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The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived

The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived
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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.

Justin Shatwell

Author:

Justin Shatwell

Biography:

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.
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