Community cinema: Native language gets new life | St. Louis Public Radio

Community cinema: Native language gets new life

Oct 31, 2011

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 31, 2011 - For those of you who get turned on by archeology, history, linguistics and the human connection to the past, "We Still Live Here: As Nutayunean" should be on your radar for this Thursday night at the History Museum. A film explains how a language, not spoken for more than 100 years and with no native speakers, has been revived in this country.

The film begins in 1994 when Jessie Little Doe, a 30-something Wampanoag social worker began having recurring dreams of familiar-looking people addressing her in an unknown language. She realized the language they were speaking was Wampanoag. This discovery led Doe to a linguistics research fellowship at MIT where she unearthed documents written in Wampanoag, including deeds, contracts and an entire translation of King James Bible.

With the help of her MIT colleagues and the Wampanoag community, Doe achieved something never done before: the revival of an American Indian language. Today, the Wampanoag community has a new generation of children (including Doe's youngest daughter Mae) speaking a language that had been lost for over a century.

The film is part of the Community Cinema Series, a partnership among Nine Network, Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Missouri History Museum.

Following the screening of "We Still Live Here: As Nutayunean" will be a panel discussion with John Baugh, at Washington University, and Erin Kelley, who produced her own one-woman show "Portrait of My People," about growing up in a Native American and multiracial family.

Kelley was raised by her full-blood Native American maternal grandmother. She is a member of the Cherokee nation and a direct descendant of the Shawnee leader, Tecumseh. "I don't look Native American; I have light skin and light hair," said Kelley. "We still place so much value on who we think someone is by what they look like. We don't really take the time to realize there are many faces to a culture."

"I want kids to know native people are lawyers, rappers, singers, nurses," continued Kelley.

Kelley has been disappointed with how native culture is taught in this country. "It usually includes a native storyteller or native flute players, but I felt like no one was talking about what it is like to be native." To this day, Kelley makes fried bread, grape dumplings and goes to powwows.

In reaction to the film, Kelley, whose cousins are currently trying to revitalize a native language in Tulsa, said, "I think it is extremely admirable; actually admirable is too small a word to express how I feel about Jessie Little Doe taking on this monumental task of taking on the revival of a language."

Kelley was especially moved by the scene in the film "when [Doe] was in the pre-schools and speaking the language with the children, little kids and their joy was wonderful. It kind of emphasized that there is hope, this will be carried on."

Rosa Dudman Mayer is a freelance writer.