a child in a combined pre-kindergarten and kindergarten Wampanoag language immersion class removes kernels from an ear of corn at the Wampanoag Tribe Community and Government Center, in Mashpee, Mass. The Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts is in its second year of operating a preschool immersion program where only an indigenous language that had not been spoken for generations is uttered. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

MASHPEE — The Massachusetts tribe whose ancestors shared a Thanksgiving meal with the Pilgrims nearly 400 years ago is reclaiming its long-lost language, one schoolchild at a time.

“Weesowee mahkusunash,” says teacher Siobhan Brown, using the Wampanoag phrase for “yellow shoes” as she reads to a preschool class from Sandra Boynton’s popular children’s book “Blue Hat, Green Hat.”

The Mukayuhsak Weekuw — or “Children’s House ” — is an immersion school launched by the Cape Cod-based Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, whose ancestors hosted a harvest celebration with the Pilgrims in 1621 that helped form the basis for the country’s Thanksgiving tradition.

The 19 children from Wampanoag households that Brown and other teachers instruct are being taught exclusively in Wopanaotooaok, a language that had not been spoken for at least a century until the tribe started an effort to reclaim it more than two decades ago.

The language brought to the English lexicon words like pumpkin (spelled pohpukun in Wopanaotooaok), moccasin (mahkus), skunk (sukok), powwow (pawaw) and Massachusetts (masachoosut), but, like hundreds of other native tongues, fell victim to the erosion of indigenous culture through centuries of colonialism.

“From having had no speakers for six generations to having 500 students attend some sort of class in the last 25 years? It’s more than I could have ever expected in my lifetime,” says Jessie “Little Doe” Baird, the tribe’s vice chairwoman, who is almost singularly responsible for the rebirth of the language, which tribal members refer to simply as Wampanoag.

Now in its second year, the immersion school is a key milestone in Baird’s legacy, but it’s not the only way the tribe is ensuring its language is never lost again.

At the public high school, seven students are enrolled in the district’s first Wampanoag language class, which is funded and staffed by the tribe.

Up the road, volunteers host free language learning sessions for families each Friday at the Mashpee Wampanoag Indian Museum.

And within the tribe’s government building — one floor up from the immersion school — tribal elders gather twice a week for an hourlong lesson before lunch.

The movement to revitalize native American languages started gaining traction in the 1990s. But the Mashpee Wampanoag stand out because they’re one of the few tribes to have brought back their language despite not having any surviving adult speakers, says Teresa McCarty, a cultural anthropologist and applied linguist at the University of California Los Angeles.

“Imagine learning to speak, read, and write a language that you have never heard spoken and for which no oral records exist,” she says. “It’s a human act of brilliance, faith, courage, commitment and hope.”

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