Language is deeply embedded in our individual and cultural identities. For many Indigenous people, it also carries the pain of loss and the trauma of colonization. In its genocide against Indigenous people, the United States government attempted to extinguish indigenous languages by separating Indigenous children from their communities and forcing them to attend English-language boarding schools. Despite this, many Indigenous communities have worked hard to keep their languages alive. The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, started in 1993 by Jessie Little Doe Baird, is a hallmark example of this effort.
On Monday Oct. 12, as part of Brandeis University’s annual Indigenous People’s Day Teach-In, Eva Blake (Assonet Wampanoag) spoke via Zoom about “the importance and efforts of Indigenous language reclamation,” as stated on the Brandeis Intercultural Center’s website.
Blake is involved in language reclamation efforts and environmental justice alike: she currently serves as the philanthropic relations manager at the Indigenous Environmental Network, acts as an instructor with the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project and is an active advisory member of the Massachusetts Center for Native-American Awareness. At Monday’s event, Blake shared information on indigenous language reclamation that was at once historical and personal.
After a brief introduction from Professor Elizabeth Ferry, an Anthropology professor and Interim Chair of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program, Blake began with a prayer in her native language of Wôpanâak. She asked that “the east, south, west and north and all the beauty that surrounds us, asking the creator to help all creatures in pain and are sick, and help us heal our families. To help us to see only what is good and to do only what is right.”
Blake then transitioned to an explanation of the history of her language, which European colonizers attempted to destroy. Before the English invasion, Wôpanâak was strictly an oral language. Since European settlers wanted to communicate with the Wôpanâak in order to convert them to Christianity, they translated documents into Wôpanâak, including a Bible translation by John Elliot. As Blake mentioned in the event, this is one of the great ironies of history: Although settlers were the cause of the language’s destruction, it was the very existence of John Elliot’s Wôpanâak translation of the Bible and other written documents that helped linguists piece the language back together.
Blake continued by sharing her favorite parts about the Wôpanâak language and what they mean to her. To Blake, language is “a whole understanding of life” and a specific way of seeing the world. One of Blake’s favorite things about the language is that gender is not so binary as it is in English. In Wampanoag, the pronoun word that is used to convey the English she, he or they is the same word. Also, in Wôpanâak, one cannot say the word for daughter without conveying information about whose daughter it is. As Blake said, this means “There is no way to separate the relationship between the person speaking and the person being spoken of.” In this way, Wôpanâak philosophies of gender and interconnectedness are reflected in the language. This is why language reclamation is so important: It is a window into the culture and its ancestral ways of knowing.
While the Language Reclamation Project has several language immersion schools for children, it is still not accessible to all children in Mashpee, Massachusetts, the town where the Mashpee Wampanoag headquarters is located. It can also be difficult to spark and sustain individual interest in learning the language.
Blake herself did not become interested in the language until after college, when she learned that the Language Reclamation Project was underway. As Blake said, “I have a 16-year-old son myself, and I’ve been learning the language since before he was born. In fact, I named both of my children Wampanoag names …. But he’s not extremely interested in learning the language, you know?” Still, while the project has encountered hurdles, Blake acknowledged that “We know we’re not going to reclaim our language in just one generation.”
At the end of the talk, Blake had planned to read a story in Wôpanâak to her school-age daughter, who was just offscreen. Still, when Blake beckoned her daughter to join her for a story, her daughter declined. “I was hoping that my daughter would come and let me read a book to her so that you could hear me reading it,” Blake lamented, “but she just refused, so now I’m sad. Okay, I’ll read it to you all, then.”
While Blake’s talk covered the linguistic trauma associated with colonialism, it also served as a beautiful reminder of the interconnectedness of language and culture, and thus the power of language reclamation. If language is a fundamental way of connecting to one’s culture, then, as Blake said, “to reclaim an ancestral language violently taken from our people is extremely powerful.”