[3 May 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Once we get past Plymouth, it’s all Boston to us.
When Jessie Littledoe first met Ken Hale, she was unimpressed. Here was another “elderly white man,” she says, offering instruction. In this instance, he was bringing news of her people’s lost language, Wampanoag. “I thought, ‘Isn’t this ironic?’ and that bothered me to my core,” she remembers. “We would have to depend on some white person to do this work. So, I was really nasty to him.”
As Jessie learned more about the language, however, the processes by which it was lost and what was involved in its recovery, she came to appreciate this particular white man. Her first step, as she recalls for We Still Live Here (Âs Nutayuneân), was enrolling in MIT’s famed linguistics program, where Hale was a professor. She walked into his office, she says, but before she could begin to apologize, he apologized to her. They soon became friends, colleagues, and collaborators in the pursuit of Wampanoag.
Jessie Littledoe’s story forms the center of this fascinating documentary, which screens at Stranger Than Fiction on 3 May, followed by a Q&A with filmmaker Anne Makepeace. It’s a center from which multiple other stories emerge, traversing borders of time and place, communities and individuals. The film traces the initial encounters between the Wampanoag tribes (which currently number five) and white settlers, in the area that would become Southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island, as well as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, during the early 1600s.
Following the pattern of most such encounters, these soon tipped into manipulation and aggression on the part of the settlers, in search of land and resources. Almost more egregious than this exploitation, however, were the efforts to repress and eventually erase native culture and traditions. In the name of saving souls, then, Christian missionaries began instructing the Wampanoag—and also taking their children—using bibles written in the language. The process is repeatedly “ironic,” as Jessie terms it, as these handwritten bibles have, centuries later, become means to recover a language and culture thought lost.
This recovery, as the film reveals, is at once painstaking, frequently conducted word by word, and sometimes via searches through texts written in related languages. It is also revelatory. As MIT linguist Norvin Richards puts it, “Death, if we want to call it death, is not permanent for languages. We can bring it back.” Jessie describes her first experience with Wampanoag in a dream, as tribal elders spoke with her, telling stories of loss and resistance. At first, she had trouble understanding what the figures in her dream meant. And slowly it came to her: “They were not saying they’re still with you, they were saying we’ve been killed with the yellow thing.” That was the yellow fever, a disease that ravaged the tribes up and down the east coast once it was introduced by European settlers, killing some two thirds of the native population.
At the same time, Jessie realized that these figures wanted something from her. As she tells this story, she’s filmed in her car, driving her young daughter Mae, who sits in a car seat behind her. As she speaks, Mae mimics her tone and speaks words she’s heard her mother say, demonstrating the process by which language is always transmitted from one generation to another. Later in the film, Jessie reveals that she and her husband Jason Baird are raising Mae to be the first native Wampanoag speaker in seven generations. The camera follows Mae in the family living room, as she delights in a Christmas tree and speaks English in response to her mother’s questions in Wampanoag. With her parents alone, Jessie explains Mae speaks her native language, but “as soon as she hears English, it’s over with.” The scene neatly sums up and complicates how language works—transmitting ideas, shaping experience, creating connections. It also exemplifies a point Noam Chomsky makes in the film:
Language is not just words it culture, tradition, unification of community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in the language. So it’s really the revival of a culture and a way of life.
That revival is generated in both speaking and writing. Jessie has since earned her Masters degree at MIT (she tells a story about being asked her greatest concern about coming to MIT, and she answers that she worries about navigating the city of Boston) and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2010. The film notes that “Wampanoag people learned how to write in Wampanoag very early because they knew that was a tool to deal with the white settlers,” and so it illustrates the effort needed to preserve writing, as animated script appears and dissolves away. The handwriting per is crucial to the connections between generations. Eva Blake describes seeing handwritten documents, feeling “That thread that is attached to me through my blood, through my body, through my spirit.” Jessie adds that native documents are important because so much history is recorded and so transmitted by whites, whose books have survived.
As Jessie and other Wampanoag individuals come together to sort out and learn, speak and keep the language, they forge a new sense of community and also show how others can benefit from such recovery. For it’s not only the Wampanoag who learn about themselves in this ongoing process. Descendents of white settlers can also rediscover their history, as it is entwined with others, as all stories, communities, and histories are connected.