The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived
Kuweeqâhsun … This was the first word that Jessie Little Doe Baird spoke to her daughter, Mae, the day she was born. The birth hadn’t gone as planned. Jessie had spent most of the last four months of her pregnancy in bed. She was 40 years old and already had four grown children, but Mae was no accident. Jessie took this last risky plunge into motherhood with her eyes wide open.
On July 4, 2004, her home was full of guests. Not only was it Independence Day, but the annual three-day Mashpee Wampanoag powwow was also going on, and Jessie’s relatives were suitably boisterous. “I just went downstairs to tell them to shut up when I started bleeding,” she recalls.
Jessie was rushed to the hospital for an emergency caesarean. Mae was born fine and healthy, but her mother’s bleeding wouldn’t stop. Jessie lost consciousness. In her dreams, she saw herself die on the table–and things easily could have gone that way. But Jessie held on. She knew she had work left to do.
Jessie believes that in 1993 she was given a special task by her ancestors. She experienced a series of dreams in which they spoke to her in a language she didn’t understand: Wopânâak, the ancient language of her people, which had died out sometime in the mid-1800s. She took it as a sign. A Wampanoag prophecy spoke of a time when their language would leave them, only to return when the people were ready. Jessie believed that her dreams were a message from her ancestors, telling her it was time.
Since then, Jessie has devoted her life to resurrecting Wopânâak, working toward the day when the language that greeted the Pilgrims could once more be spoken aloud in southeastern Massachusetts. Her path has required one leap of faith after another, but she’s had more successes than failures along the way. She’s written a dictionary, gotten a master’s degree in linguistics from MIT, and has even won a MacArthur “genius grant.” But Mae remains her greatest achievement. She was born to be the first.
Before July 4, 2004, there hadn’t been a native speaker of Wopânâak born into the tribe for six generations. Jessie marked the end of that sad legacy with a single word: Kuweeqâhsun … Translated as “good morning,” it literally means “you are in the light.” Jessie always warns that metaphors don’t translate, but it’s impossible not to see optimism in that phrase. On that day, the hopes of an entire people shone down upon one little girl, the seventh generation, wrapped in the arms of her exhausted mother.
In a tiny classroom at Boston College, Nitana Hicks waits for an answer. She hasn’t been teaching long, but she’s mastered this skill: staring down her students after a difficult question and willing one of them to answer. She’s had a lot of practice at it. Many of her questions leave her students speechless.
Eventually the silence breaks. A female student volunteers to conjugate the verb on the board. She walks to the front of the class, picks up a marker, and starts writing words that to most anyone outside this classroom seem like complete gibberish.
The consonants and vowels align in ways that defy pronunciation. At least one word ends in the syllable ukw and the numeral 8 is being thrown around as though it’s a letter. (It’s pronounced something like the English oo sound.)
Nitana looks over the work and says, “Close,” then erases an accent from one of the words. The student objects. “I swear to God there’s an accent in the red book,” she says, as she starts flipping through a workbook at her desk.
Nitana looks honestly puzzled for a second, and then, almost questioningly, replies, “I swear to God you’re wrong.”
Some of the other students start weighing in, half on either side. Eventually they figure out that Nitana and her student have different editions. “It’s the updated one,” Nitana says, holding up her workbook. “It should be right-er.”
When Jessie began her work, Wopânâak existed only in written form, preserved on aging documents. Her ancestors were members of one of the first literate Indian nations, owing in part to the colonists’ eagerness to spread the Gospel; the first Bibles published in Boston were in Wopânâak. (Some experts believe the language was Massachusett, which is very closely related to Wopânâak.) The Wampanoag embraced literacy, having learned early on that when doing business with the English it helped to have things in writing. They’d left behind reams of contracts and letters.
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