When the Covid-19 pandemic hit in 2020, Tracy Kelley, a member of the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe in Massachusetts, saw an unexpected opportunity for her website, Kun8seeh, which means “talk to me” in Wampanoag.
She had been encouraging her tribe to launch a website dedicated to the teaching, learning, and reclamation of their language and oral traditions. But while tribal members acknowledged the increasing role of technology, they felt protective of their language and didn’t want it exploited or used as a commodity. “The language circle was broken for some time in our community,” Kelley says.
Kun8seeh (run through the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, where Kelley is now interim director) was part of Kelley’s master’s project in linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Indigenous Languages Initiative, a special program for members of communities whose languages are threatened. When in-person classes became impossible, the community realized the need to offer online language instruction.
In September 2020, Kelley taught her first Kun8seeh class in Wampanoag via Zoom. “I had students from all over — New Mexico, Virginia, New York,” she says. “One student told me, ‘I’m so happy to have this experience.’ It was her first time having access to her birthright.” Now classes are open to any households that have a tribal member.