Bringing 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.