--Henry David Thoreau
Today is American Thanksgiving, and even the youngest schoolchild knows the story we tell, about how four centuries ago the Pilgrims and Native Americans came together for a feast at Plymouth Colony. In a state of Gratitude, the settlers thanked God for their blessings, and thanked the Wôpanâak (or Wampanoag), the people living in the area, whose Generosity and Wisdom allowed the Pilgrims to survive their first year.
In truth, there’s absolutely no record of such a feast happening until 20 years after the Pilgrims’ arrival. Given how badly things turned out for the Wôpanâak over the ensuing 300+ years, it’s no wonder many Native Americans to this day describe this date as a National Day of Mourning.
The true and all-too-human story of the encounter between the English settlers of Plymouth and the Wôpanâak of Patuxet (the name of the village that originally stood there) holds richer lessons in survival, savagery, and (surprise!) Compassion and mutual aide than any made-up feel-good myth. It even offers us a hefty helping of irony to plop down on our dinner plate, next to the stuffing, squash, and pumpkin pie (and turkey, for you non-vegetarians). The telling culminates in the present-day story of a certified genius, Jessie Little Doe Baird, who has through the Wôpanâak Language Revitalization Project resurrected the long-dead Wôpanâak language, thanks in part to the works of an (also long-dead) Pilgrim missionary. For this reason, we mark today with the group virtue of Uhutu (Speaking to Each Other).
At the time that the settlers accidentally (?) arrived in Massachusetts, the Wôpanâak Nation had already lived through their worst decade ever. They had suffered attacks from the north by the Micmacs, who had just finished vanquishing the Penobscots. The Pequot, meanwhile, were taking over territory to the west. More importantly, a bacterial illness (possibly plague or leptospirosis, believed contracted from earlier contacts with French traders) had wiped out an estimated ninety percent (!) of the Wôpanâak Nation. The stresses caused inter-tribal rivalries, with the tribe living near Plymouth, headed by a sachem (chief) named Massasoit, having to cede territory to a more dominant Wôpanâak tribe, the Narragansett.
Meanwhile, the arriving Pilgrims were in no great shape, either. Contrary to popular perception, the Mayflower was no jolly band of fellow travelers--the religious Pilgrims made up a minority of the ship’s passengers (but may have controlled the leadership). Arriving four days before Christmas, the English faced starvation and exposure. (Having lived through several New England winters, let me tell you: They’re cold and wet!) They survived in part by ransacking caches of corn stowed by the Wôpanâak natives (who, by the way, frightened the rather xenophobic Pilgrims), and occasionally simply by robbing the homes of natives.
Massasoit saw in the scavenging Pilgrims both a social problem and an opportunity to make new allies. He sent forth an emissary, an English-speaking Wôpanâak man named Tisquantum (better known as Squanto). Tisquantum’s own harrowing story will await a future entry on TTV, but suffice to say, he was kidnapped in 1614 by an English sea captain, taken to Europe, sold as a slave, educated by Catholic priests, and eventually finagled to return to his homeland, only to find all his relations already killed by the aforementioned plague. Yet, despite such personal devastation, Tisquantum showed remarkable Self-Possession and Compassion. He taught the colonists how to plant the unfamiliar vegetables such as corn and squash, saving them from starvation.
In return, the Pilgrims supported Massasoit and eventually joined the Wôpanâak Nation making war against the Pequot (20 years later, in a conflict whose participants held an obvious mix of ulterior motives). (Apropos: In the 17th century, I’d say it was the outnumbered English settlers who served as pawns in the various tribal intrigues, and not the reverse, but that soon changed, of course.)
By the 1640s, the Wôpanâak continued to suffer huge setbacks from military losses, ongoing deaths from disease, and a new problem of alcoholism. Modern scholars believe the Wôpanâak suffered from anomie or societal post-traumatic stress disorder. They may have had disillusionment in their political and religious leaders, who had been unable to protect them from the storm of events into which history swept them. (See Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer-prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel for a more scholarly review.)
The English, meanwhile, whose towns grew in number, thrived. They founded schools to teach their language to the natives and convert them to Christianity. One of these missionaries was John Eliot, a 27-year-old Puritan minister who emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631. Motivated by his desire to convert the various Algonquian Nations, he learned a version of Wôpanâak and then, working with native converts, translated the Bible into the language. Ultimately hundreds of copies of the “Eliot Bible” circulated, but many were destroyed during later conflicts between settlers and natives. Wôpanâak tribes drifted apart; their language slipped into quiet oblivion. By the end of the 1830s, Wôpanâak ceased to be spoken in North America.
Then, in 1992, a 28-year-old woman of the Mashpee tribe of the Wôpanâak Nation, Jessie Little Doe Baird, began to have visions. On one occasion, for three nights in a row, people she believed were her ancestors appeared to her in dreams, speaking in a language she did not understand. (Later translations revealed them to be telling her, “We are here!”) Little Doe began to tell other Wôpanâak about her visions, eventually founding the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project.
Her quest took Little Doe to M.I.T., where the discovery of a rare copy of an Eliot Bible allowed her to expand the known vocabulary of Wôpanâak to over 10,000 words. After receiving her masters degree in 2000, Little Doe continued to write in and teach Wôpanâak to her nation. Hundreds of Wôpanâak people have taken language courses. A full telling of the story notes that
Baird is raising her three-year-old daughter, Mae Alice, to be bilingual, making her the first native speaker of Wôpanâak for seven generations. Teaching her people to speak and read Wôpanâak, she says, "is like taking care of your family."
On October 16, 2010, Jessie Little Doe Baird received a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in acknowledgment of her work recovering the lost Wôpanâak language. Her accomplishment apparently fulfills a Wôpanâak prophecy that the language would disappear, only to return “when the people were ready to speak it again.”
I find it most ironic and beautiful that the sincere efforts of a young Puritan minister and cultural educator over three centuries ago crossed centuries to allow a similar young scholar in our own time to rescue her people’s native tongue. Like the seed corn given to the Pilgrims which allowed them to survive the winter, the Eliot Bible preserved Wôpanâak until Jessie Little Doe Baird could plant its knowledge and bring new life to her culture. A book, used in a culture’s near-annihilation, becomes its preserver. Yet more juicy paradoxes! Ah Bartleby! Ah, the irony!
So, as we sit down to dinner with friends and relatives on this day of Gratitude, let’s remember the true Delight of the meal--gathering together to share the meanings of friendship, the “common language” that transcends the differences in our speech. Celebrate the marvel of Uhutu, the Wôpanâak word for “Speaking to Each Other.” Make a toast to Jessie Little Doe Baird, who showed Samā, Worshipful Listening, to the unfamiliar words of her own ancestors, and gave them Voice.
May we see the gates of Uhutu, and perhaps make a home there.
And Happy Thanksgiving!