Strengthening Native American Communities & Economies
Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project: Reviving a Long-Silent Language
By Sarah Hernandez, Ph.D., First Nations Communications Officer
The Wampanoag Nation is one of the first tribes to reclaim an Indigenous language with no living speakers. The last speaker of Wôpanâôt8âôk (the Wampanoag language) passed away more than a century ago, and there were no first-language speakers for many generations. To revive the oral language, the Wampanoag Nation began studying written translations of the language recorded by early ancestors and missionaries.
The Wampanoag Nation, or Wôpanâak, which translates to the “People of the East,” consists of four tribal bands, including the federally-recognized Mashpee and Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribes, and the state- and tribally-recognized Herring Pond and Assonet Wampanoag communities. All four tribes live in the region on or around Cape Cod, and on the island of Martha’s Vineyard.
In the 17th century, the Wôpanâak, who was among the first tribe to encounter early settlers, worked with missionaries to translate and publish the first Christian Bible in an Indigenous language. Wôpanâak families also developed a little-known tradition of literacy in their language and wrote many wills, letters, deeds, and petitions to colonial governments, as well as documenting historical land transfers within the nation in attempts to preserve their homelands in the colonial courts.
These translation efforts became the primary documentation tools that tribal members mined and deconstructed to reclaim and revitalize their language. The Wôpanâak, under the guidance of Jessie "Little Doe" Baird, a Wôpanâak tribal member and linguist, started to revive the long-silent language by studying these early translations and working with other Algonguian linguists to produce a 10,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary that she adapted into teaching materials.
In 1993, Baird co-founded the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP) in conjunction with the three other tribal bands of the Wampanoag Nation and the leadership of Aquinnah Wampanoag educator Helen Manning. Baird holds a master’s degree in linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and has been internationally recognized by the MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” and other awards for her groundbreaking work with the Wampanoag language. She encouraged others in her community to also attain master’s degrees in linguistics from MIT and together with widespread community involvement, WLRP was established to “return fluency to the Wampanoag people as a principal means of expression.”
The WLRP consists of a full-time language nest, elders’ classes, community classes, summer camps, tribal employee classes, as well as after-school and language enrichment programming in the Mashpee and Martha's Vineyard public school systems, and world language credit-bearing courses at Mashpee Middle and High School. Baird and her fellow MIT-trained Mashpee Wampanoag linguist Nitana Hicks Greendeer have successfully trained all of WLRP’s certified language teachers, and they continue to mentor new teacher trainees and junior linguists.
In 2018, First Nations awarded $90,000 to the WLRP through the Native Language Immersion Initiative (NLII) to expand the Wôpanâak’s language nest (preschool/kindergarten) to include lower elementary students (second through fourth grades). The WLRP’s language nest, known as Mukayuhsak Weekuw: The Children's House, is a full-day language immersion preschool open to children who live in Wampanoag tribal households.
“We're working to expand our program so that our tribal children can continue to thrive and develop their language abilities and cultural knowledge,” says Jennifer Weston, Project Director of Mukayuhsak Weekuw: The Children’s House. “Our students are showing tremendous potential as future bilingual speakers of Wôpanâak and English, and are the first generation of tribal children to have the opportunity to attend school in their Native language in nearly 400 years!”
With the NLII grant, the WLRP will increase teacher certification and fluency training, parent literacy development, and comprehensive planning to ensure a family and community-driven school design grounded in Wampanoag culture. WLRP teachers have developed a culture-based language immersion nest curriculum framework interwoven with Montessori pedagogy, and teach all subject areas, including social studies, history, science, math, health, gym, art and literature.
The WLRP has grown substantially over the past 25 years, from no fluent language speakers to 250 students and community members per year learning the long-silent language. These efforts have had a powerful impact on the Wôpanâak, teaching community members to speak, learn and pray in Wôpanâôt8âôk.
“Near the end of our first school year,” recalls Weston. “A reburial ceremony was held for the great Wampanoag leader who signed the original treaty with English settlers in 1620. Our children, ages 3 to 5, were invited to give a prayer during the day-long gathering. They delivered an address in front of nearly 200 tribal citizens from area tribes and spoke eloquently about remembering our ancestors and the importance of continuing to live Wampanoag values such as respect and humility. The crowd was riveted to hear these tiny speakers, and there were many joyful tears that day.”
To learn more about the WLRP or Mukayuhsak Weekuw (The Children's House), please visit the website, or view their inspiring documentary We Still Live Here: Âs Nutâyuneân.
About the Author
Sarah Hernandez, Ph.D. (Sicangu Lakota) returned to First Nations in 2018 as Communication Officer. She is responsible for helping write and edit First Nations' print and web materials as well as handling other duties.
Sarah is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Colorado, where she teaches course on American Indian literature and film. She is the Executive Dirctor of the Oak Lake Writers Society, a tribal writing group for Dakota, Lakota and Nakota writers, and is currently revising her dissertation on the Dakota literary tradition into a book manuscript.