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Wampanoag: The Language of the First Thanksgiving

Out of the 103 Pilgrims who sailed from England to Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620, only half of those survived the first year in America due to an unexpectedly harsh winter. It is now widely accepted that, without the generosity and mentorship of the Native Americans, no one would have survived that first year, at all.

Celebration

The Pilgrims met members of the Abenaki tribe who introduced them to Squanto, an English-speaking member of the Pawtuxet tribe, who in turn taught the settlers how to survive in their new environment. A year after arrival, they experienced their first successful corn harvest and had a huge feast to celebrate the achievement. The feast was attended by the colonists as well as dozens of members of the neighboring Native American tribes. Unlike the fare typically enjoyed on Thanksgiving today, they likely would have feasted on a bounty of seafood and vegetables that were seasoned and prepared using Native American traditions.

What language was spoken during that first Thanksgiving?

The American Northeast is home to many tribes, including the Pawtuxet, Wampanoag, and Abenaki. At the time of the first Thanksgiving in 1621, Wampanoag was the language spoken in that area of Massachusetts. Wampanoag is one of three dozen languages that make up the Algonquian language family, several of which are still spoken today.

Thanks to 17th century missionaries, Wompanoag was the first native language to have a written alphabet. The missionaries ironically sought to convert the tribe and thought that a Bible written in their language would aid in their goal. Whether the tribe was converted or not, the new alphabet led to the Wompanoag becoming the most literate of the Native Americans. With the new alphabet, the tribe was able to draw up legal papers, deeds, and other written records. Sadly, a law passed in the 19th century forbade the use of their native language and it soon died out as they were forced to assimilate and only speak English. That is, until revitalization efforts began in 1993.

Rebirth of a language

The Wompanoag Language Reclamation Project was begun in 1993 with the goal of re-introducing the extinct language to current tribal members who still reside in Massachusetts and surrounding areas. Once dead, however, it is extremely challenging to revive a language; but after decades of awareness and education-including a language immersion class for children ages 3 to ten- there are children who share a first language with that of their ancestors for the first time in over 150 years.

 

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