The language of their ancestors

Project seeks to revive and revitalize Wampanoag language after more than 150 years of dormancy.


Many people from indigenous nations across the world are working tirelessly to preserve, protect, and promote their native language.

The Wôpanâôt8âôk (Wampanoag language) Language Reclamation Project (WLRP) seeks to return language fluency to the Wampanoag nation as a principal means of expression after more than 150 years of dormancy, according to the WLRP website. The project is a collaborative effort between the Assonet Band of Wampanoag, the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe, the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah (Gay Head), and the Herring Pond Band of Wampanoag.

The project began in 1993 under the direction of Jessie “Little Doe” Baird, who earned a master’s degree in Algonquian linguistics from MIT in 2000, and began establishing curricula and educational tools based on old deeds and texts written in Wampanoag.

Many old correspondences, land deeds, and other written documents exist in the Wampanoag language, including the first Bible ever published and printed in British North America.

Durwood Vanderhoop, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Aquinnah, said he has always been fascinated and impassioned by his native language, but he didn’t always have an understanding of it.

“At some point, when I was pretty young, I came to a realization that nobody really spoke Wampanoag,” Vanderhoop told The Times. “A lot of other tribes had their language, and I remember being a child wondering why people didn’t speak our language.”

Vanderhoop’s mother was a librarian at the Gay Head Public Library at the time, and he said he can remember searching through old books, hoping to locate any bits of the language and learn as much as possible.

After Vanderhoop was finished with school, he was informed of the WLRP and its mission to revive and revitalize the ancient language. He met with the group, consisting of folks from each tribe, and began to formulate a learning plan.

At the time, Vanderhoop said, Helen Vanderhoop Manning was the education director for the Aquinnah tribe, and was spearheading a language immersion program alongside community members and members of other tribes.

When Baird “picked up the ball” toward the end of the ’90s, Vanderhoop said, it helped the program greatly to have a tribal linguist who could dive into the scientific aspect of the language.

Vanderhoop was one of Baird’s early students — he said he would attend “pretty much any classes she offered,” and there were classes held in Aquinnah, Mashpee, and even some in Woods Hole.

Eventually, Vanderhoop and many other of Baird’s students went on to become the first, second, and third teachers of the language, and the program has only continued to grow.

In order to make the language program successful, Vanderhoop said, the entire Wampanoag community needs to be involved and invested in the initiative.

He said the opportunities to speak Wampanoag in one’s home, to one’s family and loved

ones, in ceremony, and in song and prayer are special, and for him are filled with great pride. “Even before I could speak any of the language, I was a singer of some of our traditional songs, and I have taken some of what I know and made songs, and helped others to make songs. I have given my kids all Wampanoag names,” Vanderhoop said.

Although Vanderhoop doesn’t currently have his teaching certification, he plans on renewing it, and is involved in a conversational language course taught by WLRP teacher Camille Madison.

Of course, Vanderhoop is still creating songs and teaching them to his children, Sôwanahsh, Kuhpây, and Matahquhs, and trying to speak Wampanoag as much as possible in the household. He said his young children can count to 10, can say various traditional phrases, and can introduce themselves in their native language.

“I think that is a really powerful thing — being able to introduce yourself in your native language, the language of your ancestors,” Vanderhoop said.

For Vanderhoop and many other Indiginous people, language connects them with their ancestors, their family, and deepens their connection with the land.

Jennifer Weston, WLRP director, said the work her organization and other groups and individuals are doing currently is building on decades of work by folks like Baird, Vanderhoop Manning, and others.

Although Weston is Lakota, from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, she said she has always understood and valued the power and importance of language, ever since she was young.

She grew up with a first-language-speaking Lakota mother who was also a teacher of the Lakota language.

Weston said she was inspired to contribute to the work of WLRP because of her own experiences of empowerment and joy of being surrounded by “the love of [her] language.”

For Weston, who was the first generation in her family to not be raised speaking Lakota as a first language, she began to think about what it would be like when first-language speakers like her mother were gone. She saw at that point the importance of keeping these ancient languages vital and making them a central means of expression for Indigenous communities.

Weston said the efforts to revitalize the Wampanoag language range throughout the Northeast, and even into Canada and the Midwest. Although Weston is not a linguist, she said there are approximately 40 sister languages that are considered to be in the Algonquian language family.

Among those are Wampanoag, Narragansett, Nipmuc, Pequot, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Mohegan, Cree, Ojibwe, Miꞌkmaq, and many others.

She said one shared goal of Indigenous communities and linguists is to track and understand the “incredibly ancient and far-reaching interrelationship and migration of the language across the country.”

In terms of Wampanoag dialects, she said there are two different ones that teachers use in their courses — mainland and Island.

Weston lauded the dedication of Wampanoag language teachers and researchers, who are unpacking written records from the 17th century and turning them into childrens’ and family programming.

“It’s so moving and powerful to see people really unpacking those and making them relevant. Plus making educational opportunities for kids to sing in and pray in and do ceremonies in and read childrens’ books; it is a huge honor to be even just a little part of what they are doing,” Weston said.

According to Weston, the work that members of the Wampanoag community are doing gives “hope and motivation” to other tribal nations nationally and globally, including her own.

“We hear from communities in Nepal or Aboriginal communities in Australia who have seen the film I helped produce about the language project. We have seen the power that lives in our languages,” Weston said. The film, called “We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân,” chronicles Baird’s and the Wampanoag community’s quest to revive their language.

And for the youth, Weston said it improves self-confidence, further establishes their understanding and connection with the world, and gives “a deeper sense of identity and importance to their family and their tribal nation.”

She thanked the Aquinnah Cultural Center and the Aquinnah education department for continually making opportunities to grow the number of teachers on-Island, and to educate and empassion young tribal members about the language.

“Language is the foundation of culture, it is the lens through which people practice their culture,” Weston said.