A Dead Indian Language Is Brought Back to Life (Virginia)





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.


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