J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Other Cape: We Still Live Here

They are the native people of Thanksgiving fame. The Wampanoag still live in small enclaves on Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard. (Don’t you wish they’d repossess that real estate, including that famous family compound?) Against all expectations, the Wampanoag actually reclaimed their language, largely through the efforts of an unlikely linguist profiled in Anne Makepeace’s We Still Live Here—Âs Nutayuneân (promo here), which airs tomorrow as part of the current season of PBS’s Independent Lens.

Jessie Little Doe Baird was a social worker who never finished her undergraduate degree. Yet, a dream inspired her to begin the study of her Wampanoag language, long considered “dead” by linguists and tribe elders alike. Eventually her efforts led her to MIT, where she would earn her masters, under the tutelage of Dr. Ken Hale.

As fate would have it, Baird had met the late Hale sometime earlier, but it had not been an auspicious encounter. It turns out, they both regretted that. Indeed, the relationship Nutayuneân sketches out is rather touching—even inspiring. Yet, the best sequences of the film illustrate just how Baird and her colleagues go about the still unfinished process of reconstructing the Wampanoag language. Ironically, one of their most valuable tools is a Wampanoag Bible translated by the devious missionaries.

Frankly, viewers might well wish this story was being told on Nova rather than Independent Lens, because the linguistic detective work is totally fascinating. Ruth Lingford’s animated interludes are also quite evocative. However, Makepeace periodically indulgences in victim-narrative guilt-tripping that distracts from the strength of the film (but oddly enough, not Noam Chomsky, who appears in a purely linguistic role). Yes, Europeans treated native peoples unjustly, and unbeknownst to them, often carried dangerous bacteria. It was a Darwinian time though. It was not right, but it was natural.

It is remarkable to witness the comeback of a lost language. Evidently, full fluency is still a ways off, but Baird and many of her friends and associates clearly find great significance in the Wampanoag conversations and songs they are able to now participate in. It is a good story that will help foster a greater appreciation for linguistics as a field of study. Imperfectly executed but frequently interesting, Nutayuneân premieres on Independent Lens tomorrow night (11/17).

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