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MIT Better World

By Orna Feldman

Fermino, a 37-year-old Mashpee Indian living on Cape Cod, saw in her recurring dream a circle of faces, clearly Mashpee Indian in character, singing. Two words, which she didn’t understand, stuck with her. Wondering if the words were Wampanoag, the language of her ancestors, she began an exploration that led her to a number of linguistic firsts, including launching the Wampanoag Dictionary Project, formulating a Wampanoag grammar, developing a Wampanoag language curriculum, teaching the language to tribal members, and being one of a handful of people in the past 150 years able to speak the native tongue.

Then a social worker and mother of five, Fermino searched for months through hundreds of documents from the 1600s written in Wampanoag — letters, deeds, and the St. James Bible, distinguished by being the first complete bible printed in the Western hemisphere.

Though she perused thousands of words, she was unable to locate the two in her dream. But proceeding as if by a calling, she conducted a language survey among the Mashpee, a Cape Cod tribe numbering about 1,200, and the Aquinnah, another Wampanoag tribe, to find out if her people were interested in reviving the language. “The task I was given by my ancestors was to see if the people wanted this language reclamation project,” she says. “Language is part of us and part of our genetic structure. Not to acknowledge a part of you is breaking a spiritual law.”


The community’s interest in reviving Wampanoag was high. Tribal members began to explore primary documents, but quickly realized they needed the guidance of a linguist.

Kenneth Hale, an MIT professor of linguistics and philosophy who has been working on endangered languages for nearly 50 years, was invited to a tribal meeting involving the Mashpee and the Aquinnah. “One of the ground rules of tribal meetings is that no outsider can be present, unless everyone agrees,” says Fermino, adding that someone had forgotten to inform the Mashpee of Hale’s invitation. “Here was this white guy, with his wife sitting in the corner knitting. I was angry. I had enough knowledge to be sassy and dangerous whenever he used a non-Wampanoag sound. I attacked him. I was terrible.”

Despite that inauspicious beginning, Fermino and Hale were to meet again. Serendipitously, an application to a one-year fellowship with MIT’s Community Fellows Program arrived at the Mashpee Tribal Council. Fermino applied and was accepted. Her first lesson at MIT, she says, “was eating crow” – meeting with her tutor, Kenneth Hale. “When I walked into his office, he said, ‘Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you. I want to apologize for my smug behavior (at the tribal meeting). He knew I would have to apologize (and was making it easy for me),” says Fermino, adding that Hale “is one of the most incredible people I have ever met. How many MIT professors are fiddle players, speak dozens of languages and work to ensure that indigenous people work on behalf of their own people?”


After completing her fellowship, Fermino continued at MIT with graduate studies in linguistics; she received her MA in 2000. Professor Hale is thrilled, not only because “Jessie is the right person to do this and has done extremely well,” but because “the loss of a language is like the loss of the Louvre. It represents an entire culture. Each language has something beautiful to bring to the story of human language.”

Since she graduated, Fermino has devoted herself primarily to teaching members of her tribe. Now in her third year of classes, both in Mashpee and on Martha’s Vineyard, Fermino has taught about 75 people, ages 14 to 78. “I have to remember that everyone knows nothing, and to keep in mind different learning styles, learning disabilities, literacy issues in English — some people don’t know a noun from a verb — and to make sure that everyone is always respected in the process.”

The language reclamation process has been profoundly rewarding for her. “Learning our language gives us a basis for why we view the world the way we do,” she explains, citing a Mashpee funeral custom. “Placing a pine branch” — a Mashpee symbol of life — “in a grave says there is no end to life. When people die, they are returned to the collective energy we all come from,” she says, adding that she feels “honored to be reading documents of my ancestors, to be able to pray in my own language, and to be able to do something as silly as putting Wampanoag on my answering machine — it sure cuts down on the sales calls.” Appreciating that “Wampanoag is something that no one can take from us,” Fermino says the enterprise has helped her “better understand where I came from and my place in the circle,” adding that “the best revenge is to be able to use the documents that attempted to separate us from who we were to further ground us in who we were. It tickles the heck out of me.”