Mashpee High School Offers First-Ever Native American Language Course

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Learning a new language has long been a requirement at most American high schools. While the typical offerings include Spanish, French, and Latin, in Mashpee, a small group of students is taking on a language that hasn’t been spoken fluently in centuries. WCAI’s Kathryn Eident has more on the Wôpanâak Language class at Mashpee High School.

The students come from different grades. Some are freshmen, others are sophomores and juniors, but they share one thing in common: They’re all members of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe. This group of half a dozen students is also part of the high school’s first-ever Wôpanâak Language class, a credit-level course specifically designed to teach the tribe’s native language. A language that, until recently, hasn’t been spoken for several hundred years.

Fourteen-year-old freshman Caesar Hendricks says he’s up for the challenge of learning a second language, especially one this important to him.

“I feel like it’s a great learning experience and something that other students don’t get the opportunity to do, so I’m going to try and take advantage of it,” Hendricks said.

For 10th grader Nathan Mills, this class is more than just a way to get credit toward graduation. It’s a critical part of being a Wampanoag.

“I live, breath Wampanoag, so it’s very important we keep our language alive and going,” he said. “This is more than just a class or language, this is our culture. So, it’s important that we, the youth, bring it back and teach it to the older kids, and everyone should know it.”

Mills’ passion is one reason the tribe, through the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, developed a curriculum specifically for high school students. The goal is big—not only does the tribe want to establish the class as a regular offering for all students at the high school, officials hope to one day have a generation of fluent speakers.

 Nathan Mills

Nathan Mills

“It’s amazing, we’ve come so far,” said Judi Urquhart, business manager for the language project.  “To be offering this class is so special, and I don’t know if it’s unprecedented, but I think we’re one of the first classes that are offered in a public high school in the United States.”

Tens of thousands of people once spoke Wôpanâak, but the language died out when it was outlawed in the 1800s. It wasn’t until the 1990s, when tribe member Jessie Little Doe Baird began to revive it from written records, that tribe members began learning and speaking the language again. Today, the tribe offers language classes to people of all ages, starting with a full-day immersion preschool, all the way up to evening classes for elders.

Urquhart beams with pride as she watches the class, which includes her daughter, Alyssa.

“I actually wrote one of the first grants back in 2009, where our master speaker, Jessie Little Doe Baird, was able to instill language fluency into three individuals—just three,” Urquhart said. “It really has become an exponential process.”

Melanie Roderick was one of those three initial students. She now teaches the language, and says her students are engaged and interested in the work. Her high schoolers, though, might be a little less concerned about the mechanics of the language, and more impatient to build a vocabulary big enough to get their point across.

“They want to speak. They don’t want to know the ins and the outs and the ‘this and the that’ of why we do everything we do,” she said. “They just want to talk to each other.”

The class is also reaching more than just the students; it prompted school officials to change the name of the language department from “Foreign language” to “World Language.” The project's Judi Urquhart says the change is a sign that relations between the tribe and the school district are improving.

“I think that simple word change is really indicative of how wonderful and receptive the Mashpee School District has been to the is language, and to accepting that it’s not a foreign language at all,” she said. “It’s really part of this community, this homeland.”

Urquhart hopes that next year, some non-native students will also enroll in the class.

For now, lunch time is fast approaching, and the students in this year’s class only have a few more minutes before the bell rings. Even though they’re a part of history, they’re still hungry teenagers after all.