Speaking the Language

The saga of the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock has been told, for the most part, in just one language: English.

The voices of the Native Americans who were there—speaking in their own languages—have usually been left out.

The new film Saints & Strangers, which recounts the events surrounding the arrival of the Mayflower in the New World in the autumn of 1620, attempts to change that. In this relling, Native Americans are as much at the heart of the story as the Pilgrims. And those Native Americans are speaking in a native tongue, in a language called Western Abenaki.

“This was a huge challenge,” says Jesse Bowman Bruchac, 44, a fluent speaker of the language, who coached the film’s Native American actors on how to deliver their lines in Western Abenaki. (Watch Bruchac on the set of the film.)

The language has just a handful of living speakers. But Western Abenaki becomes a character of sorts in Saints & Strangers, creating a living window into personality, history and culture.

Abenaki is an amalgamation of a vast group of Algonquin languages once spoken throughout what's now New England, including Vermont, New Hampshire, and parts of eastern Canada.

With the exception of one character whose role is to interpret for the Pilgrims, every line of native dialogue is delivered in Abenaki.

(Read "What They Ate at the First Thanksgiving.")

By giving voice to real historical figures like the Wampanoag Indian chief Massasoit, his counselor and head warrior Hobbamock and the Patuxet interpreter Squanto—who served as a liaison to the religious Pilgrims and adventurer-outcasts of the Plymouth colony—the film is also a vehicle for growing efforts to keep endangered native languages from extinction.

Bruchac hopes that Saints & Strangers becomes a “permanent” audio record for future generations and for anyone who wants to learn Abenaki, which has just 12 fluent speakers left.

'Our Secret Language'

Bruchac has a foot in both the native and settler worlds. He shares a roughly 1/16th Native American inheritance on one side of his family. The “Bowman” side of his ancestry, meanwhile, dates back to the time of the Mayflower settlers.  

“I learned Western Abenaki from a chain of speakers that was unbroken going back to the time of the Mayflower’s arrival and long before that," he says. "I felt my fluency was up to par and this was an awesome test.”

Bruchac had just two weeks to work in person with the three main actors in Saints & Strangers to teach the cadences, rhythm and meaning of the language.

Before filming, he sent the actors MP3 recordings and coached them via Skype. And while the actors didn’t come anywhere near matching Bruchac's fluency, they learned enough to understand their particular lines and could exchange short bursts of conversation in Abenaki, which existed only in oral form until more than 200 years after the Mayflower’s landing.

Bruchac grew up surrounded by people who spoke Abenaki in upstate New York. His father wrote books of traditional stories and history from various Algonquin tribes. But it wasn’t until college that Bruchac began to take his interest more seriously.

He sought out fluent speakers and eventually moved to the Odanak Reservation in Canada, where he lived for four years and studied with a community elder and one of the last remaining native Abenaki speakers.

He spent so much time with the woman that other members of the reservation joked that he had become her “boyfriend.” Now, Bruchac has two sons, 5 and 7, and only ever speaks to them in Abenaki.

“It’s our secret language,” he says. "We never speak in English.” Even on Skype.

Rekindling Dying Languages

There were thousands of native languages spoken across the Americas at the time of the Pilgrims' landing. As European settlement expanded across North America in the 17th and 18th centuries, native languages began to vanish, blending with other languages in some cases and disappearing in others.

Eventually, the modern day hybrid known as Western Abenaki emerged, an organic mix with thousands of years of stories, rituals, cadences and myths buried inside. Some modern English words have their origins in the many languages that eventually became Abenaki.

“Skunk” is one. “Michigan,” meaning the detritus of what has been eaten, is another.  

The Native American actors, all of whom have had some past experience of learning new languages for film roles, say they worked hard for Saints & Strangers, not just to memorize the lines by rote, but to understand the syntax and grammar.

“An elder told me once that when you speak a language, you’re calling upon the spirits that made those sounds,” says Kalani Queypo, who plays Squanto in the film. “There’s history there, and power in that, it’s really like we were tapping into something else, as opposed to trying to create something.”  

Raoul Trujillo, the actor who portrays the Wampanoag Indian chief Massasoit, renders the subtle personality shifts that mark his transition from fierce defender to diplomat in an Abenaki that's rich with humor, pathos and grace.

When Massasoit finally agrees to meet the Pilgrims and they welcome him into their camp, the chief remarks on the irony of being welcomed to a land he already calls home. Delivered in Abenaki, it brought the house down during a recent screening in Los Angeles.

The new language also offered up ways of thinking that weren’t available in English. At one point, Queypo’s Squanto suggests to Massasoit that they take a more conciliatory approach with the restive Pilgrims. In English, his suggestion comes out  as “Let’s teach them how to farm here.”

But in Abenaki, Bruchac says that Squanto's words seem far richer: “Let us speak to them so they know how to work the earth.”

Bruchac stresses that the Abenaki of the film is not the exact same language spoken by the natives when William Bradford, John Carver and Edward Winslow came ashore 395 years ago this month.

But neither was the English. “This language didn’t exist at the time, just like English didn’t exist then the way it exists now,” said Bruchac, “Languages grow and change.”

And therein lies his hope for an Abenaki resurgence.

Bruchac cites Wampanoag, an Algonquin tongue whose last fully native speaker died over a century ago, as a possible model. Starting in 1993, the Wampanoag community tried to rekindle the language. Today, there are again native speakers who are keeping it alive, developing a school curriculum and training teachers.

“All the communities we see in this movie, their ancestors became part of the Abenaki nation,” Bruchac says. “As they traveled up into what is considered Abenaki country, they brought their bloodlines, and with them the language.”

When, during filming, Bruchac witnessed the language coming to life in the bodies, faces and expressions of his actors, he felt shivers. “Dagadatta,” he would tell his actors, “Dagadatta!”

That’s Abenaki for “You nailed it.”  

Saints & Strangers, from National Geographic and Sony Pictures, airs Sunday and Monday November 22 and 23 at 9 p.m. ET on the National Geographic Channel.

Follow Scott Johnson on Twitter.


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