Thanksgiving tribe reclaims language lost to colonization
The ancestors of a Massachusetts tribe shared a Thanksgiving meal. They shared it with the Pilgrims. That was nearly 400 years ago. Now it is reclaiming its long-lost language. It is doing it one schoolchild at a time.
"Weesowee mahkusunash," says teacher Siobhan Brown. She is using a Wampanoag phrase. It means "yellow shoes". She was reading to a preschool class. The book she read was "Blue Hat, Green Hat." It is a popular children's book. It was written by Sandra Boynton.
The Mukayuhsak Weekuw is also called "Children's House." It is an immersion school. It was launched by the Cape Cod-based Mashpee Wampanoag tribe. Their ancestors hosted a harvest celebration with the Pilgrims. That was in 1621. It helped form the basis for the country's Thanksgiving tradition.
There are 19 children from Wampanoag households that are students of Brown and other teachers. The students are being taught solely in Wopanaotooaok. It is a language. It had not been spoken for at least a century. That was until the tribe started an effort to reclaim it. That was more than two decades ago.
The language brought to English words like pumpkin. It is spelled pohpukun in Wopanaotooaok. It also gave us moccasin. Mahkus in Wopanaotooaok. It gave us skunk. Sukok in Wopanaotooaok. It gave us powwow. Pawaw in Wopanaotooaok. It also gave us Massachusetts. Mmasachoosut in Wopanaotooaok.
Hundreds of native tongues have fallen victim to the wearing down of indigenous culture. Wopanaotooaok is one of those languages. This is the result of centuries of colonialism.
"From having had no speakers for six generations to having 500 students attend some sort of class in the last 25 years? It's more than I could have ever expected in my lifetime." That's according to Jessie "Little Doe" Baird. She is the tribe's vice chairwoman. She is almost solely responsible for the rebirth of the language. Tribal members refer to it simply as Wampanoag (pronounced WAHM'-puh-nawg).
The immersion school is now in its second year. It is a key milestone in Baird's legacy. But it's not the only way the tribe is making sure its language is never lost again.
This year, seven students are enrolled in the district's first Wampanoag language class. The class is held at the public high school. It is funded by the tribe. It is also staffed by the tribe.
Volunteers host free language learning sessions. They are for families. They are held each Friday. They are at the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum.
Within the tribe's government building tribal elders gather twice a week for an hourlong lesson before lunch.
"Sometimes it goes in one ear and out the other." That's according to Pauline Peters. She is 78 years old. She lives in Hyannis. She has been attending the informal sessions for about three years.
"It takes us elders a while to get things. The kids at the immersion school correct us all the time."
The movement to bring back native American languages started gaining traction in the 1990s. Today, most of country's more than 550 tribes are taking part in some form of language saving work. That's according to Diana Cournoyer. She belongs to the National Indian Education Association.
But the Mashpee Wampanoag stand out. That's because they're one of the few tribes to have brought back their language. This is despite not having any surviving adult speakers. That's according to Teresa McCarty. She is a cultural anthropologist and applied linguist. She works at the University of California Los Angeles.
"Imagine learning to speak, read, and write a language that you have never heard spoken and for which no oral records exist," she says. "It's a human act of brilliance, faith, courage, commitment and hope."
Jessie Baird had a dream. She was in her 20s. She had no college degree. She had no training in linguistics. But she was inspired her to start learning Wampanoag. That was in the early 1990s.
Baird worked with linguistic experts. They were at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She also worked with other tribal members. She developed a dictionary of Wampanoag. She also created a grammar guide.
She and others drew on historical documents. They were written in Wampanoag. These included personal diaries of tribal members. It included Colonial-era land claims. And it included a version of the King James Bible. It was printed in 1663. It is considered one of the oldest ever printed in the Western hemisphere.
They still needed to fill in gaps. They turned to words. They turned to pronunciations. And they turned to other auditory cues. These were from related Algonquian languages still spoken today.
The work landed Baird at MIT. This is where she earned a graduate degree in linguistics in 2000. She earned a MacArthur Foundation genius grant. She earned it in 2010.
It’s been nearly three decades. The tribe is still in need of more adults fluent in the language. This is to continue expanding its immersion school and other youth-focused language efforts. These are keys to ensuring the language's survival. That's according to Jennifer Weston. She is director of the tribe's language department.
The school currently enrolls pre-K and kindergarten-age children. It hopes to go up to middle school. They hope do do so within five years.
"The goal is really to have bilingual speakers emerge from our school," Weston says. "And we've seen from other tribal communities that if you want children to retain the language, you have to invest in elementary education. Otherwise the gains just disappear."