|A language is not just words. It's a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It's all embodied in a language. --Noam Chomsky|
Language as Something More Than Just Words--by Tessie Borden, syndicated from blog.theautry.org, Jan 10, 2012
When they get noticed at all, they’re the supporting players in every Thanksgiving play or pageant. Rarely, if ever, do we hear them speak.
But the Wampanoag — the Cape Cod Indian tribe that famously helped the original Pilgrims survive in the New World in the early 1600s — use their own long-unspoken words to make a powerful statement in Anne Makepeace‘s new documentary film, We Still Live Here, showing at the Autry on Sunday. And their standard-bearer is Mae, a child with hair the color of honey.
(Left: From the film: Wampanoag mother and son; Photo by Trisha Barry) The film, which showed on PBS’s “Independent Lens” on November 17, tells of how, after hearing her people talk to her in an unfamiliar language in a vision, Jessie Little Doe Baird, a Mashpee Wampanoag social worker, began in 1993 to help her tribe reclaim its language. At that point, no living speaker had existed for more than a century. Little Doe Baird navigated tribal politics to get the members behind the project, the paperwork for a one-year research fellowship at MIT to get training, and centuries-old documents in the village halls to find a starting point.
“Luckily, we had the written language there to see where the basis of where it all came from,” Mashpee Wampanoag tribal member Russell Peters says in the film. “All of the town halls around here, a lot of the original deeds, a lot of them are in Wampanoag. If you go back far enough, you’ll find them all.”
Makepeace said one document written in phonetic Wampanoag became an ironic Rosetta Stone for Little Doe Baird’s project: a Bible, known as the John Eliot Bible, that had been translated to a version of the Wampanoag language in 1663.
“It was the first bible published in America,” Makepeace said. “It’s ironic that it was designed to convert the Wampanoag to the European lifestyle, but now it’s the key to bringing back the Wampanoag culture.”
Little Doe Baird is serious enough about the project that her daughter Mae, 7, is a test subject for this grand experiment. For the first three years of her life, Mae’s parents communicated with her only in Wampanoag, and through the film, she can be seen easily chattering in this long-dead language, while adults of the tribe practice for hours to learn it in a class room.
Makepeace, whose documentaries have garnered from Emmy Awards to Oscar nominations to accolades at the Sundance and Telluride film festivals, said at the Berkshire International Film Festival that trust was key to making the film.
“Native people have really good reasons not to trust outsiders,” she told the interviewer Colin McEnroe. “They’re very, very protective of the language. They have a policy that the language cannot be used in anything that could be sold, including books, films, etc. And they have guarded it assiduously …. They’re the only ones allowed to speak it. So for them to trust me to make a film about the language and include the language in the film was awesome, and was really an honor and was quite a hurdle to overcome.”
Makepeace got to know Little Doe Baird and other Wampanoag while working on an episode of We Shall Remain, the PBS documentary that tells the history of North America from the point of view of Native American tribes. By the time she decided to make We Still Live Here, she had bonded with many members of the Mashpee Wampanoag. (Right: Director Anne Makepeace; Photo by Jill Orschell)
“I realized that the story that needed to be told was this story,” Makepeace told me on Thursday. “So many media projects and films and stories about Native Americans end in disaster and devastation, which is true of what happened in history for native folks. Here was a story, the story of the language coming back. It was a hopeful, life affirming story of a culture reviving itself, of people bringing it into the present and teaching it to their children so their patrimony and cultural heritage can stay alive. What a great story to tell!”
And yet, her central figure was squeamish about the attention.
“From the very beginning, Jessie said, ‘This film can’t be about me,’” Makepeace said. “And I’d tell her it’s about the language, but there was no way to tell the story of the language without telling her story. As a filmmaker, I knew the central character for the film was really important …. But for her, it’s not about the individual, it’s about the community. She wanted to be sure that the story that was told was about a community bringing back the language. And she is right that without the support of the community, she was just going to be talking to herself for next 30 years.”
Little Doe Baird is a unique woman, Makepeace said. It took someone with an especially tenacious personality to embark on such an unprecedented effort without a road map.
“The fact that Jessie had these visions and then a year later she had a fellowship at MIT — she never had a BA, never went to college,” Makepeace said. “At that point, she had been meeting with the community and gotten people excited, but nobody knew what to do or no money to hire anybody. And she had four little kids at home. But she went out and got this. Halfway through her fellowship year, Noam Chomsky invited her to join the graduate program .… She found who she was and what she was meant to do in life and, by God, she’s doing it. “ (Left: Allie Humenuk and Anne Makepeace, filming with Wampanoag Indians; Photo by Jonathan Reed)
We take language for granted as just so many words, but it is the basis for culture, Makepeace said. What people call themselves, the concepts around their religion and mythology and world view, all find articulation in language. Translations are never adequate enough. For example, there is a term Little Doe Baird found over and over again in the old Wampanoag documents: Nupanasham. According to a linguist that worked on the film, it means “to fall down off your feet,” and it is the term used when a person loses his or her land.
Ethnic conflicts in the New World all began with language prohibitions, such as bans on speaking native tongues in Indian boarding schools in the West in the 19th century. Makepeace said the Native peoples of the Northeast experienced a similar issue, but much earlier, in the 17th and 18th centuries. For example, in the Northeast, it was commonplace for children to become indentured servants to Europeans. (Right: Jessie Little Doe Baird with daughter Mae Photo courtesy of CulturalSurvival.org)
“In the early 1700s, 75 percent of Native American children were living in English homes as servants,” Makepeace said. “Puritans felt it was their mission to eradicate these cultures, and what better way to do so than to take away the children at four or five years of age, then to release them at 18 or 21.”
Conflicts over language continue today, as the diplomatic questions that arose around U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip this week show. Was she going to Burma or Myanmar? There were political implications to using either name in dealing with an authoritarian regime with which the United States has had no direct dialogue for years, as William Wan wrote in the Washington Post.
Makepeace said her experience with We Still Live Here has made her, an English major, think about her own language differently.
“It makes you aware that language is this living thing with a lot of power,” she said. “I think about the literal meaning of phrases more.”
Makepeace has also opted, instead of moving on to her next project right away, to spend a year promoting the film and following up on the message it started. To that end, she has worked with linguists and others to develop an interactive website around 12 indigenous language reclamation projects, called ourmothertongues.org. The site combines video, maps, lesson plans and interactive features that explore different tribes’ efforts at reclaiming their language.
“Some people might ask, ‘Aren’t there other things more important than learning a language that people don’t speak anymore?’” Makepeace said. “But this is important. It is basic.”
This post is reprinted here with permission from Tessie Borden of the Autry National Center, an intercultural history center dedicated to exploring and sharing the stories, experiences, and perceptions of the diverse peoples of the American West. Trading Posts is the Autry’s conversation with the public about the collections, people and events that contribute to the complex story of the West.
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