Tuesday, January 09, 2007

NAT: Learning Mattaponi

A language revisited
Indians and scholars hope to revive the words that once dominated
coastal Virginia
BY DAVID A. FAHRENTHOLD, January 4, 2007

MATTAPONI INDIAN RESERVATION, VA. -- "Muh-shay-wah-NUH-toe. Chess-kay-dah-KAY-wak." In his house overlooking the silvery Mattaponi River, Ken Custalow said the words over and over until it drove his wife crazy. Until she yelled from the next room: Have you memorized that thing yet?

Custalow, 70, a member of the Mattaponi tribe, was preparing to give a blessing at a powwow for Virginia Indians in England, part of the events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown Colony. He was nervous. He would be speaking - and some of the audience would be hearing - his native language for the first time.

"Muh-shay-wah-NUH-toe ... (Great Spirit ... )" he began the salutation. Then: "Chess-kay-dah-KAY-wak ... (All nations ... )" The words came from a language that once dominated coastal Virginia. Pocahontas spoke it. Tongue-tied colonists littered our maps with mispronunciations of it: Potomac, Anacostia, Chesapeake. Then, sometime around 1800, it died out.

But now, in a story with starring roles for a university linguist, sloppy 17th-century scribes and a perfectionist Hollywood director making a movie about Jamestown, the language that scholars call Virginia Algonquian has come back from the dead.

The result, for Virginia Indians such as Custalow, has been a stunning opportunity - to speak in words that their grandparents never knew.

"It was absolutely awesome," Custalow said. "To think, 'Golly, here was the language that my people spoke.' "

The language they spoke was just one of several in Virginia before colonization. Its home territory probably included the lower Eastern Shore and the coastal plain between Hampton roads and the Potomac River, experts say.

The Virginia it described is hard to superimpose on today's. It was a place where bears and elk roamed, where life alternated between stints at farming villages and seasonal migrations for hunting and gathering.

Then Europe landed on its doorstep. Language was one of many casualties.

"It is a natural process that happens to small communities," said Helen Rountree, a professor emerita at Old Dominion University who has studied Virginia tribes.

The same thing happened across the continent. Of perhaps 400 Indian languages spoken in North America in 1500, about 45 are in common use today, one expert estimated.

A few traces survived among Virginia Indians: Chief Anne Richardson of the Rappahannock tribe said her family didn't use the word "bread."

"My grandparents and my parents would say, 'I'm making up apone,' " she aid. The old Algonquian word had been "apon." Corn pone shares the same linguistic link.

For the first half of the 20th century, the loss of their language was a minor concern for Virginia Indians. They were lumped into the "colored" side of a segregated society, barred from jobs and schools, and many moved away.

By the 1970s, discrimination eased, and interest grew in the old Algonquian language. Researching it was not easy. The best source was a list of Indian words and their meanings compiled by a Jamestown colonist in the 1600s. But it had been recopied by some of the 17th century's most incompetent scribes. Their N's looked like A's, which looked like U's, and they had a serious problem with spelling. The Algonquian word for "ants" had been mislabeled as "aunts," and the word for "herring" had become "hearing."

Then Hollywood entered the picture. In 2003, director Terrence Malick was preparing to film a movie about Jamestown, "The New World." Blair Rudes, a linguist at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, was hired to translate dialogue for Pocahontas' people.

Rudes started with Colonial-era word lists and scholarly work and filled in the linguistic blanks using better-known Algonquian languages from all over the Eastern Seaboard. One scene with three pages of dialogue took him a month.

The director loved it. He wanted 50 scenes. Rudes translated in his hotel room for two weeks solid. At the end, people were speaking entire sentences in Virginia Algonquian - or at least a linguist's best guess at it - for the first time in 200 years.

His work has helped to dispel one of the area's beliefs: that "Chesapeake" means something like "Great Shellfish Bay." It doesn't, Rudes said. The name might mean something like "Great Water," or it might have been a village at the bay's mouth.

A glimpse of the future might have come this past summer in Great Britain, at a powwow the tribes held where Pocahontas is buried.

This was what Custalow had been preparing for: He didn't trust himself to memorize the strange syllables, so he brought a cheat sheet.

Custalow said he did it flawlessly, ending the prayer with "NAH-daych."

The crowd responded with the same word in English: Amen.

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