They sing simple toddler songs in Algonquian," and learn colors and numbers in the Shinnecock dialect.

The center also has a large indoor play place and garden spaces outdoors. Children will receive lunches at the center, once funding comes through, Tarrant said.

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Shinnecock linguist Tina Tarrant is teaching language classes. Government subsidies pay the cost of many of the children now in the center through the Tribal Child Care Development Fund.

Officials wouldn't say how much the day care costs, but Tarrant said it's "on the lower side for center-based care" in Southampton. She added, "There are not many affordable programs in this area."

Parents say the center provides a vital local link, and an opportunity for them to go to school or to a job.

"Now I can work," said Nadonis Tarrant, Tohanash Tarrant's sister and a single mom whose 2-year-old son, Kutshamonese, was among the first students in the preschool. She'll work this summer as counselor at a local camp.

In addition to providing Shinnecock-centric learning, the center is also close to most families who use it. Nadonis Tarrant can walk there.

On top of needed child care, the center also provides employment and training for tribal members who want careers in the field. Seven tribal members -- including two full-time teachers and three part-time teacher aides -- staff the center now, but it will reach 15 in the future.

"Some days the kids don't want to go home," said Chenoa Curry, a teacher aide who is studying to become a registered nurse.

The project began in 2006 with a $293,000 grant from the Gerald and Janet Carrus Foundation, according to former project director Lauryn Randall. Tribal members Andrea Godoy, another former director, and project assistant Donna Bess worked on education programs from its earliest days.

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More fundraisers have been planned. Tarrant said the center still needs between $50,000 and $75,000 for utilities, small salaries, food and supplies.

In 2009, the tribe's Grants Department secured a $600,000 Indian Community Development Block grant from the Housing and Urban Development agency.

In 2009, Randall and Bess began work to get the center built. The Inter-Science Research Association of Southampton conducted an environmental assessment without cost to the nation. Former Rep. Tim Bishop secured another $190,000 from HUD.Tarrant said that as critical as the center is to helping with day care needs on the reservation, she and other tribal members hope it will play a central role in encouraging new members to learn the language.

"There are no fluent [Shinnecock] speakers," she said. "It's going to take a real big effort to be able to communicate in our language. . . . That's what we're working toward."The center was designed by WHPacific and Chaleff ... Rogers, and construction was led by Construction Consultants of L.I., Randall said./to here/js//END