The Native Tongue

language family

Native tribes and colonizers began a dialogue without a word in common. Buck Woodard describes the early exchanges.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. America’s story begins well before the first attempts at colonization – native tribes occupied the acres that the English counted as wilderness. Buck Woodard is here to tell us more.

Who was here? Here being the Chesapeake Bay area.

Buck Woodard: Right. Well you know, that changed. We’re talking about long periods of time in the past, but right before prolonged contact, let’s just say from 1500 to 1600 as a period where European ships are coming into these waters on a more regular basis. You have Spanish, French, Dutch, English – all making stops in the Chesapeake during that time.

So we have some indication of who was here during that era by some of the ship logs as well as some of the reports. And then some of the early colonization attempts in the 1560s and the 1570s and the 1580s. When those colonization attempts took place, the colonizers usually kept journals and wrote about their experiences, and they named some of the people at different locations, gave towns names, wrote a little bit about their language and tried to make some dictionaries.

Today we can go back to those documents and look at them and analyze them and compare them to other groups that we know were nearby. And talk about that kind of historical period that was beginning to develop in terms of written documentation.

We call the folks on the coast Algonquin speakers. It’s a language family that’s very large, it stretches from the Carolina sound all the way north to the maritime provinces of Nova Scotia, across the entire continent all the way to the western side of the Rockies and down into that range as well.

So it’s a huge language family, Algonquin. We talk about Algonquins, we’re speaking about a language family, not about a specific tribe. There is an Algonquin tribe, but that’s …

Lloyd: To further confuse you.

Buck: To further confuse the thing. And so we have Algonquin, and Algonquian, sometimes it’s referred to as Algonkin, or Algonkian with a “k” as a “qu.” The Algonquian tribe itself, the one that the entire language family is named for, lives just north of the St. Lawrence River area.

But today we use that term broadly to talk about groups of people who spoke similar languages. They weren’t politically organized as one contiguous unit, say from Carolina sounds all the way to the Rocky Mountains, many different small bands, tribes, chiefdoms. Different levels of organization.

But at the time of prolonged contact, say 1500- 1600, the Tidewater and Carolina Sounds region was occupied by related Algonquin speakers. But politically, they were allied in some ways, and in some cases they were enemies of each other. So while they spoke the same language, they weren’t all a part of the same team.

Just to their west a little bit, another group of native peoples we refer to as Iroquoian speakers lived in what was the edge of the coastal plain out to the Piedmont. In what is today Virginia, those two groups, we talked about them as being the Nottoway and the Meheren and to their south a much larger group of Iroquoian speakers were called the Tuscarora. They occupied the space roughly today that would be from I-95 towards the edge of the coastal plains. So they take up the beginning of the middle section of the Virginia/Carolina area. They’re fairly surrounded by Algonquins to their east.

To their west is another language family of peoples that were Siouxian speakers. The Siouxian speakers occupied the majority of the Piedmont of both Carolinas, South and North, as well as Virginia.

So as we talk about Algonquians, Iroquoians and Siouxan speakers, it’s important to see that we’re talking about languages. Because there, of course, are peoples up in New York and Canada that we call the Iroquoi, for which the Iroquioan language is named, they speak similar dialects, but they’re not the same peoples.

We also have a group that we sometimes call the Sioux, which live all the way out in the Northern plains. But those are not the Siouxans that are living in the Virginia Carolinas, they’re part of the larger language family.

Lloyd: So you identify people largely by what language group they speak, although they’re not the same people.

Buck: Well that’s the beginning of communication. What language do they speak? When some of these early encounters took place in Virginia, you know, the colonies had military men, and their job was to find out: what language did they speak, who were their leaders, how many men do they have, what are their resources, where are they settled? That’s all that strategic intel that we need to have to be able to set up shop wherever we’re going to be.

Lloyd: Now the American Indians of that period did not have written language.

Buck: Correct.

Lloyd: So once you learn to speak the tongue, and I know that some of the early settlers assigned boys or young men to the tribes to learn their languages. Wasn’t because they necessarily wanted to speak it, it’s because if they didn’t speak it, there was no way to communicate. No writing, so.

Buck: There wasn’t writing. It’s pretty amazing, the story of these people who exchange back and forth, these young boys, for instance. You know, few people know that in the 1560s, the Spanish were in the Carolina region, and they picked up … I mean here’s an amazing story about just one of these cross-cultural exchanges. They pick up this young man, or a boy from the Carolina sounds region, his name’s Paquiquineo, they pick him up in the Carolina sound, and they take him away for 10 years.

Whether it was an agreed “I’ll go with you back to wherever you came from,” or whether they kidnapped him, they picked him up. Over the course of 10 years, he goes to Spain, he goes to Mexico, he goes to Hispañola. So he travels all the Spanish territories at that point in time of both the homeland in Europe as well as the colonies. He makes his way through the Caribbean to Mexico, back up to Florida. He convinces the Spanish to come back to the Chesapeake to try to plan a colony here in the 1570s. This is before Jamestown, before what’s known as the Lost Colony. There’s a Spanish attempt right around Williamsburg to set up a colony here with Jesuits. He brings them along. So he speaks the language, when he comes back.

Lloyd: Pretty persuasively.

Buck: One would say that if he convinces these guys to travel thousands and thousands and thousands of miles across the Atlantic and to set up a mission in the middle of a land that really is the edge of the universe. They expect his abilities and Christianity and his conversion, because he’s baptized. He’s baptized as Don Luis. So he loses Paquiquineo, and becomes known as Don Luis. So Don Luis is the hope of these Jesuits when they arrive to converse with his brothers and sisters in the native community and provide them food, help them erect buildings, and really start off a mission in Virginia. They call Virginia “ajacan.” That’s what the Spanish gave the name to this area, “ajacan.”

They got that not because that’s a Spanish word, but they asked probably Don Luis or his compatriots or his brothers and sisters, his kin groups, “What do you call this place?” And they said, “This is ajacan.” Ajacan translated, for the Spanish, when they took that word in, they wrote it down as “this place.” Interestingly, when the English arrived, let’s say 30 years later, they’re beginning some colonization attempts in this area. They asked one of the local people, Algonquin speaker, “What do you call this structure over here,” that’s a building that he’s pointing to or a house or some kind of dwelling. And they say, “oh, that’s ajacan.” He gives an indication that the house is called “ajacan.” So the English write down the word for house as “ajacan.” Both the same word.

We think, in terms of its translation in Algonquin, it means “my home.” That’s my home, this is my home. So we have some early issues about translation that come up with those exchanges. Misunderstanding, subtleties and differences between what people mean. When we look at these records from the past, we have to kind of dive beneath the text and think about the situation.

Lloyd: That would make a certain amount of sense. If you translate it as “my place,” that could mean easily “my house, “ or “the place where my house is standing,”

Buck: Or, “the territory which I control.” Or, “the area where my family occupies.” The exchange of these boys back and forth, there’s those people who are kidnapped, those who are willingly exchanged, and those who have political reasons to exchange peoples back and forth. It goes both English to Native, and Indian back over to the English. It’s pretty clear from the early Jamestown records that there’s a lot of inter-cultural activity going on. The archaeology of James Fort also shows that there’s a lot more native people living inside that fort during the first few years of its founding than has previously been talked about, both in the historical literature and the archaeology discussions of the present looking back into the past.

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