been more than 300 years since Wampanoag was the primary spoken
language in Cape Cod. But, if Wampanoag tribal members keep their
current pace, that may not be true for much longer.
Tribal members have been signing up for classes with the Wampanoag
Language Reclamation Project while families and students have been
attending summer language camps. Now plans are underway for the
Wampanoag Language Public Charter School, expected to open in August
2015 to serve kindergarten through third grade.
Jennifer Weston, charter coordinator, spoke with awe about the
changes she's seen. "It's been amazing what has taken place here
over the last 12 years. Now there is a generation raising their
children as speakers who will never know the language was sleeping."
When Weston, Dakota from Standing Rock, South Dakota, first
arrived in Massachusetts, she was amazed to see so much of the language
represented in daily life, as the names of streets, towns, and rivers.
"It really jumped out at me when I first moved here. It's so different
from South Dakota, how all of the places here are in the language."
Jessie Little Doe Baird, the Wampanoag Language Reclamation
Project's founder and director, said it's probably been 100 years
since there was a fluent Wampanoag speaker, but already there are
15 people who have measurable speaking abilities. "It speaks to
the truly ancient ones, that they are not willing to be forgotten,"
Those ancient ones reached out to Baird, the recently elected
vice president of the Mashpee Nation. In 1993, Baird began having
dreams in the language she saw on the street and town signs. In
one dream, she was told to ask the tribal members if they wanted
the language to come back. The answer was a resounding yes.
So, over the last 20 years, the group has provided language
instruction to at least 500 people. Today, there are five different
Wampanoag classes taught in Massachusetts. Much more is on tap as
the immersion school is expected to open next summer.
Tia Pocknett, Micmac, linguist and language apprentice with
the project, has been studying the language for about three and
a half years. "Right now, there are hundreds taking classes, and
as of now there are more than 50 kids taking classes. And we have
some completely fluent speakers," she said.
Before the school can open, they need a building though. "We
are looking at a lot of different sites, and by October, we should
have a provisional lease," Baird said. She founded the project with
help from elder Helen Manning, a Wampanoag educator who was passionate
about the history and culture.
Finding a place that is accessible to all four Wampanoag communities,
the Aquinnah, Mashpee, Assonet, and Herring Pond, will be the biggest
challenge. "I think people in general like the idea, but there are
concerns. It will be a challenge for people on Martha's Vineyard,
(which is an island) especially during the tourist season," said
Nitana Hicks, who is Wampanoag and a curriculum and language specialist.
teachers proficient in the language is sure to be another challenge.
"We are looking for teachers from the four different Wampanoag communities,"
As a charter school, registration may be open to all Cape Codders,
not only the tribal communities. Only a few dozen students will
be admitted at first, with plans for many more in the future.
In order to assure the students are exposed to the language year-round,
the school will run all year. Students will still only attend 180
days, but there will be more breaks throughout the year. Core subjects
other than English will be taught in Wampanoag.
Traditional Wampanoag culture will play an important part in
classes. "In June, we will look at the life cycle in the pond, the
types of wildlife; and as they build literacy, they will study fishing,
weaving, processing and tanning hides," Baird said. "It seems strange
to start the year in the fall when the earth is winding down. There
are four seasons to cover.
"It is a way of reinforcing ways of life and teaching with the
core curriculum standards. We are using the immersion school model
that a lot have used," Baird said of the model that is in place
in 50 tribal schools throughout the country.
The biggest challenge to the schools' success will be the proficiency
of caregivers at home. Baird explained that parents of all children
attending the school will be required to study the language four
hours each week. "If the kindergarteners are going to become proficient,
then mom and dad have to be proficient too. They have to understand
the homework," Baird said.
schools will follow the Massachusetts state framework using traditional
Wampanoag content, and will merge the two into an 11-month program
rather than the standard nine months. The program matches state
standards and are Wampanoag appropriate, according to Hicks.
The project, which is an inter-tribal nonprofit organization,
is applying for a charter from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary
and Secondary Education, Office of Charter Schools. "Our timeline
for opening will be determined by the state timeline for approvals.
We are following the state process," Weston said.
For Baird, the best part about bringing the language back is
opening doors for the tribe to understanding their ancestor's stories.
"My ability to go back and look at petitions and wills of people
that are my blood, and to see their struggles with contact with
the non-Natives and the writers of Southern New England history,"
has been one of the most profound aspects of her journey.
"We never lost our ceremonies and dances; they never left our
land. But having the language has allowed us to reclaim some answers.
It has been wonderful. We have 2,700 tribal members, and it is still
a really strong community," Baird said.
And the community is growing. According to Hicks, "2012 was
a big year for Wampanoag Nation growth. There were a huge number
of babies born, and this year, there will be a new wave of language