|Regions with significant populations|
|Lithuania, Germany, Poland|
|Related ethnic groups|
|Latvians, Prussian Lithuanians, Lithuanians|
The Kursenieki (Latvian: kursenieki, k?penieki, German: Kuren - 'Curonians'; Lithuanian: kur?ininkai; Polish: Kuronowie pruscy - 'Prussian Curonians') are a nearly extinct Baltic ethnic group living along the Curonian Spit. "Kur?ininkai" refers only to inhabitants of Lithuania and former East Prussia that speak a dialect of Latvian. Some autochthonous inhabitants of ?ventoji in Lithuania call themselves "kur?ininkai" as well.
Kursenieki are often confused with the extinct Curonian Baltic tribe, as neighbouring ethnic groups called Kur?ininkai/Kursenieki as Curonians: in German, Latvian and Lithuanian, Kursenieki and the Curonian tribes are known by the same terms (Kuren, kur?i and kur?iai respectively). In scientific Lithuanian literature, the name kur?ininkai is used to distinguish them from the Curonian tribe. Similarly in Latvian kursenieki is used mostly exclusively by scientists to distinguish them from the Curonian tribe. On the other hand, Kursenieki should not be confused with Kurzemnieki, which are the geographical group of Latvians from Courland. Kursenieki are often considered descendants of the extinct Curonian tribe.
The Kursenieki have never designated themselves as Latvians and their own language was called "Curonian language" (kursisk valoud). From a linguistic point of view, it is a dialect of Latvian, while some linguists also consider it a sociolect as Kursenieki were predominantly fishermen. In German and Latvian writings of the 19th century, Kursenieki sometimes are called "Prussian Latvians" (German: Preussische Letten; Latvian: Pr?sijas latvie?i). Kursenieki were loyal to Germany and identified themselves as German citizens and ethnic Kursenieki.
The origin of the Kursenieki is unclear. One version says that they are indigenous descendants of the Curonian tribe that lived there since antiquity, at least along the Curonian Spit. During the conquest of the Old Prussians and Curonians by the Teutonic Knights, the area became nearly uninhabited. In the process of various migrations of the 14th-17th centuries, Curonians from Courland settled near Memel, along the Curonian Spit, and in Sambia (all regions in East Prussia). They preserved the old self-designation of Curonians (kur?i), while Curonians who stayed in Courland became Latvians. The Kursenieki were assimilated by Germans, except along the Curonian Spit where some still live. Until the Soviet Army's takeover in 1945, several places in Sambia were named after Kursenieki, including Cranzkuhren, Neukuhren, Gross Kuhren, and Klein Kuhren. In 1649, Kursenieki lived from Memel to Danzig. In the end of the 19th century the total number of Kursenieki was around 4,000 persons.
Kursenieki were considered Latvians after World War I when Latvia gained independence from the Russian Empire. This consideration was based on linguistic arguments and was the rationale for Latvian claims over the Curonian Spit, Memel, and some other territories of East Prussia. Later these claims were removed. In 1923, the newly created Memel Territory separated the Curonian Spit in two parts. This separation interrupted contacts between Kursenieki. In 1933, Latvia tried to establish a cultural center for Kursenieki of the Curonian Spit where the majority of them lived, but was opposed by Lithuania, to which the Memel Territory belonged.
Near the end of World War II, the majority of Kursenieki fled from the Red Army during the evacuation of East Prussia. Kursenieki that remained behind were subsequently expelled by the Soviet Union after the war and replaced with Russians and Lithuanians.
Some Kursenieki managed to return to their homes after the war, but only 219 lived along the Curonian Spit in 1955. Many had German names such as Fritz or Hans, a cause for anti-German discrimination. Russian settlers called the Kursenieki fascists, while Lithuanian settlers called them Kur?iai. Neither Lithuania nor Russia have allowed the return to Kursenieki of property confiscated after World War II.
Curonians are one of the Baltic tribes. Their culture, religion and architecture are similar to those found in Germany and Sweden. Curonians are related with Lithuanians and Latvians. The Kursenieki were predominantly Lutheran, like most former inhabitants of East Prussia, although some ancient pagan customs were preserved. Most Kursenieki were bilingual or even trilingual: the Curonian language was used within the family and while fishing, German was used in everyday communication, and the language of church services was German and Lithuanian. The Kursenieki were primarily fishermen. Some elements of cuisine are named after Kursenieki, for example Curonian coffee (Kurenkaffee); a drink made of vodka flavoured with coffee, honey and other ingredients was popular throughout East Prussia.
The first scholar who took an interest in Kursenieki culture and language was Paul Kwauka, a member of the separatist movement of Memel Territory. His book "Kurisches Wörterbuch" is a highly valuable source of information. The work of describing their heritage is continued by one of the last remaining Curonians, Richard Pietsch.
Curonian cemetery in Nida
The surnames of Kursenieki have various origins, including: