Shannon Bremer- CaMa CeskCaMei: The Revitalization of the Powhatan Language

CaMa CeskCaMei. Garry TaPaKo KwaNGaTaRask (Night Owl) began his lesson with this simple phrase. In the Powhatan language, it means “Greetings all friends.” While Garry Cooper, the language instructor from the Patawomeck Tribe, has become the main teacher of the Powhatan language and there are many tribal members trying to learn the language of their ancestors, this was not always the case. Before the filming of The New World began in 2003, the Powhatan language was virtually non-existent (Rudes 2014:29-30). According to Cooper, the beginning of the end of the language as it was spoken by the Patawomeck occurred in 1666 when the English were ordered to wipe out the tribe (Lewis 2017:19). The language itself was lost well before the 20th century; however, when the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 was passed in Virginia, which denied the existence of Native Virginians, it continued to suppress the Patawomeck tribe as well as other Native peoples across the Commonwealth (Maillard 2007).

When filming for The New World began, director Terrence Malick was eager to include the traditional Virginia Algonquian language within the movie to make it more authentic (Rudes 2014:29-30). Malick contacted linguist Blair Rudes from the University of North Carolina at Charlotte to gain his assistance on the project (Boyle 2006). Rudes not only had to reconstruct an almost virtually extinct language, he also had to reconstruct the grammar as well (Boyle 2006). He did so using William Strachey’s book, The Historie of Travaile into Virginia Britannia (Rountree and Wolfe 2014). According to Cooper, Mattaponi tribe member Ian Custalow took over Rudes’s work after his passing. Becky Guy of the Patawomeck Tribe was also involved in this larger language revitalization project, which is how Cooper was introduced to the language. Cooper picked up Guy’s work with the Patawomeck and continues to teach the Powhatan language classes to the tribe.

The hardest part of the language for modern learners is the phonetics or sounds of the words. At the time that Strachey created his dictionary, the English had not heard some of the sounds being used by the Algonquian people. For that reason, many of the words may not be pronounced or actually spelt the way they should be due to the miscommunication and misunderstanding between two entirely different cultures. That is why Cooper stresses the importance of phonetics and pronunciation to his students, including our class during our brief lesson on the Powhatan language.

During our lesson with TaPaKo KwaNGaTaRask, I learned a lot about the difficulties that come with learning a language that many living people have never heard before. At first, the pronunciation is very hard to grasp, but after a while and with the help of some phonetic spelling, it becomes easier. Like any language, the translations from Powhatan to English and vice versus are not exact, making it difficult to translate certain phrases or sentences. For example, the word, NeTab is used to say hello; however, the literal translation means, “my friend.” Similarly, the phrase MaCa NuTuWinKan is used to say “have a good day.” However, since one cannot “own” the day, the literal translation is, “we leave each other well.”

Although the new Powhatan language, or the language being taught by Night Owl to tribe members today, is not necessarily exactly the same as the old language, the fact alone that tribe members are beginning to have an interest in revitalizing the language is extremely important. This revitalization project is an important stepping stone towards giving the Algonquian people back a part of their culture that was repressed and lost for hundreds of years. 

Works Cited

Boyle, Alan
2006    How a Linguist Revived ‘New World’ Language. NBC News. Accessed April 2019. http://www.nbcnews.com/id/10950199/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/how-linguist-revived-new-world-language/#.XMXkbZNKho4

Lewis, Kay Wright
2017    A Curse upon the Nation: Race, Freedom, and Extermination in America and the Atlantic World. University of Georgia Press.

Maillard, Kevin Noble
2007    The Pocahontas Exception: The Exemption of American Indian Ancestry from Racial Purity Law. Michigan Journal of Race and Law 12(2):351-386.

Rountree, Helen C. and Brendan Wolfe
2014    Languages and Interpreters in Early Virginia Indian Society. In Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Accessed April 2019. https://www.encyclopediavirginia.org/Languages_and_Interpreters_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society#start_entry

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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