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The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived

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.

Becoming apprentices was no idle choice for these women. Jessie regularly refers to the project as “a lifetime’s work,” and the meaning there is literal. These women are expected to contribute to the project, in one way or another, until they simply can’t work anymore.

In the other room, Muhshunuhkusuw loses interest in his toys and comes bounding onto his mother’s lap. Jessie explains that although the apprentices are helping to take some of the teaching burden off her shoulders, the future of Wôpan&aˆak, if it is to have one, must come from their children.

“This is only a means to an end,” she says, gesturing to the materials around her. “The whole purpose of this is to open a Wopânâak immersion school. So by 2015, we’re going to have a school you can take your child to from kindergarten to grade 2. Once schools open, you’re good. You’re golden. That’s where our fluent speakers will be developed.”

The plan is audacious. Jessie’s generation isn’t that interested in being the first to speak the language in 150 years; they’re more interested in being the last not to. Jessie estimates that about 425 tribal members have taken language classes. Some can barely say hello, while others are carrying on entire conversations. Slowly, the language is leaving the classroom. Mothers are speaking it in the home, teaching their children by osmosis. The apprentices chat freely in the language at bars and restaurants. There are even Wopânâak Facebook posts floating around the Internet.

But there remains so much work ahead. Not only do Jessie and her apprentices need to secure a charter for the school, they must write a Wopânâak-language curriculum and train enough adults in the language to serve as teachers. Jessie tries not to get overwhelmed by the enormous size of the task.

“No, I don’t go there. I try not to think about it,” she says. “You know, it will take care of itself.” Pointing to each of her apprentices, she adds, “And if I can’t do it, she’ll be able to do it, or she’ll be able to do it, or she’ll be able to do it. It’s a community effort. You couldn’t do it alone.” She also knows that all they can do is get the language ready and pass it on. What the children choose to do with that gift is up to them.

It’s early spring, and the sky over Martha’s Vineyard is a field of unbroken gray. Jason Baird, Jessie’s husband, is taking me on a tour of the tribal land in Aquinnah. We’ve stopped at the Gay Head Cliffs, and we’re walking through a small shantytown of souvenir stands that have been boarded up for the season. Mae follows a few paces behind us. She is a slender 7 years old, with the willowy arms and legs of a dancer. Her puffy pink jacket swallows her whole.

In Wôpan&aˆak, Aquinnah means “the end of the island.” The way the cold Atlantic waters crash at the base of the cliffs, it looks like the end of the world. As far as the U.S. government is concerned, this is all that remains of the Wampanoag nation. Of the four main Wampanoag communities, the Aquinnah are the only tribe with a reservation. It isn’t big–these cliffs, some cranberry bogs, and a few other parcels amounting to no more than 485 acres in all–but it’s theirs.

As we reach the cliff edge, Jason points to the shoreline below. “There used to be a pier out under the tip,” he says. “Until about 10 years ago, you could see the last pylon still sticking up out there at low tide.” He explains that around the turn of the 20th century, tourists would board steamers to come out here and buy trinkets from tribal members.

Jason knows these cliffs. He points out where an ox cart used to run to the shore, and where the army built bunkers during World War II. He talks about how he ran up and down these hills as a child, and how a few months earlier the tribe collected clay here for a pottery class he took Mae to.

“My pot was an indecent-looking teacup,” Mae chimes in.

Please Note: This information was accurate at the time of publication. When planning a trip, please confirm details by directly contacting any company or establishment you intend to visit.

Justin Shatwell


Justin Shatwell


Justin Shatwell is a longtime contributor to Yankee Magazine whose work explores the unique history, culture, and art that sets New England apart from the rest of the world. His article, The Memory Keeper (March/April 2011 issue), was named a finalist for profile of the year by the City and Regional Magazine Association.
Updated Tuesday, October 9th, 2012

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One Response to The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived

  1. Keigan Jordan November 19, 2014 at 4:02 pm #

    This is a great article. Thanks.

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