Celebrated every Thanksgiving as the ‘Indians’ who saved the Pilgrims from starvation and then largely forgotten, the Wampanoag communities of southeastern Massachusetts are reviving their native tongue, a language that had been silenced for more than 100 years.
Some words of the language will sound familiar to those familiar with Massachusetts and particularly Martha’s Vineyard geography. In addition to the inspiring story of how Jessie Little Doe Baird took on the task of reclaiming and teaching the language throughout the community, with her 3-year-old daughter as the first new native speaker, PBS also maintains an excellent site with supplementary material covering Native American language revival throughout the US and some striking testimonials from Noam Chomsky and others. In one clip, Jean O’Brien, a scholar of Ojibwe waxes poetic on language and identity:
“I think people are passionate about language because it’s about sovereignty and nationhood. It’s about a core expression of your own nation, your separate existence as a people that stretches into the unknowable past. … It’s about identity, it’s about place, it’s about marking yourselves as a different people in really fundamental ways. … Culture and language are inextricable.”
She then gets super heady about the worldview distinctions present in Ojibwe, including counter-intuitive distinctions between animate and inanimate entities. My kind of fare.
The full story, for those who missed the film, is also available in this article from MIT.
I can’t help but wonder how Ghil’ad Zuckermann would feel about a revived Wampanoag. In the above link, he asserts that the native Yiddish and Russian of Modern Hebrew‘s founding speakers had a profound and fundamental affect on the revived language. (Duh.) His conclusions are inevitably political, but his evidence is fascinating regarding the only large-scale successful revival of a dead tongue that I’m aware of.
What a gift– and burden– it must be for Jessie’s daughter Mae, the Wampanoag language’s Itamar Ben-Avi. But if We Still Live Here is any indication, Mae will have more that her parents with whom to speak her people’s language.