A Dead Indian Language Is Brought Back to Life

By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 12, 2006

MATTAPONI INDIAN RESERVATION, Va. -- "Muh-shay-wah-NUH-toe. Chess-kay-dah-KAY-wak."

In his house overlooking the silvery Mattaponi River, Ken Custalow said the words over and over until it drove his wife crazy. Until she yelled from the next room: Have you memorized that thing yet?

Custalow, 70, a member of the Mattaponi tribe, was preparing to give a blessing at a powwow for Virginia Indians in England, part of the events commemorating the 400th anniversary of the Jamestown Colony. He was nervous. He would be speaking -- and some of the audience would be hearing -- his native language for the first time.

Muh-shay-wah-NUH-toe, he began the salutation. "Great Spirit . . ." Then: Chess-kay-dah-KAY-wak. "All nations . . ."

The words came from a language that once dominated coastal Virginia, including part of what is now suburban Washington. Pocahontas spoke it. Tongue-tied colonists littered our maps with mispronunciations of it: Potomac, Anacostia, Chesapeake. Then, sometime around 1800, it died out.

But now, in a story with starring roles for a university linguist, sloppy 17th-century scribes and a perfectionist Hollywood director making a movie about Jamestown, the language that scholars call Virginia Algonquian has come back from the dead.

The result, for Virginia Indians such as Custalow, has been a stunning opportunity -- to speak in words that their grandparents never knew.

"It was absolutely awesome," Custalow said. "To think, 'Golly, here was the language that my people spoke.' "

The language they spoke was just one of several in Virginia before colonization. Its home territory probably included the lower Eastern Shore and the coastal plain between Hampton Roads and the Potomac River, experts say.

The Virginia it described is hard to superimpose on today's. It was a place where bears and elk roamed, where life alternated between stints at farming villages and seasonal migrations for hunting and gathering.

Then Europe landed on its doorstep. Language was one of many casualties.

"It is a natural process that happens to small communities," said Helen Rountree, a professor emerita at Old Dominion University who has studied Virginia tribes. "They had to go out and speak English to do all sorts of ordinary things." Without everyday use, Virginia Algonquian withered.

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