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The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived

The Long-Dead Native Language Wopânâak is Revived
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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.

The influx of English into Mae’s world proved less disastrous than Jessie and Jason had feared. One day when Mae was a toddler, she looked at her parents and, in the garbled accent of infancy, said the Wopânâak word for “my father”–Daddy, essentially. “I said to Jason, ‘Did she just say what I think she said?’” Jessie remembers. “And he said, ‘I think so.’” Jason tried to play it cool, Jessie says with a bemused touch of jealousy: “I was the one up breastfeeding every two hours!”

Today, when Jessie and Jason speak to Mae, they alternate Wopânâak and English, and they don’t pressure her to respond in one language or the other. When it’s just the three of them, she’ll often use Wopânâak, but in mixed company she always defaults to English. Not long ago, Jessie tried to gauge how much Mae was using Wopânâak outside the house: “I just asked her matter-of-factly one day, ‘Do you use the language with your friends at school?’” Mae replied, “Not anymore.” When Jessie asked why, Mae said, “No one plays with me then.” Mae may have sensed that her words upset her mother, because she immediately went on to tell her that “Jesse” spoke with her in Wopânâak. Jesse was the elderly white man who drove her school bus. Jessie chalked this up as a juvenile white lie.

Not long after, Jessie walked down her long dirt driveway to greet Mae at the bus stop. The door slid open, and the bus driver beamed at her. “Kuweeqâhsun,” he said. He explained that little by little, Mae had been teaching him the basics of Wopânâak on their way to and from school. Hearing her own words come back to her through the lips of a near-stranger was a shock–but also a moment of pride. Mae had taken the language into the private part of her life, the part her parents didn’t oversee.

How Wopânâak will shape Mae’s life is still a question. How much will she use the language as an adult? How many people will there be with whom to speak it? It’s impossible to know, but Jessie has reason to be hopeful. Mae has accepted the gift of her birthright. She can choose to live as a modern Wampanoag and never have to fear that something is being lost in translation.

For more on the Wopânâak Language Reclamation Project, go to: wlrp.org

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