Filmmaker Anne Makepeace took some time out to answer a few questions about her film We Still Live Here — Âs Nutayuneân, which premieres on Independent Lens beginning on November 17, 2011 (check local listings for air dates and times on your local PBS affiliate). In tandem with this film, Makepeace collaborated with Cultural Survival to create Our Mother Tongues, an interactive website highlighting efforts to revitalize native languages across North America.
What impact do you hope this film will have?
I hope that the film will serve as both a cautionary tale and an inspiring model for Native communities whose languages are endangered. Language revitalization programs are springing up on reservations and among urban Native American communities across the country, but reviving a language is a hugely difficult and slow process. The film is already being used in this way to wonderful effect. Also, as I travel around to film festivals, I am finding that the film has an equally important impact on non-native communities. Few people are aware that the native people of New England who ensured the survival of the Pilgrims even exist, much less that they are having a cultural revival. Seeing the film has made them see our early history in a brand new way.
What led you to make this film?
I was transfixed by the unprecedented and astonishing story of the Wampanoag Indians of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard bringing back their language. No one had spoken the language in a century, at least not in any fluent way. They were literally bringing it back from the dead, though they would say that the language was only sleeping. I found Jessie Little Doe — whose visions moved her to lead her fellow Wampanoags in reclaiming their language — enormously compelling, entertaining, moving, funny, and inspiring, and her daughter Mae, the first Native speaker of Wampanoag in a century, added another level of the story that made it impossible for me to resist.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making We Still Live Here?
Making a film about the resurrection of a language is an enormous challenge. How do you make learning a language, or language itself, visually exciting? It’s nearly impossible. Fortunately two things enabled me to do this: the talents of my fabulous animator Ruth Lingford, who made language come alive in a new way, and the existence of absolutely beautiful 17th and 18th century documents handwritten in Wampanoag by the ancestors of the people in my film. And of course the beautiful and compelling people who are bringing back the language.
What would you have liked to include in the film that didn’t make the cut?
I would have liked to have included a scene in which a Wampanoag extended family are looking over their genealogy, which extends back to 1612 when their ancestor was the sachem of Nantucket. The family includes members of every color, from black to white, but all identify as Wampanoag. To me this scene embodies the native values of acceptance, of inclusiveness, and of family, but since I couldn’t make it relate directly to language loss or revival, it didn’t quite work in the cut. I’m glad to say that I did use this scene as the centerpiece for the video extra, Are You an Indian?
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.
I am always moved by the scene in which Jessie discovers that her advisor at MIT will be the linguist she insulted a few years before at a meeting in Aquinnah. She knows she screwed up and is ready to apologize, but Ken Hale apologies first and becomes her beloved mentor. Then later in the film when Jessie is speaking Wampanoag at his memorial service after his untimely death, and says it’s because of him that she is speaking her ancestral tongue, I always tear up.