The Wampanoag of Southeastern Massachusetts, the Native Americans who first greeted the Pilgrims, are reviving their language more than a century after it fell into disuse. At the story’s center is Jessie Little Doe Baird, recent winner of a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant, whose passion for uncovering her ancestors’ history and culture brought her from a fellowship in linguistics at MIT, back to her home community in Mashpee. Anne Makepeace’s latest documentary film, We Still Live Here—Âs Nutayuneân, follows the unprecedented efforts by Little Doe Baird and her community to revive their ancestral language from historical documents such as the Eliot Bible (1663) and land petitions to Boston statesmen. The film debuted nationally on November 17 as part of PBS’s Independent Lens series. Editorial assistant Jana Pickart asks Makepeace about cultural access, whether her film is rewriting history, and what surprised her most about documenting the revitalization.
Jana Pickart: You’ve filmed documentaries about indigenous cultural representations before—specifically focusing on Edward S. Curtis’s photography and Native community response to it, as well as Ishi: the Last Yahi and Whistle in the Wind, about an Aymara Indian boy and his llama. What drew you to document the Wampanoag language revitalization project in particular?
Anne Makepeace: I’ve always been interested in Native American stories. When I met Jessie Little Doe Baird and found out what the Wampanoag were doing to bring back their language as a living language, which before this effort hadn’t been spoken for more than a century, it was to me the most hopeful story. So many media representations of Native people end in disaster and devastation. This is a story about a Native community taking charge of their destiny, reaching back into their past to their ancestors, and forging a better future for their children. How could I not be drawn to this story? It just blew me away.
JP: It sounds like you’re taking the history of salvage ethnography, turning it around, and focusing on what is flourishing instead of what is becoming extinct.
AM: Absolutely. The trope of salvage anthropology has been very prevalent—mourning the passage of a beautiful way of life. Well the Wampanoag aren’t mourning the passage of it, they’re reaching back and bringing it into this present day and into the future. So much of their culture and their cultural history is embedded in the language that they’re rediscovering and revitalizing.
JP: What was it like to be a non-native filmmaker involved in this project?
AM: Well, it was an amazing thing that the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project members trusted me to make this film. That was a huge deal not just because I’m an outsider and they would have preferred someone from the inside doing the story. They had carefully guarded the language from ever being in anything that could be sold—they wouldn’t let it be used in books—so for them to agree to participate in the film was a huge matter of trust.
JP: Was there discussion of which community events you were going to be involved in or were you involved in most things that went on?
AM: When I started out to do the project, I told Jessie what I really wanted to do was film the [language] classes a couple times a month, over a period of a year, to show progress and how things would evolve. I filmed the very first classes of that year and then people got shy and basically said “We don’t want to be seen struggling to learn our language.” But that surprised me because I thought it was such an incredible process—a matter of real pride—for them to be learning the language but they felt the way you’d feel if, say, you were a beginner learning French. Do you want people to see you struggling?
But for them it went deeper, much deeper than that because this is their ancestral language that was lost. Even though all the pressures you saw in the film and many more pressures that I wasn’t able to get in the film were the reasons for language loss, some Wampanoag people still feel somewhat ashamed to have lost it.
I’m remembering that I really wanted to film the Cranberry Day celebrations on Martha’s Vineyard, when the community all goes out gathering cranberries and then they have a feast at the end of the day. It would have been October light, gorgeous, and just a really nice celebration of continuity. But that was not allowed because one definitely can’t film prayers, because they are sacred. So there were certain things I couldn’t film but I was given a lot of access and very generously so. What I was given access to is what really was important for the film.
The word for ‘to lose your land,’ nupanasham, literally means ‘to fall down off your feet.’
JP: I was very touched by the voices of the Wampanoag people who were writing in the margins of their Bibles “I feel so shameful” and “I know this is wrong but it’s my culture.” I’m wondering what the emotional response has been in the community to uncovering their history in this manner and facing these documents.
AM: I think they are just really grateful that their ancestors created those documents. The first Bible in the Western hemisphere was published at Harvard in 1663 in the Wampanoag language. It’s often called the Eliot Bible because John Eliot was the missionary who commissioned it. But the people who did the translating—they were Wampanoags from Aquinnah. People feel very grateful to their ancestors for passing down the language in this way. They’re very aware of the irony that the Bible and other Christian documents were created to convert them away from their traditional beliefs. But it’s not painful for them to see what their ancestors wrote. I mean, sure, some of the marginalia is pretty painful.
The other thing is that a lot of the documents that exist, like the Bible, are the key to extracting and decoding the language. The Bible is the big one because it enables them to have English and Wampanoag side-by-side—every passage is in both languages. But there are also hundreds of letters, deeds, petitions, marriage bands, and wills written in Wampanoag, and we filmed some of the originals. As you heard in the film, for Wampanoag people, touching these documents is like touching their ancestors’ hands. The documents are just priceless because they speak directly to people today.
JP: I grew up on Cape Cod in Falmouth, ten minutes from Sippewissett, and twenty minutes from Mashpee, yet I hardly learned about the Wampanoag. The history of the tribal council members writing to Boston statesmen and saying “Look, we understand your language, we are speaking to you at your level, and still you’re ignoring our pleas to protect our land” is so fascinating. Is this part of history going to be added to educational curricula or community discussions?
AM: We do have a teacher’s guide on the Independent Lens website; people can download it. The film is getting used in schools and I really want it to be used in community engagement. We’ve had screenings in something like sixty cities across the country with panel discussions. I hope that the film is a catalyst for people then discovering things on their own; that it will lead people to do their own research and have their own discussions.
JP: In your film, there’s one segment of a language class shown where Jessie lists off nouns and asks whether they’re animate or inanimate. She asks about the stars (animate) and the sun (inanimate) and then says that that meant the Wampanoag knew the earth moved around the sun. She remarks, “Europeans just figured this out a few hundred years ago, and we have known straight along.” How do you see the film, and the project, contributing to a new version of history—and science even?
AM: I don’t know if I can answer on a macro scale. I can say that what was a wonderful thing for me was learning how language reveals cultural knowledge and ideas. Basically Jessie is saying [in this example] that the fact that the word for the sun is inanimate and the word for the earth is animate means that the Wampanoag knew the earth was moving in relation to the sun. And I just thought that was really cool.
Jessie told me recently that she discovered that the word used to translate graves, as in graves where coffins go, literally translates as ‘the place that enables you to travel.’ I just thought that was astonishing. And for example, the word for hell, and those Wampanoag translating the Bible into Wampanoag would be scratching their heads because they didn’t have a concept for hell. “How can we create a word that describes it?” And the word that they did create literally translates as “the house of people with empty heads,” because the Wampanoag believed that the soul resided in the head. What could be more hellish than a house full of soulless people? One of these revelations that’s in the film is the word for “to lose your land,” nupanasham, which literally means “to fall down off your feet.”
JP: It is amazing the way that your film and the nuances of the language are contributing to an indigenous way of knowing that is lost in our curriculum. How have you been enhanced by working on this film, and what did you learn in the process that surprised you?
AM: The wonderful thing about making documentaries is that for every one you enter a whole new world. Every second you’re learning something new and surprising; this project was no exception. I grew up in Connecticut; I never heard of the Wampanoag. Of course we have Thanksgiving every year and we celebrate the Indians who helped the Pilgrims. But then the assumption was they all just vanished into the sunset somewhere. Learning about these very vibrant Wampanoag communities in Mashpee and in Aquinnah on Cape Cod was huge; that was a real surprise for me. The drumming scene in the film—the guys’ drum group—moved me intensely. The fact that they could express such deep emotion for a deceased cousin by writing a song in their language, singing it, and performing it was deeply moving. I know the mother and the aunt of the cousin they’re singing about and just imagining what it meant to them to hear this song sung for their nephew, their son, in their language, was just incredibly moving to me. Just discovering what the language is like is huge. Wampanoag is a really hard language. Linguists will tell you: it is one of the hardest languages.
JP: Is there any burgeoning activism surrounding the film to get these languages recognized?
AM: Well, I certainly hope that the film will be used that way to trigger more funding for these language programs, more support, more recognition that Native communities define themselves in their own ways. The Mashpee Wampanoag got recognition in 2007 after centuries of trying. One of the things that got in their way of being recognized is, after 400 years of contact, there’s a lot of intermarriage—nobody is pure anything. There was a lot of disrespect towards their identifying as Wampanoag. Outsiders would say: “Well, you’re not really Indian, you don’t look Indian.” The Wampanoag are a whole rainbow of colors but that’s not what’s important to them—they certainly honor those who have African American blood, they honor that ancestry—but they’re part of a community that identifies as Wampanoag.
Finally, in 2007 they got recognition. You probably know about the 1977 land case where they claimed that thousands of acres were unlawfully sold away from the tribe. The decision of the judge rested on the definition of the word “tribe” and the Wampanoag had to prove that they were a tribe in four specific years—something like 1790, 1870, one other and now, and that they’re still a tribe today. There was a lot of racism flying around that court. And basically the decision came down that they were not a tribe. They didn’t have their language in 1977. They didn’t have a separate language: that was one of the things that was used against them [in the court case]. Well they didn’t have a separate language because it was beaten out of them, basically, over four centuries. But now they do have their language back, astonishingly. They got recognition in 2007, but Jessie started the language program in 1994, so the language may well have had something to do with the federal recognition they finally did get.
For more on nationwide efforts to revive indigenous languages, see Our Mother Tongues.