Middlebury College launches program to preserve Abenaki language
MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (WCAX) - The Abenaki language and culture were in the state of Vermont long before it got its name. Today, initiatives to preserve the language and the culture are underway in Middlebury.
Abenaki is an endangered Eastern Algonquian language spoken from Lake Champlain to Maine.
In 2020, Middlebury collaborated with language keeper Jesse Bowman Bruchac to launch the Abenaki Language School.
“The perfect time to learn the language is when you’re young, from your parents. The other great time is right now,” said Bruchac, who has dedicated decades to reclaiming, preserving and sharing the language.
Monday morning, more than 33 students prepared to kick off the first day of the two-week live-in language program. Students range from ages 18 to 76 and come from all over the country and Canada to be in the program.
“We have since lost so many speakers in my time from ‘92 until now. I’ve worked with first language speakers, and we have lost all of them,” said Bruchac.
He says Middlebury approached him with this idea, kicking off in the summer of 2020, where 24 students learned on Zoom. Since then, the program has grown and is beginning its third in-person summer.
“We have to prepare to take the pledge, to please honor the pledge and only speak in the language,” Bruchac said about the college’s language pledge, a campuswide, all-summer language program honored by participating students.
The pledge can be hard to keep for Abenaki learners during downtime. This pledge includes a restriction on media consumption, which Associate Director Kerry Royce Wood says can be a challenge.
“There is not a lot of media. We don’t have a lot of songs and on radio or Spotify or Netflix,” she said.
Royce Wood notes the emphasis of the program is activity-based learning. Her specialty is cultural activities, like basket weaving made out of black ash and sweet grass, where learners only speak in Abenaki and are learning cultural skills to maintain the pledge.
“We have, you know, Frisbees and balls and foursquare, or any types of outdoor games. We’ve been able to remove the English language from the resources that we’re using and able to recreate within language,” said Royce Wood.
She also says there are not a lot of books available either, and has worked with the Middlebury community since 2020 to publish a picture book illustrating how to make a corn husk doll.
Culture and language go hand-in-hand, and both educators say this is progress to continue to share and preserve the Abenaki language and culture.
“There are not many foreign speakers, but there are a whole lot more people speaking the language of Abenaki now because of this,” said Royce Wood.
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