- We Still Live Here, Âs Nutayuneân by Anne Makepeace
Filmmaker Anne Makepeace, using live footage and animation, tells the remarkable story about the restoration of the Massachusetts Native American language known as Wampanoag. Wampanoag is also the name of a people that have two federally recognized tribes, The Gay Head (Aquinnah) of Martha’s Vineyard and the Mashpee tribe from Cape Cod, both of Massachusetts, as well as two state-recognized communities. Originally, the Wampanoag inhabited southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
In the first scene of the film, members of the tribe discuss a Wampanoag prophecy that the language would go away for a while, but would eventually return. Some of the tribal members talk about deceased family members who used to speak the language. The protagonist of the film, Jessie Little Doe Baird, tells the filmmaker about a dream she had of people speaking to her in an unknown language. Driving by a sign with the Wampanoag place name Sippewisset causes Baird to wonder if her dream was a message about her own language. She has no knowledge of the language but is drawn to learn more about her culture and to prompt investigation. The dream spurs her to gather tribal members to discuss whether they want to revive the language. They agree and begin to strategize about the methodology to re-establish knowledge and use of Wampanoag.
The next few scenes provide an overview of the history of Wampanoag language loss from warfare and disease in the seventeenth century. In addition, one tribal member tells the poignant and distressing story of how children were taken away from Wampanoag families and sent to English families to be raised. These children were mandated to learn English. This practice accelerated language loss, thus separating children from a key component of their cultural heritage. These historical stories are interspersed in the film with contemporary scenes of the Baird family speaking Wampanoag to their children and the children responding in Wampanoag.
The film also explores the history of the Wampanoags’ conversion to Christianity. Early Wampanoags were taught to read and write and used the Eliot Indian Bible (Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God) that was printed in their language of origin (John Eliot, 1653; see Margaret Szasz, Indian Education in the American Colonies, 1607–1783, University of Nebraska Press, 2007:117). Fortunately, there are numerous archival documents written by Wampanoag speakers in the Wampanoag language, many of them chronicling their resistance of conversion to Christianity. This Bible and the writings of the Wampanoags served as the corpus for the work of Jessie Little Doe Baird.
Baird’s journey to discovering her language led to a year-long research fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and later to a master’s degree from that institution. While at MIT, she met linguist Ken Hale, who had trained other Native American linguists from the Hopi and Navajo nations. Hale encouraged Baird to study linguistics.
Baird was able to begin learning and teaching Wampanoag. The film delves into some of the techniques used by Baird, Hale, and others working on the project, to find words and phrases used in everyday conversation. Using the comparative method, the Proto-Algonquian language, and cognates from other related languages, Baird traced sound changes that allowed her to recreate some missing terms (such as the word for dog).
Although Ken Hale succumbed to cancer before the film project, other MIT linguists continued to work with the tribe, developing a dictionary and other language materials, and [End Page 239] helped to solve linguistic puzzles—thus safeguarding a language from near extinction. This is a significant victory for linguists, and a feat rarely accomplished.
Ultimately, under Jessie Little Doe Baird’s tutelage, Wampanoag-language learners become language teachers. She accomplished language renewal by first learning the language herself, then concentrating on teaching her own and other children and hosting summer immersion programs where English-speaking was not allowed. Baird developed a substantial accessible language curriculum for children and adults in her community. In addition, her curriculum has...