Thanksgiving’s Story Told in a Vanishing American Language

Thanksgiving, Pilgrim Farming

A new film could be a vehicle for saving a dying American Indian tongue.

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 telling, 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 … read more plus vids —>

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