The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived
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.
The women are chatty and comfortable together, and sometimes the lessons veer off into personal matters. “It gets easier for us everyday to just sit around and talk about everyone else’s business in Wopânâak,” Jessie quips.
There are four major surviving Wampanoag communities in Massachusetts: the two large tribes in Mashpee and Aquinnah, a smaller tribe at Herring Pond, and a band in Assonet. Together they number about 4,000 people. Of the 69 Wampanoag tribes in existence in 1620, today’s Mashpee, Aquinnah, and Herring Pond groups, descended from historic tribes, are still on their original lands, the lands their ancestors settled more than 10,000 years ago, with tribal governments that have never ceased to function; the Assonet are descended from historic tribes that no longer exist as governments. The WLRP is the only project on which all four groups work jointly, because as the United States grew up around them, the Wampanaog largely blended in, and speaking their own language again is about blending in a little less.
Tracy says that as far as she’s concerned, the world is separated into two parts: Cape Cod and “over the bridge.” While she was attending UMass Amherst, she was so determined to return home after graduation that it affected her dating life. “‘Sorry, if you have no passion to stay in Massachusetts, preferably near the bridge, I really can’t,’” she recalls saying.