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Wampanoag Sky: Language, Loss, and the Light of Dead Stars

Sea shell on beach with stars inside

We don’t see things are they are, we see them as we are. – Anaïs Nin

 

Thousands of years before the first Europeans set foot in America, the Wampanoag people lived on Cape Cod.

They were a people with rich knowledge and lore of the heavens. To the Wampanoag, the stars were known as anâqsak. Creation tales abounded to explain the origin of the sun, earth, moon, stars, and constellations.

In his 1643 book, A Key into the Language of America, Roger Williams wrote of the Wampanoag people he encountered. “By occasion of their frequent lying in the Fields and Woods, they much observe the Starres, and their very children can give Names to many of them and observe their Motions.”

Josiah Cotton’s 1829 Vocabulary of the Massachusetts (or Natick) Language included an entry for astronomy: nehtuhwonlc papaume annoqsqs, which means “skill about the stars.”

But what happens when the astronomical heritage of people and their culture, gathered over millions of nights, is lost?


Between 1616 and 1619, more than half the Wampanoag nation died from epidemics brought by European ships. Entire villages were wiped out in some cases. By the end of King Philip’s War, an unsuccessful native uprising against the English colonists, the Wampanoag were almost extinct, dwindling to fewer than 400 survivors in 1676.

Subsequent epidemics, enslavement, and prohibitions from using their native tongue further decimated the Wampanoag people and their culture. Wopânâak, their language, fell silent in the 19th century when the last living speakers died.

Much of the Wampanoag knowledge of the heavens and the wisdom gleaned by observing them vanished with their language. Today, it’s easy to find information about the constellations and star lore of the Navajo, Cherokee, Pawnee, Lakota, Mi’kmaq, and other indigenous peoples, but almost nothing about the Wampanoag sky.

Sadly, it’s a story that has been repeated many times throughout history.

We all come from places with knowledge, traditions, and stories about the heavens. Our culture and inherited beliefs influence what we see in the sky, whether it’s the cold indifference of a universe governed by immutable laws, or a sky sprinkled with whimsical spirits and gods.

Language, the essence of culture, might offer a way to reconstruct some of the lost astronomical knowledge of the past. Today the Wampanoag language is being revived through the efforts of the Wopânâak Language Reclamation Project.  

It’s a daunting challenge. No defunct Native American language has yet been brought back into everyday use. There’s uncertainty about how to even pronounce some Wopânâak words because there are no surviving speakers or recordings. Nevertheless, the rebirth of Hebrew as a living language after centuries of disuse and the success of Hawaiian, Maori, and other language revivals shows that it can be done.

And tucked away among the many surviving texts written in the Wampanoag tongue or in the lexicon of words still to be uncovered may be new insights into the Wampanoag sky.

“The whole history of the human race is but the twinkling of an eye in comparison with the ages of the stars,” wrote English astronomer James Jeans in his1931 book The Stars in Their Courses.

But even stars die eventually. Yet their light continues its journey through space long after the star’s internal flame has been extinguished, illuminating the sky like a memory, flickering but not forgotten.

Like the light of stars long gone, the voices of the Wampanoag ancestors reach across time to be heard today. Reflecting the sky and the world as they saw it, illuminating the past as well as the future

 

 

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Dr. Michael West is an Astronomer and Lowell Observatory’s Deputy Director for Science. His monthly column covers topics ranging from current science to stories of folklore and our connection to the stars. Please note that Dr. West’s stories expire at the end of each month.