Keeping The Native Nipmuc Language Alive Native American languages have slowly been vanishing as tribal members and cultures have died out. But one electrician in Brimfield, Mass., is doing all he can to keep the Nipmuc language alive, by teaching language classes and inspiring young children to keep the heritage strong.
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Keeping The Native Nipmuc Language Alive

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Keeping The Native Nipmuc Language Alive

Keeping The Native Nipmuc Language Alive

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Some scholars estimate that at the time of Columbus, there were roughly 300 native languages spoken in North America. Many of them are now extinct. Today we tell you about one man's efforts to keep one of the remaining languages alive. It's the first in a series of stories this month on Native Americans in conjunction with the television series, "We Shall Remain," airing Mondays on PBS. Arun Rath has our story.

ARUN RATH: David White is an electrician. On busy days, his van doubles as an office.

Mr. DAVID WHITE (Electrician): Hi Bruce(ph)? Hi, it's Dave. Can you put a stock order together for me? Okay, I need…

RATH: After placing an order, he is going to install some new switches at a modest, one-story home being renovated not far from his own in the small town of Brimfield, Massachusetts.

You'd never know it from his day job, but David is on a one-man mission to save a language from dying.

So Dave, is there any way you could describe what you're doing in Nipmuc?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WHITE: Let's see. I'm changing these switches here. I don't think there's any word for switch, or electricity, even, for that matter. Maybe you could say lightning would be electricity, right, and lightning is ptoquahin. I don't know how to say lightning in a cage, but I guess that's how you would describe it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RATH: Some scholars have already written off the Nipmuc language as dead. When I mention this to David, he points out that at one time, authorities claimed the Nipmuc themselves had died out.

Mr. WHITE: Supposedly, the last of the Nipmucs died in the late 1800s. You know, we have a copy of the newspaper article, and it's funny because it contradicts itself right in its own statement. It says the last of the Nipmuc dies on this date. And then it says he is survived by his children, grandchildren…

(Soundbite of laughter)

RATH: Today the Nipmuc are in a peculiar position: recognized as a tribe by the state of Massachusetts but not as a nation by the federal government, and there are only about 10 people who speak the language.

Mr. WHITE: When I was young, I didn't hear the language at all until I was 10 or 11, when I started to go to powwows, and I would hear the language being spoken in the circle at the opening prayer.

Mr. WHITE: (Speaking Nipmuc language).

RATH: In the 1950s, as part of a growing pan-Indian movement, the Nipmuc adopted the tradition of the powwow for gatherings and ceremonies. It was at one of these gatherings that David first heard a traditional Nipmuc prayer.

Mr. WHITE: (Speaking foreign language).

RATH: The prayer thanks the Great Spirit for the day, for health, for the tribe and for all living creatures.

Mr. WHITE: Oh, it was beautiful. I, you know, was just so amazed by it, and it sounded so beautiful to me, and I wish I could talk like that. Of course I had no idea what it meant when I heard it.

RATH: Tribal elders were using preserved fragments like this morning prayer, along with documents left behind by colonists and missionaries, to reconstruct the Nipmuc tongue.

Mr. WHITE: When I was named, I had my first interactions with our elder, Little Turtle, our spiritual leader. Really I was 11 years old, and I was actually quite scared when I first met him because, of course, you know, he was in regalia and all that. Even though he was a small, frail man, he was very powerful in his aura, in his demeanor.

RATH: Little Turtle gave David the name Tall Pine. In spite of his initial intimidation, David joined the small language class taught by Little Turtle and quickly became his most enthusiastic student. After about 10 years, when the elder was increasingly ailed with emphysema, he made a powerful request.

Mr. WHITE: He said, I'm getting ready to walk on, and I want you to keep this going. I want you to keep the language classes going. I'm asking you if you would do that for me. So you know, it was tough, you know, not to tough to answer the question. It was just tough to know that, you know, he wasn't going to be around anymore, you know, because he was like, you know, the strength of our people, you know, that spiritual strength. So that was the hard part.

RATH: Five years later, he is still teaching, not only the original study group but new students in three new classes.

Unidentified People: (Speaking Nipmuc language).

Mr. WHITE: Like nag, yeah right? What your mom would do, right?

RATH: It's harder these days for White to pay for class supplies. Along with over half-a-million other Americans, he lost his job in February. And while he's looking for work, he makes time on Saturday afternoons for his children's class.

Mr. WHITE: They go to school, and they tell their friends about it. They're so proud because it's something they have and nobody else has that they can say, you know, I know how to do this. This is my language, you know. I'm Native American. I'm Nipmuc.

Unidentified Child: How do you say - (Speaking Nipmuc language).

Mr. WHITE: (Speaking Nipmuc language).

RATH: White loves working with the kids and fulfilling the promise he made to Little Turtle all those years ago. No one can call the Nipmuc language dead, he says, as long as he's keeping it alive. For NPR News, I'm Arun Rath in Boston.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: At our Web site, you can hear more from the Nipmuc language and watch video from the PBS television series, "We Shall Remain." That is at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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