Our collections are used for a variety of purposes, most commonly by genealogists tracking down ancestors through church records, or historians researching a everything from religious traditions to civil rights to architecture. At last weekend's ABCFM bicentennial conference, we learned of a group of scholars at the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project who are using a copy of one of the oldest items in our collection* -- commonly called the Eliot Bible -- as part of their quest to reconstruct and revitalize the language of their ancestors in the Wampanoag nation.
John Eliot was one of the early Puritan colonists in New England, and a strong believer that the native peoples should be converted to Christianity for their own salvation. To that end, he worked with the Wampanoag to become fluent in their spoken language, devise a system of writing it in the Latin alphabet, and translate the entire Bible into their native tongue. In the process, he also compiled a grammar book to help other missionaries learn the language, teach the Wampanoag the new writing system, and help both groups communicate with each other.
Not only is the Eliot Bible the earliest Bible printed in what is now the United States, but it is also one of the largest sources of Wampanoag (or, more correctly, Wôpanâak) vocabulary. Along with records of land transactions, wills, and personal correspondence, it has helped project founder/director Jessie Little Doe Baird and her partners create a dictionary of approximately 10,000 words. They have developed an immersive curriculum for Wampanoag children, weekend immersion camp experiences, and a language acquisition course for adults of the Wampanoag tribes.
This is one of the great things about libraries and archives, in my opinion -- the preservation of knowledge. A 300-year-old book is helping 21st century scholars to resurrect a 10,000-year-old language that hasn't been spoken as a primary language in over 100 years.
You can learn more about these projects in this article from the Boston Globe and at the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project website. There is an extensive history of the Wampanoag peoples and their relationship to the English colonists at the First Nations Histories site.
* There are only 18 known copies in existence of the 1000 printed for the first edition of the Eliot Bible in 1663. The copy in our collection is from the second edition printed in 1685.