Native Language Reclamation Through Early Childhood Education:
Bringing the Wôpanâak language back home
Source: Nitana Greendeer. Pictured: Tia Pocknett, lead teacher, The Weetumuw School.
Sept. 23, 2022
About 70 miles south of Boston, Massachusetts, Wampanoag (Wôpanâak) children at the The Weetumuw School (Weetumuw Katnuhtôhtâkamuq) in Mashpee start their day reciting a morning address which includes the phrase:
“Y8sh kumeenawânutam8ôkanunônash”: these are our traditions.
Founded in 2016 by the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, the school enrolls children ages 3–10 from any of the four Wampanoag tribal communities served by the project: Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet & Herring Pond. Head of school Nitana Hicks Greendeer is a linguist and one of the few people who has an advanced level of fluency and is literate in the Wampanoag language. She welcomed us into the Wampanoag Tribal headquarters, where the school is located, to share the story of the Wampanoag language and the vision for reclaiming it through the Weetumuw school.
Like many language immersion programs, the school was designed to help Wampanoag children become proficient and literate in their Native language. But this instructional approach depends on the prevalence of teachers and parents who know and can teach Wampanoag, a language that Greendeer says was lost long ago.
Greendeer walked us through some of the Wampanoag Tribe’s history and discussed how their language came to be all but extinct. Although the Wampanoag people have inhabited present day Massachusetts and Eastern Rhode Island for more than 12,000 years, the land and the language of the Wampanoag were lost to centuries of violence and assimilation efforts. By the time the town of Mashpee (where tribe headquarters are located) was incorporated in the late 1870s, speaking “Mashpee” had been effectively outlawed and the spoken language had died with the last of the fluent Wampanoag elders.
And yet, as Greendeer explains, she and her Wampanoag colleagues have a strong written foundation for the language. This is because the Wampanoag language was fully preserved in written form in 1663, when missionaries trying to convert the Wampanoag to Christianity printed the complete Bible in the Wampanoag language. This document was used as the basis of the efforts to reclaim the language, first with community language classes in the 1990s and then through the creation of the Weetumuw school. Greendeer and others continue to refine the school’s language curriculum in what she calls a still evolving language. “We just had a meeting about how we might have a word wrong…Nutus8ees means “I’m called”, but then we recently learned that the stress patterns in other documents suggested that it is really pronounced Nutus8wees.” So here we are, says Greendeer, continuing to study and learn and iterate.
Since the school is still relatively new, Greendeer shared that some people question the effort. “They say ‘we haven’t had language for several generations and we’re still here so what’s the point? Do we really need this?’” And while that may be technically true, Greendeer says that understanding the structure of the language helps bring understanding to what it means to be Wampanoag. “One of our customs is that we put pines on or near a body, or burial sites during funerals.” The linguistic context to this custom as explained by Greendeer is that the word “pine” exists in the Wampanoag language as an animate noun while all the other trees are inanimate. As a result, pines are a symbol of life to the Wampanoag and are alive in the language, but without this understanding, the custom is out of context.
Community members also wonder whether the school can provide the academic rigor needed to succeed in today’s world, says Greendeer. She characterizes the school’s language curriculum as “organic”, with no strict schedule for how much instruction is in English or Wampanoag. As an independent school that sits on sovereign tribal land, the Weetumuw school is not held to the same accountability requirements that apply to public schools. Greendeer explains that this grants her and her seven staff a lot of flexibility to decide how they integrate important cultural and academic lessons through their hands-on Montessori-based approach to teaching and learning.
Since the school opened, approximately 60 Wampanoag children have gone through their formative years at the school, too few to definitively say how well the school is preparing students to fare long-term. For Greendeer and her colleagues, it is also unclear how best to financially support and sustain the school, which charges no tuition and depends on a combination of unpredictable short-term grants from government and private foundations.
There are important signs, however, that the effort to reclaim the language through education has been gaining momentum over the years. Students who finish at the Weetumuw school now have the option to continue their Wampanoag language education at Mashpee High School as a world language. In 2020, a Mashpee High School graduate was the first to earn the state Seal of Biliteracy for being bilingual in Wampanoag and English. Parents and community members can now also practice and help teach their children the language through an online language portal that was created to aid online learning during the pandemic.
When asked about what success looks like for the students that attend the school, Greendeer looks beyond traditional academic metrics and instead assesses the potential of a program like this in terms of its ability to strengthen cohesion and unity in the community.
“There are a lot of divisions within tribes, and we are no exception to this…Through the school we are growing a generation of Wampanoag people that might not be that way. Kids at the school don’t know these divisions, they are teaching each other to read and gaining a sense of connection to one another.”
Greendeer did not speak Wampanoag at home growing up, because her dad, which is where she gets her Wampanoag heritage, like the rest of the community for generations, was not taught the language. But Greendeer hopes to continue to change that for her students and their families. At the school there is very explicit teaching: you are Wampanoag, we are Wampanoag, this is your family. And as Greendeer shared, “language and culture are one in the same, you can’t separate them out. And these are small and meaningful ways we are connected to our past.”
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