The standard Thanksgiving narrative in the U.S. is that when the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock, it was the Wampanoag of Southern Massachusetts who met them and helped the settlers survive. Yet beyond that dominant Thanksgiving narrative, few know much about the Wampanoag (h/t to Minal via FB and Colorlines). There is a new film“We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân” target=”_blank”, that documents the incredible effort of the Wampanoag cultural revival through language. Beginning in the 1990s, the Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet, and Herring Pond Wompanoag communities initiated the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project after uncovering a trove of documents from the sixteenth century. The documents were written in their native language, which hasn’t been spoken in over a century and a half. Here’s a short clip (4:15) from the film:
Watch A Language Is Not Just Words on PBS. See more from INDEPENDENT LENS.
The story begins in 1994 when Jessie Little Doe, an intrepid, 30-something Wampanoag social worker, began having recurring dreams: familiar-looking people from another time addressing her in an incomprehensible language. Jessie was perplexed and a little annoyed — why couldn’t they speak English? Later, she realized they were speaking Wampanoag, a language no one had used for more than a century.
These events sent her and members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag communities on an odyssey that would uncover hundreds of documents written in their ancestral language, lead Jessie to a earn herself a masters degree in linguistics at MIT, and result in something that had never been done before – bringing a language alive again in an American Indian community after many generations with no native speakers. With commitment, study groups, classes, and communitywide effort, many are approaching fluency. Jessie’s young daughter Mae is the first native speaker in more than a hundred years.
Nice. Real nice.
Israel has been able to revive Hebrew, so language reclamation is possible, and I’m excited to hear that it’s happening about First Nation Americans.
Language is important. We all know this intuitively. It’s why I wish Black vernacular English were given more respect by our society, and why I hope we never assimilate linguistically. Language is important.