Powhatan Language Revitalization

In the 2005 movie “The New World,” which depicted the 17th century founding of the Jamestown Settlement in the U.S. state of Virginia, the filmmakers ran into a problem finding speakers of the Native American language spoken from that era. Turned out that the Powhatan or Virginia Algonquian language had been extinct for more than two centuries. Based on some early academic work and an existing list of vocabulary words, linguists attempted to piece together the language in order to resemble the actual language as closely as possible for the purposes of the film.

One of the major reasons why this language died out is that for many years it was forbidden by law, but lately there has been a resurgence and greater interest in revitalizing this language. The work done for the Hollywood film is only one small step in this process. Enter Ian Custalow, a member of the Mattaponi Tribe, who has been working toward the ambitious goal of bringing this language back from extinction into an endangered status. He has been building upon the foundation of documentation work, and may be one of the most active speakers of this language. To help develop more speakers, he has been offering language classes to students of all ages from member tribes of the Powhatan Confederacy through regular visits to the various communities throughout the state.

Now he wants to see how citizen media and other technology can help complement these classes, as a way to attain the community's goal of revitalizing this language. In addition to creating electronic dictionaries and keyboards for smartphones and computers, he believes that citizen media and other social networking tools can be a great motivator and way to connect new learners of this language across the various tribes, such as the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, Upper Mattaponi, Patawomeck, Rappahannock, Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy and Nansemond. The hope is, according to Custalow, that “the project will allow for the language of a suppressed and underrepresented Native American community to live once again.”