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Mashpee Wampanoag are Reviving A Long-Lost Language

Local tribe learning to speak the words of their ancestors

Local tribe learning to speak the words of their ancestors

Photo by: Kelly Cronin Bicknell

It started with a vision. In 1993—some 14 years before federal recognition of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe—Jessie little doe Baird, a member of the tribe, began having dreams in which people were speaking a language she had never heard. In one dream, they were chanting in this mysterious tongue, and someone said, “Ask Jessie. She knows what it means.”

At the time, Baird did not know. But one day she realized the people in her dreams were her ancestors and they were speaking Wampanoag, a language that had not been spoken for more than 100 years. She also realized that her ancestors were calling on her to see if others would welcome the opportunity to bring the spoken language back to life.

Thus began an academic and spiritual journey that took Baird from a quiet life in Mashpee to a master’s degree in linguistics at MIT in 2000; a starring role in a documentary film, We Still Live Here—As Nutayunean, released in 2010; and a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant the same year. Under Baird’s guidance, some 500 Wampanoag tribal citizens have taken classes in their native language in the last 20 years; 12 are certified to teach; the first Wampanoag dictionary has surpassed 12,000 words; and an effort is underway to open a Wampanoag immersion school. The project has also united four Wampanoag tribal councils in pursuing this common goal: Mashpee, Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard, Herring Pond in Plymouth and Assonet in Freetown/Fall River.

Local tribe learning to speak the words of their ancestors

Photo by: Kelly Cronin Bicknell

Baird is modest about the achievements. “I think that any number of people could have been asked to do this,” she says. “I may have just been born at the right time and the right place. And,” she adds with a smile, “I sort of got conned into doing it.”
The Wôpanâak (Wampanoag) Language Reclamation project is widely acknowledged as the first successful effort to reclaim a language purely from written documents. Reclamation is possible only because so many religious and legal documents produced in the 1600s and 1700s were written in Wampanoag. Seventeenth-century missionaries bent on converting the natives to Christianity quickly deduced that it would be far easier to translate the Bible and other religious texts into Wampanoag than to teach all the Native Americans English. In fact, the first King James Bible published in the New World was printed in Wampanoag in Cambridge in 1663. The Wampanoag people would eventually go on to record, in their own language, everything from deeds to wills to contracts and letters. Hundreds of these documents survive today.

While at MIT, Baird learned the structure and grammar of Wampanoag and other Algonquian languages. Roughly 39 Native American languages, including Wampanoag, are categorized as Algic or Algonquian by linguists. By comparing Wampanoag writings with terms in still-spoken sister languages, such as Cree and Micmac, linguists can determine the corresponding sound changes from Proto-Algongquian across all sister languages.

The language is not easy to learn. The language classroom at the tribe’s headquarters in Mashpee looks much like any other primary school classroom, with colorful posters of objects that begin with each letter of the alphabet and numbers in words and numerals. But a visitor notices right away that there are only 20 letters in the Wampanoag alphabet, including seven vowels. One of the vowels looks like a figure 8 turned on its side and is pronounced “oo” as in “food.” Jennifer Weston, director of the tribal language department, says the letter made its way into the alphabet back when print was set by hand. Native American typesetters found it quicker to grab an “8” and turn it over than to set two o’s side by side.

Wampanoag also distinguishes between animate and inanimate nouns according to a complex set of rules that have to do with the way a noun moves in relation to other objects, and whether it controls its own or another object’s motion, says Weston. For example, the human body is considered animate, while most body parts are inanimate. Baird notes in the documentary that the word for sun is inanimate and the word for Earth is animate, suggesting that the Wampanoag knew long before Copernicus that it’s the Earth that moves and not the sun.

Local tribe learning to speak the words of their ancestors

Photo by: Kelly Cronin Bicknell

Another element of the language that can be a challenge for English speakers is the way that words describe not only objects and actions but also relationships. “It’s very specific,” says Toodie Jackson Coombs, who has been studying Wampanoag for six years and now teaches beginner classes. “For example, the word for star—anaquhs—translates literally into ‘creation creature.’ You get all the science mixed in. … It tells us the way our people thought. I love that part of it.”

Coombs, who also works at Plimoth Plantation, teaches Wampanoag to tribal children in the Mashpee Public Schools and to staff at tribal headquarters. At the Kenneth C. Coombs School in Mashpee, children are invited to bring a friend to class once a week, which allows native and non-native children to learn more about each other’s culture.

A weekly “lunch and learn” program offers tribal elders a nutritious meal along with language instruction. Cooking classes, family fun nights, and a three-week summer camp for tribal youth—all conducted in Wampanoag—encourage the use of the language outside the classroom. Classes are also held at sites in Plymouth, New Bedford, and Boston. At present, classes are open only to Wampanoag tribal household members; the project does not have enough teachers or funding to offer classes to the general public, Weston says.

Perhaps the most ambitious component of the language reclamation project is a proposal submitted to the state Department of Education to open a Wampanoag language immersion regional charter school in August of 2016. Plans call for starting with grades K through 3 and adding grade levels each year.

While charter schools are open to all state residents, the target audience is local students, and the project has identified 6,500 families in Barnstable County who will have students in grades K-3 in 2016. As of mid-July, however, no non-native families have expressed interest in attending the charter school, Weston says, which is typical of the experience at other Native American language schools across the country.

Baird believes a school is vital to the long-term success of the language reclamation project, but she is not optimistic about the charter school route, because of the small number of likely students and the massive documentation required by the state. She notes that no charters were granted last year, and she is concerned that state requirements will ultimately water down the project’s vision.

Local tribe learning to speak the words of their ancestors

Courtesy Photo

“We’re not optimistic that Massachusetts has gotten to the point where it’s progressive enough to understand what we’re trying to accomplish,” she says. The alternative would be a private school, which would depend largely on funding, and the tribe is looking at the Montessori model and others.

Asked to identify the most difficult part of the last 22 years, Baird hesitates. Funding is always a challenge, she says, and her current position as vice chairwoman of the tribe means she has less time to spend working directly with the language department, but none of it has been really difficult. “We’ve always known that whatever’s supposed to happen will happen.”

The most rewarding part? There’s no hesitation at all as she names her husband, Jason Baird, an Aquinnah Wampanoag, who was once her student, and their daughter, Mae, 11, who is the first native speaker of the language in a century.

Mark Forest, executive director of the Delahunt Group, a consulting firm that specializes in government affairs, works with the tribe as a consultant on public policy matters and also serves as a trustee of the proposed charter school. A Yarmouth resident, Forest believes reclaiming the Wampanoag language “is critical in repairing cultural loss and enabling this community to recapture its history.” And the success of that effort, he says, will lead to a better Cape Cod.

“I think it’s important as a community that we learn more about the Wampanoag people, their struggles and their persistence,” Forest says. “They are very much part of our community, a part we don’t understand very well . . . The more we learn about them, the more we learn about ourselves.”



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