For one writer, an online language class provided a gateway to understanding his own roots
Ifirst learned Wôpanâak at my tribal summer camp on Martha’s Vineyard in the late ’90s. Before we went outside to chase each other through the woods or across the beach, my cousins and I sat cross-legged in a circle in the tribal council room and practiced introducing ourselves in our Native language. Our language had not had a fluent speaker for over 150 years, but the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP) had recently begun working to bring our language back to our communities.
My tribe, the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), is based on Martha’s Vineyard, an island seven miles off the Massachusetts coast. Aquinnah, where the tribe is based, is the smallest and most remote town on the island. Aquinnah has a year-round population of a few hundred people; about a third of those are tribal members. I grew up on the mainland but spent every summer and long weekend at my grandparents’ house in Aquinnah. The ways I understood tribal community — gathering in the cranberry bogs for our annual harvest holiday or running into a cousin on the beach — were always rooted in the physical experience of Aquinnah. After I moved to New York for college in 2011 and my trips to the island became shorter and less frequent, opportunities to participate in our community and learn our language were increasingly hard to come by. And when I did go to the island, I heard cousins talking about our history and politics but not speaking our language. Those experiences made the language feel abstract and disconnected from the forces shaping tribal life. With my limited time in Aquinnah, it was hard to prioritize the language when those other forms of community participation felt much more urgent.
That all changed during this pandemic. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been taking an online Wôpanâak class — the first of its kind — over Zoom. After schools in Massachusetts closed, teachers at the WLRP’s immersion school were looking for a way to continue teaching the language. The board had recently approved online instruction as a possible instruction medium. They gauged interest on Facebook, where I and over 100 other tribal members eagerly responded. Learning Wôpanâak over Zoom feels like an exciting, fresh way to experience Wampanoag identity and culture — something I never thought I would have away from the island.
Making the connection between my Wampanoag identity and my life in New York was easier when I was learning Wampanoag in my New York apartment.
In our first class, we practiced greeting each other and introducing ourselves. As the small squares on my screen lit up, I heard my new classmates give their names and say where they lived. Only one of them was in Aquinnah. Those introductions reminded me of the geographic diversity of the tribe and how narrow my own experiences on the island are. After we all shared where we lived, we all repeated the same phrase. I am from Aquinnah. Our teacher explained that this phrase refers to where our DNA is from regardless of where we live now.
I had always struggled to make connections between the language and my life. The language felt separate from the issues facing the tribe in Aquinnah and impossibly distant from my life in New York. Making the connection between my Wampanoag identity and my life in New York, however, was easier when I was learning Wampanoag in my New York apartment. The language had only felt distant because my community felt distant. And as we learned the language, we also learned about how our tribe saw the world — how subtleties in the grammar and morphology reveal the way they understood things like water and animals. We also learned about the broader language family that we share with other tribes and how differences between our languages reflect the history of our relationships with those other tribes. I quickly realized that learning the language wasn’t about completing workbooks but understanding those connections. For years, I aspired to impossible ideals of my language and ignored the ways that language, culture, politics, and community are intertwined — especially for Native people.
I’ve also been learning about the creative ways other people across Indian Country are ensuring those connections remain strong. For Anastasia ski um talx McAllister, making her Native language a more concrete part of her life has meant incorporating the language into her artistic practice. McAllister, Wenatchi of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington, is an artist living in Brooklyn. She is taking an Interior Salish language (n̓səl̓xčin̓) class on Zoom through a community college back home. She has been learning the n̓səl̓xčin̓ names for animals and drawing them next to the n̓səl̓xčin̓ word. Even in quarantine, she is able to use the words when she is scrolling on her phone or when she sees a squirrel outside her window — an experience that she calls “very grounding.”
Like me, McAllister has found that learning the language is less about memorizing as many vocabulary words as possible and more about learning how to make the language a meaningful part of her life. For years, she had been trying to learn her Native language, but living on the other side of the country, she felt like “it was such a daunting task with no support and no resources. It seemed impossible.” She told me how the first class helped her change her perspective on learning the language, to refocus on how she can best learn the language and integrate it into her life. For both of us, it took a new format to begin figuring that out.
Even as we find these new ways to learn our languages, Native languages across the country are under more threat than usual. Many fluent speakers are elders, a vulnerable population to the disease. But as McAllister told me, “a pandemic won’t stop us from learning our language.” There are countless other examples of ways that Native people are fighting for their languages and communities during this pandemic. The Navajo Language Program at the University of New Mexico has been hosting biweekly Diné cultural nights over Zoom, sharing traditional games and knowledge along with language practice. A group of teachers and educators in the Southwest has formed a group called Indigenous Educators Unite to discuss the unique challenges this pandemic represents for Indigenous students. There is a Social Distance Powwow Facebook group with over 170,000 members. Hearing about these examples and others has reminded me that online interaction can be more than just a placeholder for an in-person community.
Native nations are also exploring how to conduct tribal government while following social distancing guidelines. And like my language class, these experiments are coming with unexpected benefits. Earlier this month, when the Prairie Island Indian Community in Minnesota held their quarterly meeting virtually for the first time ever, online attendance was about twice the typical in-person number. Rayanna Lennes, the tribe’s communications manager, reflected that “the silver lining is that you’re rethinking how you do things to be more efficient and more inclusive and increase the reach of tribal members who feel connected.” Less than half of the Prairie Island tribe lives on their reservation, and many of the virtual meeting attendees were those who live too far away to typically make the meeting. After seeing the success of virtual meetings, the Prairie Island Indian Community plans to continue to include virtual options for future meetings and events even after shelter-in-place restrictions are lifted.
I also hope that I will have more online opportunities to engage with my tribal community even after this pandemic is over. I know this will take work, but as I meet tribal members I never knew and reconnect with others over Zoom, I have hope that I can build and sustain a meaningful connection with a Wampanoag community that exists beyond the island’s shores. I don’t know if I will be able to go to Aquinnah this summer, but I take some comfort in knowing that I can stay connected even if I can’t.