Is It Possible To Bring Back Pocahontas’ Language?

DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.

However daunting the task, it is still a possibility that the language spoken by Pocahontas could have new speakers in years after the publication of this article. Although it is classified as the Virginia Algonquian language, for simplicity’s sake in this article I have decided to condense it to its commonly used name–Powhatan; which comes from the name of the chief who ruled over the tribal confederacy that dealt with the English settlers. There were and continues to be attempts to reconstruct the language 200 years later. The important names that are involved in Powhatan language revitalization are Frank Siebert, Helen Rountree, and Blair Rudes. They are the linguists whose contributions could shape the rebirth of the Powhatan language. Although, the information is unreliable, despite having 650 total Powhatan words, what are available are indications as to how the language may have been used.

As for the people who spoke it, this problem goes back to the European colonization of the Americas. Intended on finding the Northwest passage to the Pacific, English explorers settled in James River and established the Jamestown settlement in 1607. They started to learn the Powhatan language since the newcomers were dependent on them. As the number of English colonists increased, the reverse happened, as the Powhatan Nation needed to speak English for trade goods. By 1800, the language was no longer spoken. As a result of European encroachment, while the nations within the confederacy stayed, some of the Powhatan Nation migrated to modern-day New Jersey and settled alongside the Lenape Nation. From 1983-2011, their reservation was located on Rankokus State Park, before it fell to disrepair and the nation were forced to leave.

Although they have yet to have a reservation to call their own, they still hold claim to bits of their language. A lot of the hints are in plain sight within the place-names in Virginia (or what the Powhatans called “Tsenacomoco”). A lot of them were Anglicized from the Powhatan names, such as Appomatox (originally “Appomattuck”), Pamunkey, Mattaponi (originally “Mattapanient”), Accomac, and Chesapeake. Blair Rudes, an Associate Professor of the University of North Carolina, actually dispelled the widely believed etymology of Chesapeake, meaning “Great Shellfish Bay,” and accurately stated it meant “Great Water.” As for botany and cuisine, there are suggestions that they were used for specific purposes, which are also clues in their meanings. The Powhatan nobility, for instance, enjoyed walnut milk as a delicacy, which was recorded as powcohicora. Another word, wisakon, was used to refer to medicine in general as well as English spices and liquors that were considered “medicinal-tasting.” These are just ways of providing evidence to the etymologies of the originally documented words.

However, there are some words that are lost in translation and have yet to be deciphered. An example is the Powhatan Nations’ religion prior to the spread of Christianity. They worshipped a god named Okeus as well as lesser gods called kwiokosuk (kwiokos in singular). Deduction of those meanings are difficult because of the lack of understanding of the prefixes and suffixes that may have been used; as well as the correct spelling of Okeus, which had varying spellings in different parts of eastern Virginia, such as Oke, Okee, Okeus, Quioccos, Cakeres, and Quiquascacke. Though, Frank Siebert, a linguist who attempted to reconstruct the Powhatan language in 1975, did forewarn that there may have been dialects and these spellings just may be examples. However, Rudes did prepare to fill in any gaps in the language in his project. When he could not find a word or phrase recorded by Smith or Strachey, he tried to put together each word from three languages related to Powhatan. If there were at least two similar words, then those words would be used. The words as well as the grammatical rules indicating “he, I, they, etc.,” that were not noted in the original words, were borrowed from those languages.

Although, the Powhatan Nation did not record the words, archaeology does provide an in-sight into their daily lives and might make the connections to the recorded words more potent. On the very site of where the village Werowocomoco once stood, a husband-and-wife team own it and allow archaeologists and members of the Pamunkey, Chickahominy, Nansemond, Mattaponi, Rappahannock, and Monacan nations to do excavations for research purposes. There are a lot of well-preserved artifacts found in that site; including ceramics that were tempered with crushed shell and pressed on fabric textures, stone arrowheads, and stains in the soil that belonged to posts used to maintain houses made from wooden saplings. The word for those houses, yi-hakan, was described by John Clayton, a minister in Jamestown, as being like a garden. Working for his PhD, Erret H. Callahan, Jr. reconstructed what this type of house may have looked like and ended up succeeded with red maple, black locust, red cedar, and yellow pine saplings. While archaeology would work hand-in-hand with the written records, it also seeks to correct the original vocabulary, since it turned out that the word for grass used along with straw and tree-bark to make baskets, pemmenaw , actually meant “rope” or “thread,” according to Siebert.

The names that are given credit for actually documenting the vocabulary but are treated with skepticism are: John Smith, William Strachey, John Clayton, and the other Jamestown people who recorded the Powhatan way of living. Not only did Strachey and Smith use the English language alphabet to roughly transcribe the language, they often incorrectly interpreted the words, with pemmenaw being an example. What muddied the transcription the most was that both men were not, by modern standards, educated in the field of ethnography. Smith was of yeoman class and Strachey was more familiar with the literary arts (who was also a close friend of William Shakespeare). The lack of trust also comes from the incredible bias on behalf of the colonists who regarded the Powhatan Nation as uncultured and barbaric.

A notable example of misinformation was the way the Powhatan Nation would “kill” their youth. As John Smith told, he was about to endure such a similar execution before he was famously rescued by the Chief’s daughter, Pocahontas. As it turned out, neither events happened. What was meant by “killing” the youth was a ceremony called huskanaw , which involved a rite of passage for transitioning Powhatan boys into manhood by beating them with bundles of reeds. In John Smith’s case, this may have happened in order for him to be “reborn” as a tribal member. Also, Pocahontas, who’s real name was Matoaka, was 10 years old at the time this would have taken place. John Smith was also notorious for his arrogance by the fellow colonists, which makes his accounts more illegitimate. When that part of John Smith’s captivity is proven untrue, then other documentations are also susceptible.

In the case of William Strachey, he acquired the main bulk of the original Powhatan vocabulary records by using his status as colonial secretary of the Jamestown fort to hold an interview with two Indian men named Kemps and Machumps. However, Siebert identified 263 “real” Powhatan words out of his list, because Strachey was as limited as Smith, in terms of writing out the words using 17th century English pronunciation. He also sensationalized his own account in the Virginia colony in order to outshine John Smith’s own embellished account.

Overlooking the mistakes made by the original transcribers, there are methods of restructuring the language. Helen Rountree, the author of “The Powhatan Nation of Virginia: Their Traditional Culture,” suggested comparing the Powhatan language to the ones spoken by nations in the New England coast, since they belonged to the same Algonquian language family tree. For Terrence Malick’s film “The New World,” Rudes followed Rountree’s advice when reconstructing the Powhatan language for the dialogue.

It was a 2005 film depicting a more realistic depiction of Pocahontas, John Smith, John Rolfe, and Jamestown; with one crucial element of realism being the Powhatan language itself (though there were fictional moments in the film, including the rescue of John Smith by Pocahontas). This assignment by Terrence Malick was so difficult, to quote David A. Fahrenthold, a Washington Post Staff Writer, it was “like trying to rebuild modern Spanish using only a few pages from a tourist phrasebook, plus Italian.” It was an interesting metaphor to use, considering how Spanish, Italian, and other Romance languages are also sister-languages, with an example being the word friend in Spanish (amigo), French (ami), and Italian (amico).

The related words in Powhatan’s sister-languages definitely provide important hints as to how the vocabulary was pronounced. While other Algonquian languages use the letter “l,” the Powhatan vocabulary was written with an “r.” They also did not use the combination of consonants nor did they use the sounds [b], [d], [f], [g], [j], [ng], [th], [v], or [z]. While there is no recorded evidence for the common ancestor of the Algonquian languages, there are hypothetical words that share similarities to the same words in the related languages in what is called a proto-language. While the Powhatan word for sky was recorded as arrokoth, Rudes compared this to the Proto-Algonquian word a-lahkwatwi, which actually derives from the words for “cloud.” Since the recorded word had an “r” in it, he deduced that the reformed word is arahqat. This is important for finding similar written words that have an accurate meaning. It turned out that the word wisakon has related words in the Algonquian languages meaning “bitter.” In Rudes’ month-long analysis of the Powhatan vocabulary, aamowk, the word for “angle,” has related words in Natick (aumauog : “they fish”), Narragansett (aumaui : “he is fishing”), and Old Delaware (a-man : “fishhook”). He deduced that the reformed Powhatan word would be amewak. It is also important to note that the Carolina Algonquians referred to their god as Kiwasa, which might sound similar to the Powhatan Okeus mentioned earlier.

Another method of reviving the Powhatan language would be to look at related examples. One example is the reviving of the Cornish language, which is indigenous to the province of Cornwall in the southernmost part of the British Isle. As England started imposing its linguistic hegemony on the Cornish people, they started to lose their language. Its last written record was a letter written in 1776 by William Bodiner, who was not a native speaker but learned it from fishermen. From 1904 onwards, there were attempts at transcribing the language and reviving it. As it went, research lead to evening classes which lead to Cornish-language books and magazines. Just like the Powhatan language, the revived Cornish language had to borrow words from its sister-languages; in which case, the scholars borrowed grammar and vocabulary from Breton and Welsh, which belonged to the same Celtic language family. Another similarity is the propagating the revived language though popular media.

However, it is foreseeable that there will be controversy as to the standard writing convention of the reformed Powhatan. Cornish had four ways of writing, all based on updates. Eventually the Standard Written Form (SWF) was agreed upon to be the main way of writing. It would appear intimidating to any new speaker as to which way of writing they should use. Just like in this language community’s case, there needs to be unity in terms of how the Powhatan words are written. The ideal alphabet would reflect off every vowel, consonant, and accent, just as Rountree attempted to do by building upon Siebert’s reconstruction.

Working amongst fellow linguists is crucial for maintaining the reconstruction of a dead language like Powhatan. There continued to be efforts to bring back the Powhatan language, eventually culminating to the release of “The New World.” However, language revitalization did not end with that film, rather it accelerated it. As soon as the film was released, Rudes gave the results of his research to the Virginia Indian nations for their language revitalization efforts. Then, he worked with Rountree in constructing a Powhatan language dictionary before he passed away in 2008. It would especially help the reconstruction upon looking at the background of the linguists involved. In Rudes’ case, he was already involved in reconstructing the Pequot language prior to being hired by Terrence Malick; while Rountree is an ethno-historian specialized in anthropology.

It may appear that the return of the Powhatan language would be limited to the Powhatan Indian community; but I would argue that its funding and research should be national obligations, since bringing back the Powhatan language is just as important as the Wampanoag language, spoken by the Massachusetts nation who feasted with the Pilgrims in 1621 and established Thanksgiving Day. Both were spoken by two Native American nations who played an incredibly crucial role in the making of the United States of America before there was even such a geopolitical entity. It would make Americans appreciate the fact that the colonists’ survival were dependent on the indigenous population, especially when it came to scavenging for food. Indeed, words from this language have been borrowed into the English language, such as “opossum” and “raccoon;” just like how “moccasin” was borrowed from Wampanoag.

It can be possible to reconstruct the Powhatan language, but it wouldn’t be the exact same language it may have been hundreds of years ago (mainly because we do not exactly know how the language was used back then). Then again, I’m convinced that to bring back the Powhatan language is to put a lot of emphasis on archaeological breakthroughs, since they are needed in uncovering Powhatan Indian society. “The New World” might also become a historical artifact, in examining the history behind the bringing a dead language to famous directors and actors and their wide audience. As for the scant, written records of the Powhatan vocabulary, they are reliant as clues and hints as to what constituted a language that had its own variance of pronunciations and grammar within the Algonquian language family tree. They created a paradox where they are regarded with extreme skepticism and yet are the center of Powhatan language revitalization, but they are crucial for the restoration of that language-speaking community in the State of Tsenacomoco.

Why Demystifying Irish Indentured Servitude Is Important To Irish-Americans

DISCLAIMER: This article was originally posted on Odyssey.


When it came to the colonial era of America in your history classes, you probably recall brief mentions of Irish indentured servants. This is a field that has actually been bitterly contested and only recently more delved into, with a lot of misinformation and blatant overgeneralizations involved. I think this part of history needs to be discussed more, because Irish culture is a part of American life and is celebrated by Americans of Irish and non-Irish descent. To understand the Irish role in North American history means learning about the complexities of Irish life under British rule, which would help Irish-Americans expand their education beyond the Americas and into Britain and Ireland.

Since a large portion of America is of Irish descent, I think that it would be important for them to have a well-rounded, comprehensive historical view of how they would have been treated at these time periods. It would also help create awareness of those descendants outside of the United States and all over the Americas. In the case of the Irish-Barbadians, or “Red-Legs” as their more popularly known, they have incredibly high rates of disease, unemployment, and overall marginalization in Barbados which was described as a “poverty trap.”

Since the Red-Legs were descended from the Irish indentured servants of Barbados who did not immigrate to other islands or the United States, a glimpse can be provided of the circumstances that placed them on Barbados in the first place. Nowhere else is this reality more stark than in the Caribbean, which consisted of British colonies, specifically in Barbados which was described as a “socioeconomic experimentation ground” in the book “Caribbean Irish Connections: Interdisciplinary Perspectives” published by the University of the West Indies Press. Sugar plantations at that time that originally employed indentured servants helped create the plantation system with African slaves commonly associated with it that would become popular throughout the British colonies.

To briefly define what indenture is, it is a contract that binds a servant to a settler for a number of years in exchange for passage and land. Indentured contracts were often signed since the Irish laborers did not have the money to immigrate to the New World. This was done willingly by a lot of Irish people prior to 1649 when Oliver Cromwell invaded Ireland and “Barbadosed” thousands of Irish men, women, and children. The difference between indenture and slavery fissured in 1661 when Sir Henry Walrond and the Barbados Assembly officiated the distinction, with indenture lasting for three to seven years and slavery lasting for life.

One important piece of information to write is that not all of the Irish in the New World were indentured servants, for there were also sailors, merchants, soldiers, bookkeepers, overseers, and even slave-owners. On the one hand, the indentured servants were forced to work sugar fields (and there were even accounts by former servants who claimed to have lived in slave-like conditions), but there were other Irishmen who were given more privileges and would become wealthy planters who had their own African slaves. In fact, a lot of these wealthy planters in the Caribbean had Irish surnames, such as Bodkin, Blake, Dobbs, Farrell, O’Connor, O’Hara, Skerret, Talbot, and Tuite.

Only when the colonies were becoming more as pigmentocracies did the Irish start to distinguish themselves from African slaves with whom they worked alongside and more with the British ruling class. It is also important to note that as more and more African slaves were imported for sugar production, the Irish contributed to the Caribbean economy in other ways by working either in the colonial militias or managing finances. As to how this applies to the Barbados Assembly’s 1661 decision, race was a major factor in the separation of indenture and slavery, since Africans were seen as being brutish.

Not only was ethnicity involved in Irish-British relations, but also religion. Since the Irish were traditionally Catholic and the British traditionally Protestant, there remains a conflict that continues to this very day, specifically in Northern Ireland. So, I think that what Irish-Americans can take from this, if they are Catholic, is the need to understand that continuous conflict to the point when it is possible to find a solution to the Catholic-Protestant conflict wherever it exists. Depending on how the Irish were treated in the New World depended upon the religion of a British monarch. In the case of James II, who was a Catholic who began his reign in 1685, the Irish were given more dignity; but under Oliver Cromwell, whose Parliament of the 1640’s and 50’s was fundamentally Protestant, that was when the Irish started becoming treated as indentured servants. Since there were Catholic-based European powers that colonized the Caribbean, such as the French, Spanish, and Portuguese Empires, there were moments when the Irish on some of those islands would ally themselves with any of them to fight on their behalf in exchange for fair treatment (including even Protestant-based powers such as the Dutch and Danish Empires).

As such, this delves into the complexities of Irish life in the Americas. In the case of the Caribbean, it depended upon which island in which the Irish were located, whether it was in Barbados, where the Irish indentured servitude first took place, or in Montserrat, where the Irish developed a sense of power and autonomy. Since there were other European powers colonizing the Caribbean, there were a lot of non-British colonies that the Irish often flocked to.

A notable example was John Murphy Fitzgerald Burke who was an Irish-Tortugan soldier who allied himself with the Spanish and held off the British conquest of Hispaniola. He assimilated into the Spanish Empire as Don Juan Morfo Geraldino y Burco. If the relationship between the Irish and the British can be closely examined, then so can the relationships between the Irish and other European powers in order to provide a more holistic view of history of the Americas and may possibly inspire interest in colonial history from the French, Spanish, Danish, and Dutch perspectives.

Understanding these complexities also helps to remove any bias associated with this point in history, specifically the monopoly that conspiracy theorists, political conservatives, and white nationalists claim to have when discussing “white Irish slaves.” What can be extracted from this article is that there is no simplicity in pinpointing the Irish as a completely separate caste, especially since historians such as Krystal D’Costa, Liam Hogan, and Matthew C. Reilly have made it clear that there is a difference between Irish indentured servitude and black slavery. Such simplified points of history are why “identity-based politics are…increasingly inadequate for meaningful analysis of such ethnic performances and cultural constructions.

I also think that being more well-educated about Irish indentured servitude enables Irish-Americans to attempt to mediate any narrowly focused points of history that family members may have believed. This might inspire Irish-Americans to investigate more into this subject, which would be important when dispelling any political alignment with this point of history.

Of course, during the late 1700’s, the leadership of the United Irishmen, an organization that supported Irish independence and abolition, did compare the treatment of Irish servants to the treatment of African slaves, but it was not to trivialize slavery or condescendingly lecture the latter to “Get over it” or “Deal with it,” rather the purpose of their rhetoric was the exact opposite. It was an effort to empathize with African slaves when advancing abolition.

However much the complexities can separate the Irish and the Africans, what does bring them into agreement is the struggle for independence from imperial rule. Kevin Whelan, in his essay “Liberty, Freedom, and the Green Atlantic,” noted that since the United Irishmen leadership was being dissolved, members of this group would exile themselves to the United States of America after it declared independence and ally themselves with revolutionaries in Jamaica and Haiti. Hugh Boyd McGuckian, a former lawyer who attempted an 1803 Irish insurrection, fled to join the French army and allied with the slaves of Jamaica to attempt to wrest the island away from the British. English planters in the Caribbean already had significant mistrust of the Irish, since a 1692 slave uprising contributed to it, since there may have been Irish servants seen amongst the African slaves who revolted. Expanding the scholarship of Irish indentured servitude also enables Irish-Americans to have some degree of empathy to marginalized groups, specifically groups who were also forcibly taken to the New World.

To quote Daniel O’Connell, an Irish politician at this time period:

“My sympathy with distress is not confined within the narrow bounds of my own green island, it extends itself to every corner of the earth.”

This would enable more communication towards the modern descendants of these groups, which is a particular case to be made in comparing the Caribbean islands to Ireland since parallels were made that they were islands that dealt with British colonization. Indeed, Marcus Garvey looked upon the Irish independence movement as inspiration for his Pan-Africanism movement. There was even relief sent by people of African descent from Antigua, British Guiana, and Tobago to Ireland during the Potato Famine. Notable abolitionists Olaudah Equiano and Frederick Douglass made their visits to Ireland, and the ninth edition of Equiano’s biography was published in Dublin. So this cross-cultural exchange could be beneficial in any period of division by remembering a somewhat shared history.

The famous St. Lucian poet Derek Walcott also saw the comparisons, which was what helped him to create his work “Omeros” which featured Irish characters inspired by real-life Irish historical figures, such as Lord Plunkett and Maud Gonne. In this novel, Walcott explores the concept of belonging, particularly within the context of imperialism when it comes to St. Lucia and Ireland. This exploration of how Irish history can be connected to the history of marginalized people in general would provide opportunities to create fiction and inspire writers like Derek Walcott.

In the present time, there continues to be a sense of Irishness to be found amongst Montserratians when the black population not only has Irish surnames but also retains traces of Irish culture, such as the musical use of the bodhran and the celebration of St. Patrick’s Day as a national holiday. This is interesting because the United States also provides the same treatment to St. Patrick’s Day and I think this would help Irish-Americans understand how much Irish history plays a role in the Caribbean, specifically in Montserrat. In the case of learning more about Montserrat, I think that it might inspire more tourism to that island, which had been dubbed “The Emerald Isle of the Caribbean Sea.”

By taking Irish indentured servitude into consideration means examining different points of history, geography, culture, and religion. Irish-Americans who are excavating the Irish role in colonial history would not only develop a better understanding of it, but also develop better connection and finding common humanity with marginalized groups. It would be important because it helps to de-propagandize history by extending that understanding from a single label to multiple points of view. Learning about Irishness also means that it can extend to all people who are fascinated by it, whether in America, Montserrat, or anywhere else.