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The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived

“Oh, it was a nice pot,” Jason says.

“No it wasn’t,” she shoots back.

It’s hard to imagine now, but there have always been Wampanoag here. Unlike other tribes, these people were never fully forced from their land. After King Philip’s War, 1675-76, their territory shrank to a few small enclaves; the rest of the country has simply grown up around them.

In the language project, the word “birthright” gets tossed around a lot. For many people this concept is vague, but for the Wampanoag it’s as solid as the ground beneath our feet. At the core of Wampanoag society, there is a visceral link between man and earth, as natural as tendon to bone. As long as the Wampanoag stay on their ancestral land, they are linked, spiritually and naturally, to the first ancestors who walked these shores.

“In the philosophy of our people, you’re rooted in the earth just like the plants,” Jason says, “because what comes out of the earth is what sustains you, and when you die, you go back into the earth. That cycle creates this existence where you’ve never been separated. That philosophy is one that we’ve lived with since the beginning of time. When colonization came upon us, there became this idea where you could possibly be severed from that connection. If you’re removed from the chain of life … I can’t even think of a word for it. You’re taken away from everything you’ve ever known … from your existence.”

I wonder how much of this lesson is for my education and how much is for Mae’s. In our mobile age, when success is so often linked to a willingness to move across the country for work or education, a philosophy that preaches staying put is a hard sell. As Mae grows older, she’ll be increasingly exposed to the values of the rest of the nation, and it will be up to her to decide how best to balance the teachings of her parents and the demands of the 21st century.

The three of us reach the crest of a small lookout where the cliffs come into sharp relief against the cloudy sky. Once, clay of every color could be seen in the cliff face, but erosion has dulled it to an earthy, reddish-brown hue. After a heavy storm, trails of color can be seen drifting into the ocean.

Not far from here, beach homes and summer cottages dot scrubby forests. Until the 1960s, the Wampanoag here and in Mashpee had their towns mostly to themselves, running their local governments as extensions of the tribe. But over the past few decades, they’ve become minorities in their own homeland. New developments have blocked off old hunting grounds. And town governments are more often challenging the Wampanoag’s aboriginal right to fish without a license. “We find ourselves in a shrinking territory,” Jason says, “a continually shrinking environment.”

Aquinnah, “the end of the island”: The Wampanoag have been pushed literally to the edge of the map; the language project is a gentle but powerful push back against the tide. It’s something to rally around, a reminder of all they have to fight for and a declaration that they’re not going anywhere. With every new speaker, the roots of their community grow deeper into the soil that has nourished them through the ages.

Mae’s version of her birth story is somewhat different from her mother’s: “When I was born, people were so excited they set off fireworks, and now they do it every year.” She tells people this every Fourth of July.

If you frequent the ferry to Martha’s Vineyard, odds are you’ve seen her, folded up on a bench playing games on her mother’s iPhone. She’s clever for her age, perhaps a little mischievous, but there’s nothing to suggest that she was born with a destiny.

Jessie and Jason learned early on that they had to let Mae find her own way with the language. After she was born, they’d tried taking a hard-line approach: For the first four months, she wasn’t exposed to English at all. Jessie remembers this as a difficult time. Even with all her training, speaking Wôpan&aˆak 24 hours a day was something of a strain.

“But it wasn’t as big a problem as it was telling our loved ones basically to ‘shut your mouth,'” she says. Friends and family members, even Mae’s own siblings, were informed that if they couldn’t communicate in Wôpan&aˆak, they couldn’t come over. “‘Sorry, if you’re going to use English around her, then you can’t play with her, you can’t talk to her,'” Jessie recalls telling them. “People were really pissed off.”

Gradually Jessie and Jason realized that what they were doing was counterproductive: A birth that was supposed to rally the community around Wopânâak was instead making people resent it. Mae’s parents realized that if the language were to truly return, it couldn’t be forced on anyone.

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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