Ethan Knick- A Living Thing Stuck in Time: The Revival of Virginia’s Native Algonquian Language

Until recently, scholars considered the language of Virginia Algonquin, or Powhattan, to be long dead. English colonizers who sought to suppress Powhattan culture, especially after the Second Anglo-Powhatan War of 1622 (Horn 2018:162), gradually stifled the language, eventually resulting in its apparent extinction by about the middle of the 1800s (Rudes 2014:30). Today, however, linguists, anthropologists, and everyday Virginians are working to revive Virginia Algonquin. The language is having a profound impact on modern Tidewater tribes, proving that Virginia’s native language is very much alive.

Just under 400 years after Christopher Newport and John Smith set up the first permanent English-speaking outpost in North America at Jamestown in the early 17th century, a Hollywood blockbuster provided an opportunity to revive the long-unused language originally spoken in Virginia. In 2003, director Terrence Malik began production on a historical drama based on the Jamestown Colony called The New World. The filmmakers contracted renowned linguist Blair Rudes to reproduce the language for actors playing Algonquin characters in the film (Rudes 2014:29-30). Soon after Rudes’ untimely death, Ian Custalow of Virginia’s Mattaponi Tribe began to learn, teach, and further piece back together Virginia Algonquin, also known as Powhatan, and teach the resuscitated tongue to Virginia Indian communities (Cooper per. comm.).

 Today, people like Garry TaPaKo KwaNGaTaRask or “Night Owl” Cooper, language instructor for the Patawomeck Tribe, are using this 17th-century language to preserve a culture that segregationists of the 20th century did their best to suppress, and which is still unknown to most residents of the Commonwealth in the 21st century. Earlier this month, Mr. Cooper spoke to Dr. McMillan’s 1619 class, focusing on the central role that language plays in a culture.

As an example of the social implications of language, consider the Virginia Algonquin translation of the word “Hello.” It is actually impossible to directly translate this English salutation. “Hello”translates to NeTab, the literal meaning of which is “Greetings, my friends.”  Clearly, this greeting has deeper meaning than a mere acknowledgement of someone’s presence. It stresses a desire for congeniality with the person with whom you are about to engage in conversation.

The power of Virginia Algonquin is made manifest in our time, as it serves to help reawaken and buttress long-standing traditions. Mr. Cooper, however, does not intend for the language to serve as a mere window into the past. Rather, he expects it to be central to the changing culture of the modern DuhNaPeiWak, the indigenous population of Virginia. “Language is a living thing,” he explained, “It’s ever-evolving. Ours kind of got stuck in time.” I look forward to seeing how the new implementation of this old language will shape the culture of Virginia’s tidewater.


Horn, James
2018    1619: Jamestown and the Forging of American Democracy, Basic Books, New York, NY.

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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9 Responses to Ethan Knick- A Living Thing Stuck in Time: The Revival of Virginia’s Native Algonquian Language

  1. John Jr Fortune says:

    Revival of the language will be one important tool to preserve our heritage. I pray that the teaching and use of the language becomes routine in our lives.

  2. Becky "Nokomis" Guy says:

    “…seeing how the new implementation of this old language will shape the culture of Virginia’s tidewater.” [Quote: L.K. McMillan, PhD, April 30, 2019]

    Very astute observation, Lauren. It must be noted, however, that vestiges of the “old language” [as recorded by Wm. Strachey who lived among our Tribe for two years, recording phonetically in the British English alphabet what he “heard” spoken in reference to various aspects of daily life among the Patawomeck] survive in our American dictionary language [albeit frequently colloquial] and in the homelife and vocationally spoken/written vocabulary of fishermen, hunters, farmers and residents with blood ties to the remnant of the Patawomeck Tribe of Virginia. A study etymologically of the “modern Algonquin Language” reveals a richly textured influence our forbears had on the colonists, many of whom married Native Virginians, producing the “mixed race” survivors of the annihilation by the Colonial Militia. These families today are, just as their forbears were to the colonists, self-sufficient, hard-working and very supportive/helpful as they were when the early tribe befriended the “strangers conquering their shores” by feeding them, teaching them to survive in the New World and planting/reaping the crops they provided for the colonists on land increasingly taken over by the English. Referred to as “servants” by the British, their days were spent in “helping” not in making war–a characteristic much maligned by Powhatan. Their cooperation got them “annihilated” along with the “pesky Indians” [so-called by the angry British Governor]. Their language was suppressed as evidence of their “savagery” down into modern times.
    Family names predominate among these White Oak descendants in Jett, Green, Bullock, Newton, Roberson, Monteith, Curtis, etc. Because of their roles in modern society, reflective of their jobs on the English plantations, pertinent vocabulary words survived this “extinction” because of their very descriptive, daily use in the vocations of the surviving Patawomeck. Likewise, British phrases/vocabulary survive among today’s Patawomeck: “Boy, fetch me that hamper.” [pronounced “hawm’per” and referring to a bushel basket].
    There is much more to add about the “history” of our language through the time of Garry Cooper’s admirable role as instructor. Would love to discuss with you at your convenience.

    • LKMcMillan says:

      Hello Becky. Thank you for the comment. But, I do want to clarify one thing. I (Lauren) did not write this post. This was written by one of my students, Ethan Knick. This was a class assignment. Everything on this website was written by students.

      Thank you for the insights. This is an important topic that deserves much more discussion. I know you worked hard on this project and taught the class, and Garry, before he took over.

  3. Robert Green says:

    I had the privilege of working with Blair Rudes on The New World. He and I had many conversations about the language. It was because of this association that I first thought of teaching it to the Patawomeck, of whom I was the Chief at that time. Becky Guy had been my Latin teacher in high school (she was only 12 at the time). We started slowly because we were trying to revive something that had laid silent for 400 years. Gary Cooper has done a marvelous job with the current classes. One day hopefully we will be able to speak the language as fluently as if it had never gone dormant.

  4. Minnie Lightner says:

    Thank you, Ethan and Lauren for this insightful article! We are hoping this will bring more interest in the language and the classes Gary teaches! We look forward to working together with UMW in the future!

    • LKMcMillan says:

      Thank you, Chief and Minnie Lightner. We have learned so much from our work with the tribe and look forward to future collaborations.

  5. Donald Morgan says:

    Enjoy reading the posts here on UMW archeology lab. I thank Robert, Becky and Gary for all they have done. I would also to thank UMW and professor McMillan for working with the tribe.

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