Anne Makepeace is quick to tell people that the Wampanoag is the tribe that greeted the Mayflower. After all, what better way to quickly illustrate how forgotten this tribe is? Almost everyone in America knows the people of the Mayflower broke bread with a Native American tribe, but most people probably don't know who they were.
That language could have died 100 years ago, with the last known native speakers. Now the Wampanoag are working to revive it, a project headed by Jessie Little Doe Baird, who dreamed about the language of her ancestors before she even learned to speak it.
We Still Live Here screens tomorrow, October 13, at 6 p.m. at the Ben Nighthorse Campbell Native Health Building, Anschutz Medical Center, 13055 East 17th Avenue, in Aurora. The five-day festival begins tonight and takes place at several venues around town. Find more information on the festival web site.
Westword: What attracted you to the Wampanoag's story? Anne Makepeace:What attracted me to the story is that it's a native story about resurrection and reclamation. So much history and so much media about Native Americans is about the devastation of the cultures. Certainly there was a lot of devastation. But looking back to the past is as important as looking to the future in a positive light. This story is about native people not dwelling on all the terrible things that have happened to them, but reclaiming their identities for their children -- for future generations.
Who is Jessie Little Doe Baird?
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Jessie is the center of the film, and an amazing force of nature. In 1995, Jessie was a mother of four, who didn't have a BA. She kept having dreams of people talking to her in a language she couldn't understand. As she was driving near her home in Cape Cod, she noticed a sign for Simppewissett -- and she started to think of all the signs she sees and connecting that these signs and the language in her dreams is Wampanoag. She's a very funny, earthy person -- so she was like, "Why don't they just speak English if they want to speak to me?"
She learned about an opportunity at MIT where you can apply for a research scholarship and so she applied and got the fellowship and about half way through the year Noam Chomsky noticed how amazing her research was and invited her to be a graduate student. Now, she is finally getting the recognition she deserves.
What does it mean that Mae, Jessie's daughter, is the first native speaker?
Jessie and her husband spoke to Mae only in Wampanoag for the first three years of her life. Jessie and and her husband still speak to her Wampanoag -- but, she of course also speaks English now. So she's bilingual.
Why don't the Wampanoag normally allow their language to be used in anything that can be sold?
To them, their language is sacred. It was an amazing thing that they agreed I could make this film. This film's an educational film, but it is also being distributed.They don't want other people to know the language before they do. It's an interesting dichotomy the way they think about the language. There is a kind of shame -- they don't know their own language, so they want to know it before others do. I had developed a relationship with them beforehand -- that's how I was allowed to film the movie. It's a very real responsibility -- both awesome and terrifying.
I'm sure you develop as a filmmaker in each of your projects by learning from your process -- what did you learn or take away from this project?
First of all, I learned the real history of New England, which is not what's taught in school. How many people know that the Wampanoag are still there, in their original homeland communities? No one really recognizes that the people celebrated at Thanksgiving are the Wampanoag, and they are still there.
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I also learned how amazing the field of linguistics is and how much you can discover about your culture just in the way your language is put together.
And, I learned a lot about how Native Americans take the long view, and what sparked me to see that, is that my background. My name is a Puritan name and my ancestors don't come off very well in history. I have distant relatives that own thousands of acres of Wampanoag land. When I first talked to Jessie and Linda about doing the film I told them about my background -- that the Makepeaces were colonizers, and part of that Puritan effort to obliterate cultures -- I told them that it doesn't feel like white guilt, but I don't know what is drawing me to this project. They said, "You are just closing the circle."
I thought that was an amazing thing and just so deeply conscious and aware of the bigger picture