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.
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.