The Massachusetts tribe whose ancestors shared a Thanksgiving meal with the Pilgrims nearly 400 years ago is reclaiming its long-lost language, one schoolchild at a time.
The Mukayuhsak Weekuw — or “Children’s House” — is an immersion school launched by the Cape Cod-based Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, whose ancestors hosted a harvest celebration with the Pilgrims in 1621 that helped form the basis for the country’s Thanksgiving tradition.
The 19 children from Wampanoag households that Brown and other teachers instruct are being taught exclusively in Wopanaotooaok, a language that had not been spoken for at least a century until the tribe started an effort to reclaim it more than two decades ago. The immersion school is now in its second year.
At the public high school this year, seven students are enrolled in the district’s first Wampanoag language class, which is funded and staffed by the tribe.
Up the road, volunteers host free language learning sessions for families each Friday at the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum.
And within the tribe’s government building — one floor up from the immersion school — tribal elders gather twice a week for an hourlong lesson before lunch.
Last week the Massachusetts Statehouse hosted a ceremony to mark the first Thanksgiving with Pilgrims. The event began with a traditional song and prayer.
The movement to revitalize native American languages started gaining traction in the 1990s and today, most of country’s more than 550 tribes are engaged in some form of language preservation work, says Diana Cournoyer, of the National Indian Education Association.
But the Mashpee Wampanoag stand out because they’re one of the few tribes to have brought back their language despite not having any surviving adult speakers.
Jessie Baird was in her 20s, had no college degree and zero training in linguistics when a dream inspired her to start learning Wampanoag in the early 1990s.
Working with linguistic experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other tribal members, Baird developed a dictionary of Wampanoag and a grammar guide.
She and others drew on historical documents written in Wampanoag — including personal diaries of tribal members, Colonial-era land claims and a version of the King James Bible printed in 1663 that is considered one of the oldest ever printed in the Western hemisphere.
To fill in the gaps, they turned to words, pronunciations and other auditory cues from related Algonquian languages still spoken today.
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