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For the extinct Baltic tribe, see Curonians.

The Kursenieki (Curonians; ; ; ) (sg. Kursenieks) are a nearly extinct Baltic ethnic group living along the Curonian Spitmarker. "Kursenieki" refers only to inhabitants of former East Prussia that speak a Latvian language dialect, the so-called (New) Curonian language.

Autochthonous inhabitants of Palangamarker in Lithuaniamarker call themselves "Curonians" as well,"Lietuvis sauc mumis kuršininkās. Mes esam ne latviai, o kuršininkai", tr.: "Lithuanian calls us Curonians, we are not Latvians, we are Curonians". but in Lithuania they usually are counted as Latvians.


Kursenieki are often confused with the extinct Curonian Baltic tribe, as neighbouring ethnic groups called Kursenieki as Curonians: in German, Latvian and Lithuanian, Kursenieki and the Curonian tribe are known by the same terms (Kuren, kurši and kuršiai respectively). In scientific Lithuanian literature, the name kuršininkai is used to designate them from the Curonian tribe. Simillary in Latvian kursenieki is used mostly exclusively by scientists to designate them from the Curonian tribe. On the other hand, Kursenieki should not be confused with Kurzemnieki, which are the geographical group of Latvians from Kurzeme. 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" (kursenieku valoda). From a linguistic point of view, it is a dialect of Latvian. In German and Latvian writings of the 19th century, Kursenieki sometimes are called "Prussian Latvians" ( ; ). Kursenieki were loyal to Germany and identified themselves as German citizens and ethnic Kursenieks.


Curonian living area in 1649
Curonian house

The origin of the Kursenieki is unclear. One version says that they are autochthonous descendants of the Curonian tribe who lived there since antiquity, at least along the Curonian Spitmarker. 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,In the 15th century large scale emigration from Courland to Prussia has been documented. Bezzenberger A., Ueber die Sprache der Preussischen Letten, Goettingen, 1888.In 1541 documents mention 162 fishermen originating from Ventspilsmarker, Kandavamarker and other places of Courland. Forstreuter K., 1981, Das Volk des Kurisches Nehrung,– Wirkungen des Preussenlandes, Köln150 Curonians settled around Memel in 1630. 180 families arrived after 1655, some of them settled around Tilsitmarker. A. Seraphim, Ueber Wanderungen lettischer Bauern aus Kurland nach Ostpreussen im 17. Jahrhundert, Altpreussische Monatsschrift, XXIX, 1892. Curonians from Courland settled near Memel, along the Curonian Spit, and in Sambiamarker (all regions in East Prussia). They preserved the old self-designation of Curonians (kursi), while Curonians who stayed in Courland became Latvians. The Kursenieki were assimilated by Germans, except along the Curonian Spit where some still live. Until 1945, several places in Sambia were named after Kursenieki, including Cranzkuhren, Neukuhrenmarker, Gross Kuhren, and Klein Kuhren. In 1649 Kursenieki lived from Memel marker to Danzig marker. 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 Latviamarker gained independence from the Russian Empiremarker. 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 Lithuaniamarker, to which the Memel Territory belonged. Latvian books that were sent to Kursenieki were confiscated and accused of communist propaganda.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 Unionmarker 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 Prussians. In the Lithuanian SSR, church services in German were banned. Because of this discrimination, many immigrated to West Germanymarker in 1958, where the majority of Kursenieki now live. Neither Lithuaniamarker nor Russiamarker has allowed the return to Kursenieki of property confiscated after World War II.


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 (as Kursenieki identified nationally with Germanymarker), 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 (Kurenkoffee); a drink made of vodka flavoured with coffee, honey and other ingredients was popular throughout East Prussia.The first who took an interest in Kursenieki culture and language was Paul Kwauka, a member of the separatist movement of Memel Territory. His book "Kurisches Worterbuch" is a highly valuable source of information.The work of describing their heritage is continued by one of the last remaining Curonians, Richard Pietsch.


The surnames of Kursenieki have various origins, including:
  • Latvian, some with elements of Old Curonian: Gulbis, Kakies, Kuite, Kukulitis, Pinkis, Strangulis, Detzkeit, Jakeit
  • Lithuanian: Kalwis, Lauzeningks
  • Lithuanian or Latvian or Oldprussian: Dullis, Purwins
  • German: Kiehr, Schmidt
  • Protobaltic: Engelins
  • Samogitian: Pietsch
  • Oldprussian: Schadowski, Schekahn

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