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Mashpee Wampanoag are Reviving A Long-Lost Language

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.

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