top of page
IMG_3779.jpeg

Project History

Introduction

There is a prophecy that speaks of Wôpanâôt8âôk (Wampanoag Language) as a beloved community member, created by the Creator to live with the Wampanoag people. Language is both our gift and our responsibility. It provides the Wampanoag with a unique way of communicating with the rest of creation, a means of understanding and passing on knowledge that is distinctly ours.

Our responsibility to the language is to continue speaking it, helping it to grow and change as all healthy languages must. Wôpanâôt8âôk is one among a large family of sister languages. Some of these sister languages have always remained with their people and continue to thrive within their tribal communities. Others, like Wôpanâôt8âôk, had stopped being spoken for various reasons. In our case, colonization brought foreign education, religions, and laws that worked against our language for generations.

Our prophecy speaks of a time when the language would leave the

Wampanoag but also of a time when it would return if the people desired

its homecoming and were ready to welcome it. It tells us that the children

of those who were present when the circle of language was broken will

be the ones to mend it. We believe that this is the time, in this seventh

generation since we ceased speaking Wôpanâôt8âôk.

Our language has journeyed with us for thousands of years, by our side

as our friend in communication with the Creator, each other, and the

world around us. It has been our companion in times of plenty and

scarcity, in peace and strife. Wôpanâôt8âôk has enabled our prayers of 

gratitude and supplication. It has helped us express love, sorrow, and our plans for the future. We have deeply missed the presence of our language in our daily lives, having been without regular communication with Wôpanâôt8âôk for six generations.

 

The Pilgrims' Arrival

When the Pilgrims first crossed the Atlantic, their initial sight of the ‘New World’ was a portion of Wampanoag territory, known today as Cape Cod. Although bound for Virginia, challenging wintry seas and shoals around the Cape forced them to seek safe harbor in Provincetown. They eventually moved across Cape Cod Bay and settled in Plymouth.

 

Early Colonial Efforts to Convert Native Americans

Within one decade after the English colonists established themselves in Wampanoag territory, their mission was to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Shortly after Harvard University was founded in 1636, the Indian College was established in Mâsachuwsut- current day Cambridge, Massachusetts, to train Native American students.

 

The Indian College and the Eliot Indian Bible

The Indian College housed the first printing press in the English colonies. Under missionary John Eliot's direction, this press printed a Native-speaker Wampanoag translation of the Bible, known as the Mamusse Wunneetupantamwe Up Biblum God or the "Eliot Indian Bible”. This was the first Bible printed in British North America and the first full translation of the Christian Bible into a Native American language. James Printer, a Nipmuc, did much of the typesetting. (The translation itself was accomplished by numerous Wampanoag speakers including Ruben Cockenoe, Job Nesuton, and John Sassamon as well as other speakers. While Eliot initially wrote to his benefactors in England that he had little hope for seeing a translation completed by him due to his lack of sufficient grammar, he later wrote that he decided to try and teach some Wampanoag to read English in order to effectuate a translated work. He said of them, ‘they are all genius’ and then portioned out sections to each of them for translation. The press produced fifteen (15) books in Wampanoag and other Algonquian languages and eighty-five (85) in English before it was decommissioned in 1692. Of the translated, printed works in Wampanoag, many were burned following King Philips war in 1675.

 

Preserved Wampanoag Documents

In addition to the "Eliot Indian Bible," many handwritten deeds, wills, petitions to the Massachusett Bay Colony and Plymouth Colony from around Wampanoag territory in Massachusetts, signed by Wampanoag citizens and written in the Wampanoag language, have been preserved. One notable document is the original deed to the town of Eastham, with an 18th-century copy displayed in the town administrator’s office. These documents provide valuable insights into Wampanoag history and land agreements.

 

The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP)

In the 1990s, Jesse Little Doe Baird, a citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, had a powerful vision three nights in a row. In this vision, she received a sacred message in Wôpanâôt8âôk, the Wampanoag language, and saw a circle of familial Wampanoag faces. Although she initially knew nothing of her people's language, Baird felt a deep connection and decided to pursue its reclamation.

Baird collaborated with linguists at MIT, including Professor Kenneth Locke Hale, one of the most prolific polyglots of the modern era and a direct descendant of Roger Williams, a 17th-century missionary to Massachusetts. Ken Hale played a significant role in the prophecy, as he was a child descended from those who had broken the circle of language. Jessie and Ken worked together to establish an idealized spelling system, striving to stay as close as possible to the original Wampanoag texts. They used sound change comparisons with other sister languages in the family to ensure a conservative linguistic foundation for Wôpanâôtâôk.

In 1993, Baird founded the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP), which includes Wampanoag citizens from the Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet, and Herring Pond Wampanoag communities. The project's mission is to restore fluency in the Wampanoag Nation, making the language a primary means of cultural expression once again.

Baird and other Wampanoag tribal citizens from the communities of Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet, and Herring Pond developed instructional materials, learned to speak the language, and reintroduced it into everyday use. Her daughter, Mae, became the first native speaker of the new generation. Baird, Mae, and other tribal linguists have since taught the language to other tribal children and adults, ensuring its continued growth and revitalization.

In addition to Baird’s Master of Science degree in Linguistics from MIT in 2000, her efforts have also been recognized with a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010 and several honorary doctorates and degrees from Cape Cod Community College, Yale University, and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. In 2021, Baird was named One of 100 Women of the Century by USA Today.

 

Historical Significance of Wôpanâôt8âôk

Wôpanâôt8âôk, the Wampanoag language, holds a special place in history as the first American Indian language to use an alphabetic writing system and the first to translate the King James Bible to an indigenous language. The Wampanoag language was also the first indigenous language in history to undergo a successful reclamation of a language after having absolutely no speakers. Through the WLRP's efforts, the language is once again thriving, preserving and strengthening the cultural heritage of the Wampanoag Nation for future generations.

 

Future of the Project

The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project continues its mission of language reclamation through educational programs, language classes, and cultural initiatives. By reintroducing and normalizing the use of Wôpanâôt8âôk among the Wampanoag people, the project seeks to preserve and strengthen the cultural heritage and identity of the Wampanoag Nation for future generations and to accept both the gift and responsibility that comes with the Language created especially for them by Creator.

“Reclaiming our language is one means of repairing the broken circle of cultural loss and pain. To be able to understand and speak our language means to see the world as our families did for centuries. This is but one path which keeps us connected to our people, the earth, and the philosophies and truths given to us by the Creator.”   

-- Jessie Little Doe Baird, Project Co- Founder

bottom of page