Rick Altenburg- CaMa CeskCaMei: Reviving the Virginia Algonquin Dialect

The revival of the Virginia Algonquin dialect began in 2003 for the making of the film The New World. Director Terrence Malick wished to create an atmosphere as closely related to the historical encounters between Powhatans and the English. He hired linguist Blair Rudes to help reconstruct the specific Algonquin dialect that Native Americans in the area would have spoken (Rudes 2014:32). Today, Garry “TaPaKo KwaNGaTaRask (Night Owl)” Cooper continues this tradition by teaching Virginia Algonquin within the Patawomeck Indian Tribe.

TaPaKo KwaNGaTaRask’s visit to our classroom on April 4th gave me a much different perspective of the native language revival movement than I had previously had. The Virginia Algonquin language came to the brink of extinction due to colonization and subsequent racial laws that forced many Native Americans to hide their racial identity. Using centuries-old dictionaries, along with knowledge of Algonquin language patterns from other regions of the US, Rudes worked to put together a rough estimate of how the Virginia Algonquin dialect would have sounded (Rudes 2014). According to Night Owl, the Patawomeck are the only tribe left in Virginia that offers language classes, and only about three members are fluent in the language.

Luckily, activists like Night Owl are trying to turn these declining numbers around and are instituting a system by which they can better reach the younger members of the tribe. An interesting point he made was that it is much easier for children/young adults to learn new things than older people. It is for this reason that the Patawomeck have created lesson books similar to those provided in schools for learning languages like Spanish and French. The lesson books include activities such as word finds, oral exercises, and even practice pages for writing the alphabet used by Algonquin speakers.

Teaching the language of his ancestors is something that is obviously very important to Night Owl. Language is inherently related to culture: it is a means by which we express ourselves, share ideas, and it provides a sense of community for its speakers. Hinton (2010:36) quotes several Native Americans saying they want their language revived because, “It is [their] heritage,” or, “Language is a key to culture, and [they] want to retain [their] traditional cultural ways.” Night Owl was also very eager to share Patawomeck culture with us, for which I am very grateful. He did not have to spend his Tuesday morning teaching our class the history of the Algonquin language, nor did he have to teach us how to say phrases like, “Hello,” and, “My name is…” I feel very fortunate to have heard Night Owl speak about his Native American roots and the movement within his tribe to revive their traditional language.


Hinton, Leanne
2010    Language Revitalization in North America and the New Direction of Linguistics. Transforming Anthropology 18(1):35-41.

Rudes, Blair A.
2014    Giving Voice to Powhatan’s People: The Creation of Virginia Algonquin Dialogue for The New World. Southern Quarterly 51(4):29-37.

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