"I just say, ‘Oh thank God, thank God that we’ve got people that are doing this again.’"

Linda CoombsAquinnah Wampanoag

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Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project

Southeastern Massachusetts

imgBringing back their language was something most Wampanoags had not considered possible until their ancestors spoke to Jessie Little Doe in a series of dreams. They spoke first in Wampanoag, a language that had fallen silent perhaps 150 years earlier. Jessie sought advice and guidance about these dreams from Wampanoag elders, and an historic collaboration among the Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet, and Herring Pond Wampanoag Tribes led to the birth of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, a program that has brought their mother tongue from a sleeping (and written) state into widespread use by many generations of Wampanoag people.

Founded in 1993, the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project began while there were no living Native speakers, but the community discovered that their ancestors were able to speak to them through an amazing treasure trove of documents—hundreds of deeds, petitions, marriage bans, letters, wills, and even two entire editions of the King James Bible written phonetically in Wampanoag during the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, these Wampanoag writings form the largest body of Native-written documents on the continent.

Jessie earned a masters degree in Algonquian Linguistics from MIT in 2000, and Nitana Hicks—also Mashpee Wampanoag—earned the same degree in 2006. The project’s Wampanoag dictionary now includes over 13,000 words, with more and more students learning the language every year. A team of language instructors, researchers, and founding school trustees now works daily toward the goal of opening a K-1 language immersion school in August 2016, which will gradually expand to K-5.

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Did You Know ...

Every Thanksgiving, Americans celebrate the Indians who helped the Pilgrims to survive, but few know that these Indians were Wampanoag and that their descendants still live in communities in southeastern Massachusetts.

Jessie Baird is the third Native American woman to be recognized by the MacArthur Foundation with a “genius grant” for Indigenous languages work. Drs. Ofelia Zepeda (Tohono O'odham) and Patricia Locke (Hunkpapa Lakota, Anishinaabe) were previous recipients in 1999 and 1991, respectively.

The Wampanoags were the first Native Americans to develop an alphabetic writing system, and during the 18th century, per capita literacy rates were higher for Wampanoags in their language than for the English colonists in theirs.

There were no fluent speakers of Wampanoag for more than 150 years. This is the first time a language with no living speakers for many generations has been revived in a Native American community.

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