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The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived

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

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.

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