The Language Of A People

Independent Lens documentary We Still Live Here airs November 17 on KCPT.

Anne Makepeace on the set of We Still Live Here
Anne Makepeace works on the production of We Still Live Here

A story of language reclamation may not seem that astounding, but filmmaker Anne Makepeace hopes that the film-loving community and those who are devoted to public television will find We Still Live Here (Âs Nutayuneân) to be a mesmerizing story.

The story begins in 1994 when Jessie Little Doe Baird, an intrepid, thirty-something Wampanoag social worker, began dreaming. Her dreams centered on familiar-looking people from another time addressing her in a language she couldn’t understand. Baird realized they were speaking Wampanoag, a language no one had used for more than a century. These events sent her and members of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag communities on an odyssey that would uncover hundreds of documents written in their language, lead Baird to a Masters in Linguistics at MIT, and result in something that had never been done before – bringing a language alive again in an American Indian community after many generations with no Native speakers.

“I was working on another project when I met the Wampanoag. For me, my films are about relationships and trust,” she says. So Makepeace began bonding with Baird and another tribal elder, Linda Coombs. After a year, Makepeace knew she wanted to tell the story of the revival of the Wampanoag language. “The story just knocked me over. When I finished with the other project, I knew I wanted to make a film about resurrection. It’s a positive story about Native Americans. It’s about native peoples taking their identities, reaching back to their ancestors’ voices so they can take pride in their heritage.” Makepeace says the film was not easy to make because Baird worried about being the dominant character in the film, but she assured the linguist that the story started with her, but ended in a story of a re-emerging community.”

Anne Makepeace
Anne Makepeace, attends the Sundance Film Festival.

Makepeace first introduced the idea of a film in a meeting with Baird and Coombs where she revealed to them that her descendants perpetrated violent acts against the Wampanoag. “I told them I was drawn to the story and moved in ways I couldn’t understand. I was worried that my family history would scuttle the project, but then Jessie just said simply, ‘You’re closing the circle.” About a month later, Makepeace went in front of the language reclamation project committee and pleaded her case to tell the story. “They had to reach consensus and it was like being back in the 17th century as all these committed Wampanoag language learners gave eloquent gave speeches about trust and community. Luckily the decision to participate in the documentary was unanimous.

“I am a filmmaker. I write, I direct, I produce … it is for the purpose of telling stories that move people and ideally make a difference,” Makepeace says. “It is the story that draws me. I have to have a real passion to do this. There is a lot of work over many years with the shooting and editing, not to mention constant fundraising. It is stressful as you grind away at grant proposals and fundraising …I have to give my heart and soul to a project for four years.”

Makepeace started filming We Still Live Here (Âs Nutayuneân) in September 2007 and finished the film in December 2010. The film premiered in late January at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. After that world premiere, Makepeace has taken her film to many film festivals to much fanfare. She has received the “Moving Mountains Prize” at Telluride’s

Scene from 'We Still Live Here'
A Wampanoag mother and son are getting ready for a powwow.

Mountain Film Fest and she took “Full Frame Inspiration Award” at the Full Frame Festival in Durham, N.C. and recently, the Best Documentary prize at the Arlington International Film Festival.

Initially, Makepeace was hesitant unsure whether her film captured the story she was trying to tell in a way that would affect audiences as deeply as she herself had been affected. She had shown the film to a few friends and made corrections based on their concerns and questions. “You show the film about 10 times to small groups such as fellow filmmakers and friends. Then you take it out into the world.”

About a year into filming, Baird told Makepeace she had enough footage of her. Makepeace says the project languished for about six months and then she got it back on track. “I didn’t know how audiences would react to it, but the responses have been fantastic. After Santa Barbara, viewers reacted the way I wanted them to respond to the film. Slowly I became more sure of the power of the film and now I am proud of it and pleased that it is going beyond my expectations in terms of the social impact it is having.”

A good story seduces Makepeace and then she pursues the means to tell the story. “I look for the emotional power and the humor. I have to look at what will capture viewers. I am not interested in providing information or exposition. It is important to me to raise awareness and hopefully »» bring an audience into a world they don’t know,” she says. “If people experience that world and are drawn in and emotionally moved, then they are most likely entertained as well. The education part follows. In my previous life, I was an 8th grade English teacher. I would teach with stories and the students would become engrossed and that is what left them changed.”

Earl Mills, Jr., one of the elders of the Wampanoag, shares his insight in learning the native language again.

Public television and the documentary series Independent Lens are important to Makepeace. She says the outreach offered by Independent Lens and the Independent Television Service is hugely extensive, offering free public screening in 100 cities across the country. At 11 a.m. Nov. 12, there will be a Community Cinema Screening at the Tivoli Theatre. ITVS is offering free monthly screenings of several of their films to invoke dialogue and awareness. Makepeace says screenings in hundreds of cities takes the story and propels it even more into conversations.

“When I am making the film, I was not thinking about how can this film get out there and have a massive impact, but when it’s almost done I look for ways to take it out into the world. With the Community Cinema, there are discussions and panels. Personally, I am especially »» excited about the film playing in or near Native American communities where both non-native people and native peoples can come together to watch the film,” she says. “Lots of language revitalization projects are underway. Hopefully the film will inspire those working hard to reclaim their language and will also inspire non-native audiences to think about the native peoples in their midst. We celebrate Thanksgiving every year, but how many Americans know that the Indians who enabled the Pilgrims to survive were Wampanoags, and their descendents still live on their homelands and are experiencing cultural revival? We should appreciate the diverse cultures that make up the United States. It should mean a lot right before Thanksgiving that there is this incredibly vibrant community descended from the first peoples of Massachusetts.”

Makepeace says We Still Live Here (Âs Nutayuneân) is a hopeful story that proves that a history of devastation can’t hold those determined individuals down. The film clearly defines land loss to white settlers, disease and the indentured servitude of children. In the early 1700s, at least 75 percent of the native children were living in white homes. “When the children returned to their tribes, they only spoke English. That is a very sad and moving moment for me,” she says.

Makepeace has continued working on native languages. She is creating a companion website, OurMotherTongues.org, to We Still Live Here (Âs Nutayuneân) to launch in early November, just before the Nov. 17 Public Television broadcast. She is working on sharing 12 tribal languages from Alaska, North Carolina, Oklahoma and more.

“These 12 communities have submitted footage and the website will not only be a companion to the film, but a continuation. I am completely living in the world of this story.”

Photos courtesy of Anne Makepeace

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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