Reclaiming A Lost Tribal Language: How, and at What Cost?

Growing up, I spent summers going to the Turtle Project, which was a camp for Aquinnah Wampanoag kids run by our tribe. Aquinnah is a small town on the far end of Martha’s Vineyard. Every year the island swells with seasonal tourists flocking to its idyllic beaches and picturesque towns. Although I never considered myself a tourist because of my familial and cultural ties to the island, my childhood experiences there mostly matched up with the tourists’.

We would spend all day at the beach or the famous Agricultural Fair in August. For a couple years, a woman named Jessie Little Doe Baird ran the camp. Before Baird took over, we spent our days playing outside and learning about local wildlife. With Baird, we spent most of the beautiful summer days inside, learning Wampanoag language and traditions. I remember one trip we made to a local beach; we were learning how to track animals in the dunes and we weren’t even allowed to go in the water. I don’t know who was responsible for the change, but around this time I remember being irritated that we weren’t supposed to call the Turtle Project a “camp,” because we were there to learn, not just have fun.

Baird’s tribe, the Mashpee Wampanoag, and my tribe, the Aquinnah Wampanoag, are sister tribes. Related, but separate. Shared histories, similar customs, but separate governments and individual stories. Geographically too, our tribes are very close. Mashpee, a small town in Cape Cod, is a short boat ride away. Mashpee has one of the biggest East Coast powwows. Each summer, in the height of powwow season, their powwow attracts the best dancers and the biggest crowds. Fireball, a dangerous cleansing ritual performed by playing a game with, well, a fireball, is a legendary highlight of the Mashpee powwow. We have a new powwow organized by our youth group that’s at the tail end of powwow season in September. Local dancers and tourists who happen to be there make up most of the crowd. There is a familial rivalry and closeness between the two tribes. In fact, Baird is married to an Aquinnah Wampanoag — our Medicine Man.

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