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A Language Comes Home for Thanksgiving

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Like many children, Mae Alice Baird can sing a song, play a game, or tell a story. The difference is that she can do it in Wampanoag (Wôpanâak). If the name of this language sounds vaguely familiar to you, chances are that you heard about it at some point in history class, probably around this time of year. It was spoken by Native Americans back when the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Although they might not know the name of these Native people, many Americans celebrate the Wampanoag each year at Thanksgiving. But very few are aware that the group's descendants still live on their ancestral homelands in Southeastern Massachusetts.

In spite of the survival of their culture and communities, for the last six generations, no Wampanoag had spoken their ancestral language -- the same language that gave English speakers words like pumpkin (pôhpukun), moccasin (mahkus), and skunk (sukôk). Various factors -- such as religious conversion and laws prohibiting the use of the language -- caused it to fade out, with the last fluent speakers dying out in the mid-19th century. That's why it's incredible that, after lying dormant for 150 years, Wampanoag is now alive again. It is spoken each day by Mae, her parents, and other members of her community.

How is such a thing possible? That question is answered in We Still Live Here - Âs Nutayuneân, a documentary film from Anne Makepeace. "I grew up in New England, and the assumption was growing up that there were no Native Americans left in Massachusetts or Connecticut, and that the Native people who helped the Pilgrims to survive just sort of drifted into nowhere," Makepeace explains. "It was a revelation to find out not only that there are Wampanoags still here, but that they have vibrant communities and are very much identified with their culture and their history."

The film documents the story and life's mission of Mae's mother, Jessie Little Doe Baird, a woman with an indomitable spirit who set out to reclaim the language, or as she says in the film, to bring the language home. "I was totally amazed, impressed, and astonished by what was happening with the language," Makepeace says. "I was drawn to Jessie and the story of how she has energized her communities to bring the language back."

The tribes of the Wampanoag Nation started the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, collaborative project to reclaim the language in 1993. Seeking to take the project further, Jessie applied for a research fellowship in 1996 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where she worked with renowned scholars in Algonquian languages, including the late Ken Hale and Norvin Richards. Even though she had no formal language background, she went on to receive her master's degree in linguistics, all while raising four young children.

In addition to the awe-inspiring determination of both Jessie and her community, there were several factors that enabled the language to be reclaimed. The Wampanoag were the first Native Americans to adopt an alphabetic writing system, which meant that they left behind many 17th and 18th-century legal documents. Most of these were deeds and wills for which translations into English had been produced while native speakers were still alive. Another important resource was a Wampanoag translation of the Bible published at Harvard in 1663. Given the amount of terminology and content in the text, it was akin to a Rosetta Stone. As members of the Wampanoag communities observe in the film, the fact that this Bible translation was used to help resurrect the language is ironic, since Christianity was one of the major reasons the language died out in the first place.

The film also shows how Jessie tapped into the work of other Algonquian languages as well as the Wampanoag corpus in order to reconstruct the grammar and build a dictionary and pedagogical materials for the language. Her efforts were successful, to the point that when she later met with people who spoke other Algonquian languages, such as Delaware, she found that they could understand each other. Bringing back a language that had been silenced by colonizing and globalizing forces is no small undertaking. In 2010, her unprecedented work was recognized with a prestigious MacArthur "genius" award. After two decades of devoting her life to this cause, she has succeeded in revitalizing not only a language, but enabling her people to more fully appreciate their heritage.

Makepeace was inspired to make the film, not only because of her interest in the Wampanoag's history, but because she had a personal connection to them. According to Makepeace, her Puritan ancestors were involved with violent massacres of the Wampanoags in the 17th century. Some of her distant relatives still own hundreds of acres of Wampanoag land. When she approached the communities about developing the film, she disclosed her family history. She was not only granted permission, but was told by one community member, "You're closing the circle."

Certainly, her film has helped bring the success story of the Wampanoag language to the eyes of millions of viewers. The film has been screened at locations throughout the United States, and was recently broadcast nationally by PBS. In an interview with Makepeace this week, when I asked what inspired her to make the film, she commented, "It's one of the few Native American stories captured on film that I am aware of that's about hope and revival and a positive vision of the future."

I also asked her what it was like to see the community members learning the language and making such impressive progress right before her (and the camera's) very eyes. She pointed out that the successes of the language revitalization project have continued well past just the time period covered in her film. One example she mentions is Troy Currence, who today is vice president of the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project. "Toward the end of the film, Jessie's husband is teaching him how to say 'good morning' in Wampanoag," she explained. "That was three years ago, and since then, Troy has become much more fluent, and his daughter is even moreso." Makepeace also cited the example of Nitana Hicks, who recounts a Wampanoag creation story in the film. Nitana went on to get her Master's degree at MIT in 2006 through the same linguistics program as Jessie. She now teaches the language to Wampanoag in Boston and is getting a PhD in history at Boston College.

The achievements of adult Wampanoags such as Jessie, Troy, and Nitana are impressive. But the sustained future of the language ultimately depends on children like little Mae. A force of nature, Jessie continues paving the way so that other young community members can speak the language natively like her daughter. "After working for years, mostly without compensation, Jessie received a Macarthur "genius" fellowship a year ago, which has enabled her to devote herself full-time to the project. Perhaps even more importantly, a federal grant from the Administration for Native Americans (ANA) enabled the language project to launch a Master/Apprentice program enable three full-time apprentices to work with her five days a week, learning the language," explains Makepeace. "They have the goal of becoming fluent enough to become teachers, so that the project can launch an immersion school for kids to start learning all subjects in Wampanoag starting from the age of kindergarten."

Why should you care about Wampanoag, or any extinct language, for that matter? As Noam Chomsky says in the film, "A language is not just words. It's a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It's all embodied in a language." But most importantly, as Makepeace clearly shows in her film, a language can contribute significantly to mankind's collective knowledge. That's something for all of us, not just the Wampanoag, to be grateful for.

This Thanksgiving season, as you count your blessings in your native language, remember that your ability to do so is something that is too often taken for granted. Better yet, consider making a donation to the Wampanoag language revitalization project. And, take a moment to learn more about America's first languages. To find a screening of Makepeace's film near you or obtain a copy, click here and learn more about this incredible story of a language lost, then found.