Abigail Phelps- Native Language: Reviving Patawomeck

Learning a second language doesn’t come easily to everyone. Memorizing grammar and vocabulary is often an intimidating task. But imagine trying to learn a language that has not been spoken for over one hundred years. This is precisely what Garry Cooper, or TaPaKo KwaNGaTaRask (Night Owl) has been leading efforts to do. With a 17th-century guidebook in hand, Cooper is attempting to solve a historical and linguistic puzzle that spans centuries.

Language is an integral part of any culture. Gary Cooper made this very clear; in the case of Virginia Indians, losing their language was partly due to the cultural domination of the English colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries. A large portion of the tribe was eliminated by 1666, with men being massacred and the women and children sold into slavery (Rountree 1996:95). Expansion and integration further stamped out the once thriving and unique cultural entity of the Patawomeck Tribe.

That’s pronounced “Pahtohwomehk,” not “Patahwohmehk,” as I once thought. That was one of many new pronunciations and words I learned when Gary Cooper visited UMW’s Worlds Collide: Virginia 1619 class. Beginning with the work of linguists, Cooper is heavily involved in reviving a language that was dead for centuries. He currently teaches the Patawomeck language at the conversational and intermediate levels. He also has an advanced level workbook ready to use when the class progresses that far.

Some of the earliest work on reviving the language occurred when linguist Blair Rudes was tasked with translating the Algonquian script for the 2005 film, The New World. Rudes had only two written sources from which to work: a list of words and translations by John Smith, and another by William Strachey (Rudes 2014). Both were written in the early 1600s, and even deciphering the spelling of the English, much less the Algonquian, was difficult enough. Rudes gained roughly 600 words from these sources, but he found ways to expand his Algonquian vocabulary and syntax through researching previous studies of Powhatan languages and recordings of Algonquian languages from the northeast similar to the kind spoken by the Powhatan Confederacy (Rudes 2014).

Restoring the Patawomeck language is part of a larger movement to revive the tribe’s culture, one that has continued to be suppressed as late as the 20th century. In the 1920s, the white eugenics movement swelled, and Virginia’s state registrar Walter Plecker organized a restructuring of the demographic system in which Native Americans would have to be listed as “colored.” Unless they could prove descendancy from Pocahontas, anyone with even a slight amount of Native American ancestry would be prevented from enjoying the same legal privileges as white people (McRae 2018). Although these policies no longer exist, and Virginia’s tribes are increasingly becoming state and federally recognized, the damage headed by Plecker and his paper genocide still exists. This is mainly through a widespread ignorance of Native Virginian presence in today’s society and a lack of understanding about their culture. That is why revitalizing the Powhatan language is so important. It both teaches members of the tribe and also spreads awareness of Patawomeck culture throughout Virginia. Gary Cooper estimates that only a handful of people today can speak it well, but that number is expected to grow.

Sources

McRae, Elizabeth Gillespie
2018    Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy. Oxford University Press, New York, NY.

Rountree, Helen
1996    Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.

Rudes, Blair A
2014    Giving Voice to Powhatan’s People: The Creation of Virginia Algonquian Dialogue for The New World. Southern Quarterly 54(4):28-37.

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