DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.
Thanksgiving is an important holiday for America, as it represents the harmony of a feast that brings people of different races and entire families together. However, while the celebration continues to be cherished, the language spoken by the Wampanoag Nation did not. In this article, I want to explain why it is not just important to revitalize the Wampanoag language, but incumbent upon every American to assist in anyway.
After years of English encroachment and the resulting language shift, Wampanoag, or as it is currently being spelled Wopanaak, stopped being spoken in the 1800’s. For the recent decades, the dormant language has been in the process of revitalization through the endeavor of linguist and Wampanoag native Jessie Little Doe Baird. There have been five different Wampanoag class locations throughout Massachusetts teaching 500 people.
By attending the language workshops sponsored by the Wopaanak Language Reclamation Project, the members would reclaim their identity. Come every Thanksgiving, they would play an incredibly important role in broadcasting their historical importance in feasting with their visitors from the Mayflower. By doing so, Thanksgiving would no longer be a holiday with kitsch enticements, such as the Black Friday sales that would come a day after; but an authentic and integral part of American identity that brings together natives and non-natives. The long-term effects of this language revitalization would help make the American population more well-educated about Thanksgiving.
Although the story of the meeting between the Pilgrims and the Native Americans was romanticized, it does show how diplomacy played a role in the early English settlements of America. For Americans to help with the revitalization process, it is itself a diplomatic act of awareness, letting the Wampanoag nation know that they are no longer ignored or pushed from American society. By providing assistance for the Wopanaak language revitalization, the government would attempt to right the wrongs that had been committed against the indigenous population, one nation at a time.
There were actually recorded documents written in Wopanaak during the 17th century. In fact, the Wopanaak language has the largest written body of work of all the other Native American languages. One of the most notable, and one that Jessie Little Doe Baird used as a main reference, was a copy of the Holy Bible written in Wopanaak by John Eliot, a missionary sent to convert the Indians to Christianity.
By focusing on the Wopanaak language, we are focusing our attentions on a group of people who are integral to American history and deserve tremendous respect. Their role in helping the Pilgrims and the impact it made also removes the monopoly of Anglo-Saxon superiority on how history was recorded. A reporter for CBS News even noted the irony that the Wopanaak-translated Bible that was used to make the Wampanoag Nation into English-speaking subjects ended up being used to bring back their language. This language revitalization project would make American history more complex and give the marginalized Native Americans a voice.
Their voice may have even vocalized the place-names throughout New England, such as Mashpee, Nahant, Swampscott, Natick, and even the state of Massachusetts itself. To increase scholarship into the Wopanaak language is to decipher the etymologies of these place-names, or toponyms. Since those Wopanaak-originated names described the landscape, the research would result in a more grounded interpretation of American history based on the New England geography and a more accurate imagination of how the Pilgrims dealt with this foreign land.
What can be more patriotic than examining the landscape of your own country? That is what makes deciphering the toponyms so important, especially since the indigenous population has an intimate relationship with their landscape and are willing to shape their own beliefs and languages revolving around it. This is where linguists, astrophysicists, and scientists alike can reach a common-ground agreement. K. David Harrison, who traveled to Siberia to record the indigenous languages, stated that 83% of all plant and animal life are unknown to Western scientists. What average Americans can also take from this is that indigenous languages, like Wopanaak, are not as irrelevant as they think.
As well as the landscape, the words and knowledge of the nation present at the first Thanksgiving would be important for young Wampanoag children to acquire for their personal well-being as well as the cultural well-being of their community. In order to have increased scholarship, study, and overall awareness into this part of American history and geography, there needs to be an entire generation of people proficient enough to use it as a first language, just like every other struggling language like Irish Gaelic and Hawai’ian. For this reason, a Wopanaak immersion school for kindergarteners was established in 2015, dedicated to teaching social studies, history, art, science, math, and many other subjects in Wopanaak in more than 1000 lesson plans.
How would I like to see Wopanaak revitalized to include all Americans? There are more clear ways of helping, but I would also like Americans to learn more about the place-names that come from this nation’s language during the time the Pilgrims settled. It would help if those areas of New England had Wopanaak translations on their cities’ websites, in the same way the Australian city Adelaide has Australian Aboriginal translations on their website. Every Thanksgiving would be the opportunity for Americans to learn salutations and other phrases such as “Hello,” “My name is…,” and “Thank you” in Wopanaak. These efforts would show that Americans appreciate Thanksgiving as a holiday as well as the recognition of the nation that made it happen.