The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived
When Jessie Little Doe Baird looks back at her early linguistics textbooks, she’s surprised she’s made it this far. “The writing is a little opaque,” she admits. When she began her studies, she was already in her thirties, a working mother with no better understanding of morphology or umlauting effects than the rest of us. “I literally cried reading this,” she recalls. “I thought I’d feel like I’ve been tasked with this as my life’s work, and if this is what I have to deal with, it’s not going to happen.”
But Jessie couldn’t walk away. She enrolled in the graduate linguistics school at MIT, where she began working with Kenneth Hale, Ph.D. Hale was fluent in 50 languages, an expert in indigenous linguistics, and a direct descendant of Rhode Island founder Roger Williams. It was that last qualification that got Jessie’s attention.
The Wampanoag prophecy also stated that the children of those who had had a hand in breaking the language cycle would help heal it. That was the moment when the prophecy truly became real for Jessie Little Doe Baird. Any chance of a normal life was gone.
The first step in reviving the language was to free those words from the page and put a living breath behind them. Jessie and Dr. Hale scoured the language’s written record. Using related Algonquian languages as a guide, they stitched Wopânâak back together, one word at a time. When Hale passed away in 2001, the language was in good enough shape for Jessie to deliver a eulogy in her ancestors’ tongue. But delivering a speech was one thing; teaching the language to the rest of her nation would prove far more difficult.
The students in Nitana’s class continue to struggle through their lesson, sometimes breaking into laughter over their shared frustration. Wopânâak is not easy to learn. Language is more than just a tool for communication; it’s a philosophy. The way words and thoughts are constructed in Wopânâak is fundamentally different from the way that’s done in English. Take, for instance, the formation of nouns. If an English speaker were to encounter a new animal in the wild, he would likely give it an arbitrary name, like dog or cat or emperor penguin. A Wampanoag, on the other hand, would describe the animal’s key features–its size, its action, and how it moves in relation to other things–and that whole description would become its name. For example, the Wopânâak word for ant comprises individual syllables that convey the following information: It moves about, it does not walk on two legs, and it puts things away. If you were to add another syllable indicating that the animal is large, the word is no longer ant. It’s squirrel.
To make things even more difficult, the Wampanoag were starting from zero. When Jessie and Dr. Hale launched the Wopânâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP) in 1993, there was no one alive who’d grown up speaking the language; thus, even today, no one is fully fluent. Just as Nitana is teaching this class to beginners, she’s taking lessons from someone further along. All of their teaching tools–workbooks, dictionaries, and curricula–they’ve had to create themselves, revising them as the language comes into better focus.
The process seems impossibly desperate, like renting out the bottom floors of a tower you’re still building–but it’s working. Nitana is the only person in this classroom who’s actually a student at BC. Everyone else has come here after work to slog through conjugation drills and grammar lessons. And they’re not alone. Classes like this have sprung up in various towns on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard as well. One student, Jonathan Perry, drives at least two hours round-trip every week to attend Nitana’s one- to one-and-a-half-hour lesson. When asked why he puts in so much effort to struggle with a language that has less in common with English than it does Klingon, he smiles. “If you want to get an Indian excited about something,” he says, “tell him it’s something that’s just for him.”
The first gift we give our children is language. That whispered welcome between a mother and her baby when the child is first laid upon her breast begins a lifelong dialogue through which all subsequent gifts are given. Our beliefs, our dreams, our heritage–we pass these things on through the spoken word. Biology gives us our body, but language delivers our soul.
Before the language died out in the 19th century, Wopânâak was passed down from parent to child for thousands of years. That language cycle formed a link between each new generation and every one that had come before. When they lost their language, the Wampanoag were severed from one of their most basic birthrights. The prospect of winning it back is powerful: powerful enough for Jessie and people like her to devote their lives to it.
The dining room of Jessie’s home in Mashpee is packed with Wopânâak material. Workbooks are spread out on the table and handmade teaching posters are taped to the wall. Jessie is joined there by three women: Nitana Hicks, Tracy Kelley, and Melanie Roderick.
In the next room, Melanie’s son, Muhshunuhkusuw (his name means “he is exceedingly strong”), a toddler, is bouncing off the walls. She occasionally calls out to reprimand him, sometimes in English, sometimes in Wopânâak. She hopes he’ll pick up the language passively and avoid all the bookwork she’s had to do. Asked if it’s hard to raise him in two languages, she just laughs and says, “At this age, you have to tell them everything six times anyway before it sinks in.”
These three young women are Jessie’s apprentices. In 2010 the WLRP received a federal grant that would pay them to learn the language, train as apprentices, and develop early-childhood curricula, with the intention that they’ll go on to teach others. The training is for two years, but it would be a mistake to call it a two-year commitment. “If anyone leaves after two years, we’ll hunt them down and kill them!” Jessie says with a laugh. “We’ll all be with each other, in sickness and in health, for a very long time.”
“As long as we all shall live,” Melanie adds.