Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Wampanoag Language Reclamation


Douglas Pocknett - from Boston Globe
It is now graduation season throughout our country. Thousands of our nation’s youth are completing one part of their lives and moving toward the next with pomp and circumstance. For most, graduation is a simple secular ceremony signifying the beginning of adulthood in our culture. It is repeated with minor variation year after year. However, on the Cape, the 2013 graduation at Mashpee High School has made history.

Earlier this month, a Mashpee Wompanoag student named Douglas Pocknett graduated from Mashpee High School wearing the ceremonial dress of the Wampanoag. Although Douglas is only the second Mashpee student to have done this, he is the first to have delivered a traditional Wampanoag prayer to the assembly in his own native language called Wôpanàak.

According to the documentary We Still Live Here, no one can say for sure when the last native speaker of Wôpanàak died. However, certainly the language was near extinction by the mid 1800's. Although Wôpanàak is an Algonquian language, it is distinct and separate from similar languages like Abenaki or Narragansett.



Remnants of the language exists in colonial documents and in Bibles written for Praying Indians. In 1993, the Wôpanàak Language Reclamation Project began under the direction of a linguist named Jesse "little doe" Baird. Baird began earning a Masters Degree in Algonquian linguistics at MIT. Through the cooperation of the various Wampanoag groups of the Cape and Islands, the project reconstructed a nearly lost language and began teaching the language to tribe members. It’s amazing to think that Cape Cod missionaries like Richard Bourne, who helped to translate Christian payers into the Wampanoag language, have now helped reconstruct that language.

Jesse "little doe" Baird
What is even more amazing is that Douglas Pocknett is a student of Jesse Baird. Pocknett was also the first Mashpee student to earn foreign language credits by studying his ancestral language, which is a practice I hope the Mashpee school system continues to expand.

I have been following the Wôpanàak Language Reclamation Project for a few years now. I totally respect the work of Jesse Baird and the Wampanoag groups that took part in the continuing reclamation of the Wampanoag language. I consistently remind any of my Wampanoag students of the project. Like any young student, I find they have varying levels of interest in their own ancestry. I did have one student this year who was interested in attending one of the language immersion summer camps though and another who was totally fascinated when I shared the news about the Mashpee graduation and Douglas Pocknett.

I must admit, I am also totally jealous. There hasn’t been a native speaker of Irish Gaelic in my family in at least three generations. Also, my maternal grandmother and her parents spoke French asa first language, which has now completely died out in my generation. Like I said, jealous. The difference, however, is that those languages continue to exist and are still used in large parts of the world. Certainly, I wish the Wmpanoag luck in the re-establishment of their native language in their native land. One day I would love to walk the lands of Cape Cod and hear the same language our Yankee ancestors did.

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