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Leaf Home arrow The News arrow North East News arrow Mashpee tribal school to keep speech alive
Mashpee tribal school to keep speech alive
Written by Administrator   
Saturday, 09 November 2013
Mashpee tribal school to keep speech alive
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November 07, 2013

MASHPEE — The Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe plans to open a language immersion charter elementary school in 2015 as part of its efforts to preserve and revitalize the native tongue of its ancestors.

Jessie "Little Doe" Baird, who has spent more than a decade reconstructing the Wampanoag language, said the idea for the school came as she researched other tribal language projects, especially those in New Zealand and Hawaii, where immersion schools had been launched.

"Ultimately what we really wanted to do for the language was for it to be used as a principal means of communication," she said. "That means working with children as young as possible and for as long as possible."

But the school couldn't teach children the language until it had a stable of teachers who spoke Wampanoag themselves. That process began in 2009, when Baird and Judi Urquhart, now the project administrator, received a grant that allowed Baird to spend three years teaching three individuals the ins and outs of Wampanoag. Those individuals, in turn, taught others until the current roster totaled 16 language-immersed teachers.

A second, three-year grant, plus funding from the tribe, is paying for curriculum development and the charter application process. Jen Weston, the school's charter coordinator, said an outline for the charter school would be submitted to the state in July. Then the state will invite the best applicants to submit their full charter applications in the fall of 2014.

The Wampanoag's school will start with a group of kindergarten and first-grade students and eventually run through the third grade. Four of the school day's six hours will be taught in the Wampanoag language, with an English/language arts segment being the only exception. Because it's a charter school, the language immersion school must be open to all children, not just those with Wampanoag heritage, and will be subject to the same state educational standards as other elementary schools.

The school will have a wide geographic reach. To encompass all the Wampanoag tribal areas, it will be open to all students living in Barnstable, Bristol, Dukes and Plymouth counties. That makes the eventual location of the school important, Weston said. A series of 10 focus groups will be held in the next several months to get ideas for the school's home.

"It's pretty important to find something that's central and easily accessible," she said. Ideas being floated include using modular classrooms on the grounds of a Mashpee public school building, at Joint Base Cape Cod or at a former grammar school in Sagamore, although Weston said it's still "an open discussion."

The Wampanoag language was spoken by tens of thousands of people in southeastern New England when 17th-century Puritan missionaries learned the language, rendered it phonetically in the Roman alphabet and used it to translate the King James Bible and other religious texts for the purposes of conversion and promoting literacy. Wampanoag ceased to be spoken by the mid-19th century and was preserved only in written language.

In 1993, Baird founded the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project, an effort among the Wampanoag tribes to return fluency to the Wampanoag Nation.

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