Our Mother Tongues Blog


May 14, 2013 - 10:34 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

Mashpee Wampanoag Logo



By Jennifer Weston, Our Mother Tongues Co-Producer

 Department Overview:  The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Language Department was established by Council Ordinance 2009-ORD-005 on June 10, 2009 to recognize the role of language as “central to the protection of the customs, culture, and spiritual well-being of the people,” and to acknowledge the “critical state of the newly reclaimed Wampanoag language, and the need to secure its survival for the benefit of future generations.” The department is a unit of the Cultural and Historic Department. The Tribal Council reaffirmed its commitment to language revitalization in resolution 2011-RES-025 to recognize the inherent “birth right of each Wampanoag child adult to speak his or her language given by Creator.”

The Language Department collaborates with the community-run intertribal non-profit organization, the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP). All tribal household members who enroll in the free language classes offered by project-certified teachers are members of the WLRP Language Committee, which meets monthly to review project activities, progress, and policies. A seven member board of directors provides oversight for all external grants funding and applications.

Founded twenty years ago with the key objective of reclaiming Wôpanâôt8âôk (Wampanoag language) as the principal means of expression within the Wampanoag Tribal Nation, WLRP’s efforts have gained international recognition for becoming the first American Indian community to reclaim and revitalize a sleeping tribal language, even with no recent living speakers.

This unprecedented effort was possible through linguistics training in Algonquian languages, and by working with the largest Native-written corpus of 17th and 18th century documents in North America translated and written by Wampanoag people—including the King James Bibles of 1663 and 1680, and hundreds of personal letters, wills, deeds, and land transactions written in Wôpanâôt8âôk. Wampanoag people were also the first American Indians to develop and use an alphabetic writing system.

Community-Based Language Revitalization:

“Reclaiming our language is one means of repairing the broken circle of cultural loss and pain. To be able to understand and speak our language means to see the world as our families did for centuries. This is but one path which keeps us connected to our people, the earth, and the philosophies and truths given to us by the Creator.”

WLRP and the Language Department are committed to training new generations of fluent speakers of Wôpanâôt8âôk through master apprentice and other language immersion techniques. Twelve language teachers have also been trained and certified to provide instruction for beginners in the complex grammar and structure of Wôpanâôt8âôk. While students of all ages are welcome in community language classes, WLRP’s Language Committee and Board of Directors have prioritized founding a K-3 Wôpanâôt8ây Pâhshaneekamuq (Wampanoag Language Immersion Charter School), based on widespread community demand for children’s language classes.

Weekly classes and language immersion camps will continue as well; however, in order to train a new generation of proficient speakers fully bilingual in both Wôpanâôt8ây and English, a publicly-funded regional charter school will teach all K-3 subjects in Wôpanâôt8ây beginning in August 2015, and aim to add additional grade levels annually.

It is our deep belief that it is through our children and their language acquisition that the long term sustainability of our language can be ensured.

Department Advisory Boards:
*Memoranda of Understanding with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council, Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribal Council, and the Herring Pond and Assonet Wampanoag Councils.
*Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project Language Committee and Board of Directors
*Wôpanâôt8ây Pâhshaneekamuq Charter School Founding Board of Trustees

For language class schedules and registration forms for upcoming camps, including Summer Turtle (August 5-23, 2013) and Family Immersion Camp (September 13-15, 2013) visit wlrp.org

To see clips from the documentary, Âs Nutayuneân: We Still Live Here, about the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project visit the following sites:



October 28, 2011 - 5:32 AM | by Our Mother Tongues

Indigenous Peoples’ diverse languages have developed over many thousands of years in close relationship to their ancestral tribal homelands. These many hundreds of languages—scholars estimate as many as 300-500 Indigenous languages were once spoken in North America—carry detailed knowledge and observations of the natural world, including place names often displaced by much more recent English-language monikers such as Mato Tipila (“Bear Lodge,” in Lakota), renamed “Devil’s Tower” by settlers and the National Park Service. Those first settlers obviously knew the location to be a sacred and powerful ceremonial site to dozens of tribes—and myriad locations from the east to west coast are branded “devils'” places in reference to the Native peoples who once worshipped there enjoying full religious freedom.

While 139 Indigenous languages are miraculously still spoken today in the U.S.—according to UNESCO’s Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger—more than 70 are spoken only by the oldest generations of tribal citizens. Some linguists estimate scarcely two dozen Native languages will still be spoken by mid-century; however, a dedicated Native American languages movement has worked for decades to document, publish in, and promote Native language materials and usage among younger generations. This work follows centuries of overt language discrimination and suppression by settlers and religious denominations who actively worked to exterminate Indian languages and cultures beginning in New England the early 1630s with the first grammar schools and “praying towns” providing refuge and “education” to Indian families and students.  

Later, federally funded Indian boarding schools were opened by the U.S. War Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs (the Bureau was later moved to the Department of Interior) with an explicit goal to “kill the Indian, save the man,” and children from hundreds of tribes were removed from their communities for years at a time to be trained largely as an agricultural, domestic, and industrial labor force.  Even into the 1970s and 80s, Native children were often harshly punished or ridiculed for speaking their mother tongues, and as a result, successive generations of tribal peoples did not teach their children their heritage languages in order to shield them from the discrimination and corporal punishment they experienced.  Today’s Native language teachers and students still face unfair certification and testing practices mandated by more than a decade of prohibitive No Child Left Behind Act regulations, which have continued to undermine Native language classrooms and schools.

Now, with a sense of great urgency, those tribal communities with only a handful of speakers—including the Euchee, Wampanoag, and Sauk—work every day to train new generations of speakers via intensive language education activities including master-apprentice programs, language immersion classrooms, and intergenerational home-based “language nests” and daycare programs like those pioneered by the Maori and Native Hawaiian language communities.  Roughly a dozen speakers of the Wampanoag language—reclaimed from written records including the first bible published in the western hemisphere, and by careful comparison with related languages in the Algonquian “family”—have emerged  after more than fifteen years of intensive community-based efforts to return the language to their nation. 

Linguists group similar and sometimes mutually intelligible languages that share historic characteristics into “families,” but these designations are imprecise simply because so little is still known about these ancient languages.  And while a dozen major language families encompass scores of tribal tongues, more than twenty languages are simply known as “isolates,” unrelated to any others in the Americas.  There is much to be learned and rediscovered by tribal citizens and rising generations now finally free to speak and actively use mother tongues in public, even while public and tribal schools are still often hobbled by uncooperative state and federal regulations.  All Indigenous languages—and Indigenous Peoples’ rights to speak, transmit, and educate their children in these languages—are now protected by an international human rights framework adopted less than one year ago by the United States:  the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.  For Native Americans, this is a giant leap forward to protect ancient tongues too long labeled as “backward” impediments to our “progress.”

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