MASHPEE — Slowly but steadily, and one speaker at a time, the Wôpanâak language — the one that until dying out in the late 1800s had been spoken for centuries by the tribes that formed the Wampanoag Nation — is coming back to life.
A proposed charter school that seeks to open by August 2015 in Falmouth aims to further that linguistic resurgence. It would accomplish that task by immersing young children into the Wôpanâak language as they learn their core academic subjects, including math and science.
Jennifer Weston, an educator listed on the prospectus for the proposed Weetumuw Wôpanâak Charter School submitted to the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as its lead applicant, recently spoke about the proposed school, and the larger Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, an effort to restore the Wampanoag Nation’s language and cultural identity.
Weston said recently the concept behind an indigenous language immersion charter school is not actually new. The proposed school would follow the successes of schools throughout the United States that already exist, including those operated by the Cherokee, Navajo, Mohawk and Native Hawaiian tibes.
A language immersion charter school would not be new to Massachusetts either. For example, educators at the Pioneer Valley Charter School in Hadley teach daily lessons in Mandarin Chinese.
Although the Weetumuw Wôpanâak Charter School’s prospectus often specifically speaks to Native American children, because it is proposed as a charter school, in accordance with Massachusetts Charter School regulations, enrollment would be open to any student from “any family,” regardless of their backgrounds, Weston said. The school would serve students from Cape Cod, Plymouth County and Bristol County.
“We’re promoting a pretty small school. And we’re casting a net as widely as possible,” Weston said of the proposed area from which the school would draw its students.
“The vision is really to give 5- and 6-year-olds the opportunity to become fully bilingual,” Weston said. “They will already come to us speaking English. the goal is to teach all subject areas.”
The founding group submitted its application in July and will receive notification from DESE later this month if it will be invited to submit a final application. If invited to submit that application, the proposal will go through a public hearing and the founding group would be interviewed by officials from DESE’s Charter School Office, before it goes to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education for consideration. In February, the board will decide on whether to grant a charter.
The school, if approved would open with 35 to 40 kindergarten and first-grade students, and slowly grow enrollment up to Grade 5.
Its mission is “preparing students to lead by instilling traditional Wampanoag values through Wôpanâak language education,” with a goal to “train a new generation of children fluent in the Wampanoag language who, in turn, can bring the language home to their families.”
The document explains how the Wôpanâak language had ceased to be spoken. Since the early 1600s, “daily use was interrupted by centuries of educational and legal policies which forced English-only cultural and linguistic assimilation of Tribal children,” it reads. The school aims to educate “a new generation of young people as fluent speakers, cultural practitioners and Tribal leaders.”
The process to develop the school’s curriculum and proposal was funded in large part by a three-year federal Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Native Americans language preservation and maintenance grant.
The name Weetumuw, meaning, “She is Sweet,” refers to an ancestral Wampanoag tribal leader who lived in the 17th century.
The proposal speaks to the current struggles of Native Wampanoags, noting in particular that children of Wampanoag heritage often face “significant social problems.” A Wôpanâak language school might alleviate some of them, it says.
As minorities in other schools, Wampanoag children are subject to distrimination, which contributes to “poor self-esteem and school performance.” Fifty percent of Wampanoag teens drop out of high school, the prospectus notes. As they become adults they lack the skills to acquire “well-paid” jobs.
“Teen pregnancy, drug addiction, crime, and abuse are pervasive and repeated from one generation to the next,” it reads. “Our hope is that the language immersion process can begin to address some of these social ills by inculcating our children at a young age with a strong and positive sense of their cultural self and the value of education.”
Proponents of the school say that research shows Native American children who learn their language and culture perform better in school, and are better off in other areas of their lives.
The proposal states to become conversationally and academically fluent in the language children must be exposed to it daily, and for a few hours at a time.
A project two decades in the making
The WLRP effort has been ongoing for more than 20 years, and began in the early 1990s, initiated by tribal linguist Jessie “Little Doe” Baird. Those involved with the project have to date compiled a dictionary that now contains more than 12,000 Wôpanâak words.
That is no small feat, because until the introduction of the English alphabet in the 1600s, Wôpanâak was a spoken, but never actually written, language.
“Most native languages are fairly critically endangered at this point,” Weston said, adding that the process of restoring the Wôpanâak language was possible partly due to the fact that the language was finally written phonetically with the English Roman alphabet.
The Bible became the first document translated from English to Wôpanâak. Other written documents followed, including land deeds and wills.
Another challenge was learning how Wôpanâak sounded when spoken, because more than 100 years had passed since it was spoken fluently, Weston said.
But linguists were able to learn how Wôpanâak sounded through other native American languages, some of which are still spoken. That’s because it belongs to the Algonquian language family and has about 38 sister language.
“What makes this so miraculous is it’s part of one of the largest language families. And most of the are mutually intelligible,” Weston said. “After a little bit of time you adapted the ear.”
Until five years ago, the WLRP was largely a voluntary effort, because “until 2009 there was no funding stream supporting the work,” Weston said.
The project’s linguists volunteered to teach the language to members of the Wampanoag community, whose ages varied. The community includes members of the Mashpee, Herring Pond, Aquinnah and Assonet tribes. They’ve held classes two times a week, and each summer hosted a language immersion camp for families.
“I think there’s always been a core group of families who have really sustained the effort, to the best they can,” Weston.
“It really varies. There are some classes where 20 to 30 people show up, some where three people show up. These are twice weekly language classes, any where from three to 10 elders,” Weston said.
Weston acknowledged that she isn’t a member of the Wampanoag Nation. She is a Lakota descendent from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the Dakotas.
She spoke of her experience growing up raised by a “first-language” Lakota speaker, who happened to be her mother.
Weston said that as a young person even though she may not have fully understood her language of heritage, she “certainly understood the significance” of tribal ceremonies “and felt the power of our ancient laungage and practices to shape our life trajectory and purpose.
“There are so many ceremonies in our traditions that contribute to supporting and guiding young people,” Weston continued, “and while I know much less about local Wampanoag ceremonial traditions, I know language and ceremony are always central to health and well-being of individuals and communities.”