Skip to main content

Tutelo language revitalized

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - With an old book that documents Tutelo grammar and
includes word lists, Karenne Wood plans to create language lessons and a
useful vocabulary for Monacan people.

Wood, Monacan, has received a Ford Foundation Pre-doctoral Fellowship,
administered by the National Research Council of the National Academies, to
continue Tutelo language revitalization. The fellowship provides Wood with
three years of support, including one year of tuition, as she pursues her
doctorate at the University of Virginia.

"With the understanding that your value system is embedded in your
language, I decided to revitalize our language," Wood said.

Tutelo, a Siouan language, was recorded by researchers who worked with the
Tutelo people in the early 1900s. The Siouan tribes of Virginia and North
Carolina - including the Monacan, the Mannahoac, the Saponi and the
Ocaneechi, along with the Tutelo - spoke languages that were related to
each other, she said.

Scientists think that originally all of the Siouan speakers were located in
the same geographic region, possibly the Ohio River Valley.

"That's what our stories tell us," Wood said.

A group of Tutelos went to Canada and joined with the Cayuga people in the
1700s. In the 1900s, several researchers visited that country and
documented the Tutelo language.

There are Tutelo descendants in Canada, but no one speaks the language, she
said; however, Lawrence Dunmore, an Ocaneechi Indian, has worked with the
language for most of his life. Dunmore translated the song "Mahk Jchi,"
sung by the female a capella trio Ulali, into the Tutelo language.

"The research I'm doing ... is for our tribe and other related speakers,"
Wood said. "It's really not as much about publishing it for scholarship as
it is about creating something that's useful for our people."

Wood's language revitalization work offers Monacans who work at the Monacan
Indian Village complex at Natural Bridge, Va. the opportunity to speak to
visitors in Tutelo, said Monacan Chief Kenneth Branham. For now, Monacans
working at the village greet visitors in Tutelo.

"I know Karenne well, and she will find all she can in her studies," said
Branham, who is also the assistant director at Monacan Indian Village.
"Anything that Karenne can find pertaining to our language will be
something we would be interested in saving for future generations."

Other Virginia tribes are pleased with her research, too. Chief Ken Adams
of the Upper Mattaponi Indian Tribe said he asked Wood to do an invocation
in the Tutelo language at the Virginia Indians' reception at the opening of
the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian last year.

"I was very impressed that she is able to do what she has done, and I
thought what she did at our reception was very special," said Adams, who
added he'd like to see language revitalization in Virginia Algonquin

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Wood is also interested in the larger issue of how the official history of
Southeastern Indians has been constructed by non-Native people and how
Indians don't see themselves in that history.

"Language has been used to marginalize and dispossess Indian people by
calling us 'savages' and simplifying our cultures," she said.

By doing this, it characterizes Indians as primitive people of the past,
Wood said.

"Some examples are [how] our agriculture is called 'gardening' and our
towns, no matter how large they were, are called 'villages,'" she said.

Words are important, she said, noting that that's how people construct and
symbolize the world; without these, people become disassociated.

"It's group trauma; that's what all Indian people have faced - collective
trauma," Wood said. "I think the only way out of that is to take ownership
of our history."

Wood chose to pursue a doctorate because she was tired of people
approaching the "so-called" experts about her people's history and culture.
But she said there are some researchers who are now coming to Native
people, and they have developed sensitivity toward including Native voices.

Her work in developing and learning Tutelo will serve as a model for others
interested in language development, said Chief Stephen Adkins of the
Chickahominy Indian Tribe.

"It's certainly inspired me to do more research in my native tongue,"
Adkins said.

Wood's work will heighten the awareness in mainstream America of the Tutelo
language and Monacan culture, Adkins said.

"She's very dedicated to working with her people," Adkins said. "She's a
living testimony to her beliefs and she's a tireless advocate for Native
people; the fact that she is a doctoral candidate is a living testimony to
the value she places on higher education, and I know she has a strong
desire for Indian youth to aspire to achieve higher education."

Wood said old stereotypes still exist and need changing.

"Then, we can learn from each other, but researchers need to recognize they
are students of our culture; we are the teachers, not the other way
around," she said. "I think we need to speak for ourselves. Vine Deloria
Jr. was the one who really made this point decades ago, and we still have a
lot of work to do."