Lost language

Karenne Wood is researching the language of her Monacan tribe.

By Linda J. Kobert
This is an image of Karenne Wood

Wood.
Photo by Tom Cogill.

Karenne Wood carries with her a responsibility that most anthropologists never consider. As a Monacan Indian, she brings her people along with her wherever she goes. This includes into the halls of academia, which, when it comes to cultural research, has not always been kind to Native Americans.

“There’s a whole different level there, because I am of the community,” she explains. “I can’t just divorce myself from my people and wander off doing my academic thing. I have that whole community of elders sitting right over my shoulder saying, ‘You’re not going to say that about us.’ I have a responsibility to do it right as they perceive it.”

Wood served for many years on the Monacan Tribal Council, chaired the Virginia Council on Indians and currently serves on the Virginia Indian Advisory Committee for the Jamestown 400th anniversary celebration. As a Ph.D. candidate, she is currently trying to focus her research interests into a dissertation proposal that she hopes to complete over the next three years. Honoring her tribe makes this process a bit more challenging, however.

As a poet, her curiosity is with the nuance of language and the messages conveyed by words. Why, for example, are the places the English settled called towns but the places where her people lived for hundreds of years are called villages, despite being larger and more densely populated? Why is it that Indians have myths and legends and other people have history? Why do they have crafts, not art?

When she originally came to the university, Wood expected to research the Monacan language, write a grammar and work on revitalizing the language among her people.

Thanks to the work of ethnologist Horatio Hale, who collected linguistic data from a group of Tutelo Indians living in Canada in the 19th century, Wood has a basis from which to begin this work. The Tutelo people moved from Virginia to Canada beginning in the mid-1700s, and their language was documented there at the end of the 1800s. While the actual Monacan language no longer exists, the Tutelo language is linguistically related enough that Wood could reconstruct enough words and phrases that the tribe could begin to use it again.

But lately Wood isn’t sure she and her people are ready for that. With a body of anthropological evidence to suggest that language is more than words, she now thinks she and her people need to first identify what is important about the language and how significant it would be to reclaim it.

As the project evolves, Wood hopes to focus more on the exploration of the linguistic heritage of her people and what happens when such a group doesn’t have access to the words their ancestors used. “Can you, in fact, even think the same way since the values are embedded in the words?” she wonders.

Along with the linguistic heritage of her ancestors, Wood also wants to explore what she calls the “language ghost,” that sense of loss for something vital, even though generations have passed since the language was used.

“There is an understanding that you feel like you should be able to speak [the language] and be able to communicate, not only with your ancestors in a prayerful and spiritual way, but also with the creator and the geographic formations that surround you in your homeland,” Wood explains. “Those were all very important entities historically [for the Monacans], so what do you do when you’ve lost that? And does that affect your own sense of identity … who you are in relation to your people, past and present?”

When Wood starts the fieldwork for this project, she will work together with her people, interviewing many of those who still live in Virginia and those who left the state during the last century fleeing discriminatory antimiscegenation laws. She wants to know whether members of her tribe feel this sense of loss related to language and what that might mean in terms of group identity.

“There probably isn’t going to be a generation very soon that would be fluent in our language, even if we reconstruct and reclaim it,” Wood concedes. If that is the case, “then to what extent would [the Monacan people] consider it satisfactory to reclaim parts of it — prayers, for instance — or to have basic readings or to say thank you to each other. How much is enough?”

A&S Online, May 23, 2007

Lost language