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Documentary Shows Language Saved From Extinction


The Thanksgiving holiday is next week and while many hosts are still refining their menus or planning their travel, many school children are probably learning the legend of the first Thanksgiving. A feast of thanks held after the native people of the area taught the English Pilgrims to survive in a world that was new to them.

The irony of course is that the holiday survived, while the language and the culture of the people who made it all possible seem to be on the verge of extinction.

But the language and the people did not die. A new film produced and directed by Anne Makepeace tells the story of how the Wampanoag people recovered their language, a language that had not been spoken for more than a century. And with that language, they also recovered a vital piece of culture and American history.

In English, the film is called "We Still Live Here." It will air nationally on PBS tomorrow night and Anne Makepeace is with us now, along with Troy Currence, who is Vice President of the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

ANNE MAKEPEACE: Thank you for having us.

TROY CURRENCE: Yeah, thank you.

MARTIN: And this film tells a fascinating story. In 1993, Jessie Little Doe Baird, a social worker in Cape Cod and a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag people, had a series of dreams about people she did not recognize, but who looked like people she knew. I'm just going to play a short clip.


JESSIE LITTLE DOE BAIRD: They were talking to me and I didn't understand what they were saying. I've never heard the language before, but it sounded familiar, but I just thought maybe I was getting a little nutty. Sometime after that, I was traveling down this road and I saw that sign for Sippewissett and the light just went on and I thought, oh, you know, I wonder if that's Wampanoag language I'm hearing.

MARTIN: So Anne, how did you hear of this?

MAKEPEACE: Well, I was actually working on another project when I met Jessie Little Doe Baird and other members of the Wampanoag community. And of course when I heard the story of what was going on in the community in terms of bringing back the language - and this is the first time a language has been brought back in a Native American community with no speakers for many generations, more than a century.

It's just such an amazing story and when I discovered that Jessie's daughter, who was then three, was the first native speaker of Wampanoag in a century, it just clearly is such an amazing, beautiful, ongoing story.

MARTIN: Mr. Currence, is it true that the language had not been spoken at all in, like, 100 years?

CURRENCE: Fluently, yes. That's correct.

MARTIN: Were there elements of the language in your daily life in some way? For example, in the way that there are certain expressions in English that we know about, like rule of thumb, right, that have, you know, a historical antecedents, but survive, even though we don't necessarily know where they came from? Was it something like that?

CURRENCE: The term, moose, is a Wampanoag word. Quahog. So those are words that were adopted into the English culture.

MARTIN: I'm fast forwarding a bit here. Jessie Little Doe eventually earned a masters at MIT. The Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project was born. The film highlights the fact, though, that one of the key findings is that a number of contracts and documents from the early colonial era were written in the language and that the bible was a key resource. Could you talk a little bit about that?

MAKEPEACE: Yeah. I mean, the great irony of this whole story is that the very first bible published in the Western Hemisphere was published in Wampanoag at Harvard in 1663, and of course it was commissioned by a Harvard teacher/minister named John Eliot, who was a missionary to the Wampanoags. And Eliot's purpose, of course, was to transform the Wampanoags into Puritans, basically. I mean, it was to get rid of Wampanoag traditions, Wampanoag religion, Wampanoag cultural life. So this document created to obliterate the culture very ironically has become the Rosetta Stone for bringing back the language and, with it, a lot of understanding of the culture.

MARTIN: Mr. Currence, can I ask you, though - I don't know about you, but I have undertaken to learn languages as an adult. I don't find it as easy as I wish I did. And when you thought about trying to reclaim this language, did you think it would be easy? I know it's a relative term, but is it hard?

CURRENCE: It is a hard language. It's totally different. I mean, I've had five years of Spanish in college, but this was closer to my heart because it's something I could connect to from my past and connect the dots back to my mother and to my grandfather and my people who came before me. Our ancestors are very important to us and so that kind of inspires you to pay attention and learn this language in order to bring it back to your people and your community.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm joined by Troy Currence, Vice Chairman of the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project and Anne Makepeace, the producer and director of the PBS film, "We Still Live Here." It documents the revival of the Wampanoag language.

By the way, there is a title. I gave you the English title. Can someone tell me what the title is in Wampanoag?

MAKEPEACE: Well, I'm not going to pronounce it perfectly, but it's something like "As Nutayuneun." Troy, do you know how to pronounce it better than that?

CURRENCE: That was close. "As Nutayuneun." So you did pretty good.




CURRENCE: It's hard. It's a hard language, so...


MARTIN: OK. Well, like he said. People might be wondering, you know, why does this matter? And I think that it's important sometimes to point out that language is a window into culture and the philosophy of a culture and the values of a culture. And I just want to play a short clip from the film where Nicole Latch (ph) was talking about what they learned by studying the language.


NICOLE LATCH: Some of the first language classes we did, we were asking, what would waskidong (ph), our word for man - what would it mean, really? And our language teacher said, surface walker, you know, and all the guys were like, yeah, that's so cool. You know, we're surface walkers. And some of us were more like, wait. Well, what would motomosas (ph) mean, our word for woman? And it was interesting to find that it meant, the one who has complete say or judgment. And so all us women were like, yeah, you know.


MARTIN: How about that? So Troy Currence, is there something that the language has unlocked for you and your understanding of your community, your neighbors, yourself?

CURRENCE: Yeah. Actually, it's helped because, when we do ceremony, we're able to use some of our own words in ceremonies and prayers and songs. And those are important, so those are like keys that were missing out of our culture that we're actually retaining and coming back.

MARTIN: But, you know, it's also true that somebody makes the point that this has unlocked aspects of the story of the United States that were previously only told from one point of view. For example, there's a well known African proverb that says, until the lion has its own voice, the hunter will always tell its story. And I was reminded of this when watching the point where Jessie Little Doe says this and I'll just play that clip. Here it is.


BAIRD: One of the reasons this is important for me, I think, is because we get to hear what our folks had to say, regardless of what white people wrote in history books. And the only way we can hear our families, I think, is by knowing the language.

MARTIN: Anne, what about that?

MAKEPEACE: Well, the amazing discovery that Jessie and other Wampanoags made was this treasure trove of documents. Not just the bible. The bible has been a key in creating the dictionary of Wampanoag words, but there's a whole treasure trove of documents. There are wills, deeds, petitions, marriage bands, letters written phonetically in Wampanoag in the 17th and 18th centuries that are the voices of their ancestors.

MARTIN: But, you know, isn't this part of everyone's history now, though? This is part of the foundational story of this country. I guess what I'm really curious about is, Troy Currence, I read that the Wampanoag classes are only open to Wampanoag. Is that still true? And why is that? I mean, one does not have to be Jewish to study Hebrew.


CURRENCE: Right now, it is. It's based on household, so you could be Wampanoag and you could have someone who's not Wampanoag living in your household and it is open to the household. The idea behind that is we're trying to get as many native speakers who are Wampanoag or are in a Wampanoag household speaking that language because some people don't want to feel embarrassed, like, well, hey, this person knows my language and I don't.

So I think, once we get a better grasp of that as Wampanoag people, then who knows what the future holds?

MARTIN: Well, I mean, really, I'm pressing the question because now - couldn't one argue that that's kind of racist?


CURRENCE: Well, there are a lot of things that were done here on this continent unfairly. We're just trying to reclaim a little piece of the puzzle that is ours.

MAKEPEACE: Yeah. I think, you know...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

MAKEPEACE: I think that what's been explained to me is that language is considered sacred to the Wampanoag and they want to guard and protect it and nurture it and bring it to life while it's theirs and not share it.

MARTIN: So Troy Currence, I have a final question for you, which is the film shows Jessie Little Doe Baird's daughter, May, shown to be the first native speaker in seven generations. Do you think that the next generation of Wampanoag will be fully bilingual? And what do you think that will mean?

CURRENCE: I would hope so. What that would mean is that we have more of a voice than we do now in our communities. Right now, there's maybe - I don't even know how many fluent speakers we have. We've got a lot. I mean, there's Jessie Little Doe, there's Melanie Rodricks (ph), there's Natana Hicks (ph). There are a few others who fall after them who are very good speakers. So the more speakers we can have, the better the language will be, the more it will have evolved and it's tough to lock language and that's the key of unlocking it. And, as you said, then eventually, the language will be free and it might even be open for other people.

MARTIN: The film in English is called "We Still Live Here" and Mr. Currence, if I could impose upon you to tell me the title again in Wampanoag.


CURRENCE: "As Nutayunean."

MARTIN: The film, which is produced and directed by Anne Makepeace, is about the cultural and linguistic revival of the Wampanoag people. It airs tomorrow night on PBS. You'll want to check your local listings for the exact times. Troy Currence is the vice chairman of the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project. He joined us from WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. That's NPR's member station on Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. And Anne Makepeace joins us from her home office in Lakeville, Connecticut.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

MAKEPEACE: Thank you very much.

CURRENCE: Thank you much.


MARTIN: Just ahead, it wasn't too long ago when the headlines about Herman Cain were about his surprising surge in the polls. Now, though, they're about whether he's ready for prime time.

HERMAN CAIN: I do not agree with the way he handled it for the following reason. No, that's a different one.

MARTIN: Our panel of women commentators head to the Beauty Shop to weigh in on that and other issues in the news. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.