Jennifer Weston/Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project
Summer Turtle camper Xavier Hendricks helps with language teachers Tia Pocknett’s and Tracy Kelley’s traditional cooking demonstrations during a week of language and history lessons on tribal crops and foods.

Sleeping Language Waking Up Thanks to Wampanoag Reclamation Project

Christina Rose

It’s 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,” Weston said.

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.


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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
Who would deny that Wampanoag coming back to the lips of Native speakers is a good thing? Learning the language of one's culture is NEVER a bad thing, but it's especially good when we speak of an indigenous language. Modern descendants of those NDNs who participated in the first "thanksgiving" (although not in the way that American history books would have you believe) will have a new insight into the thoughts and feelings of their ancestors. I often wonder how many indigenous names are used all over the U.S. without anyone knowing of their origins? I see the majority in the eastern U.S. (Pontiac, Winnebago, Wichita, etc.), but the southwest is dominated by names given by the Spanish. It would be wonderful to see Hopi, Zuni, Dine', N'de and Tewa words on street signs or maps, but as we're currently suffering from a mass migration of easterners escaping a cold winter, I can't see it happening soon.