Shelby: When people started moving to America from other countries, Native Americans stopped speaking their own languages and started speaking others. Many of those native dialects have since become extinct. But today, in honor of American Indian Heritage Month, Scott Evans has the story of how one native tribe is bringing its lost language back to life.
Scott: This language is not only unfamiliar, it is actually unknown. Part of the once lost language of the Wampanoag tribe.
Community elder Joan Tavares-Avant says she believes decoding the tribe’s few remaining documents could unlock hidden details.
Joan Tavares-Avant: Language, to me, is culture and identity. It has value. That’s who you are.
Scott: Sixty-nine Wampanoag communities once thrived across New England. Today, only four remain. There were once more than 300 languages spoken by Native Americans across North America. About 125 of them have been lost. The language of the Wampanoag tribe was brought back mainly because it was written down.
Colonists translated the Bible into Wampanoag in an effort to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Today, that Bible, along with documents, including land agreements with colonizers, are used to decode the lost language.
Tavares-Avant: They wanted us to learn the English language and they wanted to civilize us.
Scott: Joan says that was a blow to a culture where much is passed down verbally, spoken person-to-person.
Tavares-Avant: Now, that’s what we have. That’s all we have.
Scott: Since 1993, the Mashpee Massachusetts Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project has worked to rebuild this language. They have developed a language camp for young people in the tribe. The language is now being taught year round. It has created the first fluent speakers in generations. But even the instructors are still learning. Tracy Kelley is one of just two full-time Wampanoag teachers.
Tracy Kelley: They’re taught from day one that this is very special work. This is sacred. Language is special.
Scott: The Language Reclamation Project is now trying to raise money to build a school.
Tavares-Avant: Just to hear them speak it. It’s almost like medicine because it heals me.
Scott: Scott Evans, Channel One News.