The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived
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.
“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.”