When Doug Pocknett Jr. showed up for his first day of kindergarten, classmates teased the Mashpee Wampanoag boy for his distinctive hair, worn in the long, braided style of his tribe.
“The students and teachers really didn’t embrace Doug and his culture,” said his mother, Allyson Pocknett.
But 12 years later, many of those same students stood in unison and gave Pocknett a heartfelt ovation after he read a traditional blessing to kick off Mashpee High School’s graduation on Saturday.
“It’s an honor for them to ask Doug to say a prayer in his own language,” Allyson Pocknett said. “And it’s fulfilling to see the shift in attitude. It’s satisfying.”
Pocknett, dressed in full tribal regalia, read a Wampanoag travel blessing in Wopânâak, a language that nearly went extinct in the mid-1800s before being painstakingly revived from written records starting in the 1990s.
Though Pocknett is one of nine Wampanoag graduates in Mashpee this year, he is the first student at the school to fulfill his language requirement by studying Wopânâak.
He learned the long-lost tongue from Jessie Little Doe Baird, who started the Wopânâak Language Reclamation Project in 1993 and has since compiled a working dictionary of the language using Colonial-era transliterated Bibles and other early written sources.
The blessing implores, “Let us travel to a place of knowledge. Let us travel to a place of respect that we do not hurt another, but are respected by those around us.”
For Pocknett, the applause of his peers and their families was the perfect capstone on his high school career.
“Spiritually, it meant a whole lot,” he said. “I’m going to another stage of life. I chose the travel blessing because we’re traveling our separate ways and we may not see each other.”
Pocknett admits it was sometimes difficult to be one of just a handful of Wampanoag students.
“It’s like wearing a moccasin and a sneaker sometimes,” he said. “But at the same time, it gives me strength and sets me apart.”
Baird, Pocknett’s teacher and the linguist primarily responsible for reviving the dormant language, couldn’t be prouder of her student.
“When he started, he struggled with it a lot,” Baird said. “But he really stuck with it. . . . He was just not going to be stopped or deterred.”
For Baird, Pocknett’s blessing is in part a manifestation of her years of work.
“To go from having no speakers for 150 years to having a young person stand up and give a prayer in honor of all the students in our language — it’s very emotional.”
Pocknett spends much of his free time volunteering. “I like to give back to the town, the tribe, and the people,” he said. Plus, he joked: “This is a small town; there’s not a lot to do here.”
Starting in the fall, Pocknett will study communications and film at Cape Cod Community College.
He also hopes to teach Wopânâak to others, helping preserve the language and the culture it embodies for future generations.
“He’s a young man of tremendous character,” said Mashpee High School principal Jane Day, who estimates about 6 percent of the district’s students are Wampanoag. “He’s soft-spoken, but he has a real quiet strength.”
Mashpee Wampanoag Councilwoman Trish Keliinui, who attended the graduation, said the audience’s enthusiastic reaction instilled her with a deep feeling of pride.
“It gave me chills,” she said. “To immediately see his classmates stand, and then seeing the entire gymnasium stand and applaud, was absolutely breathtaking.”
Keliinui lamented that the Mashpee Wampanoag are perhaps most known for their proposal to build a casino in Taunton.
“We are so much more than that,” she said. “It’s wonderful to see the outer community, like our neighbors at the graduation here, feeling and appreciating our culture. That’s very powerful.”
Baird noted that Mashpee High School’s embrace of Wampanoag culture stands in stark contrast to a recent incident in Alabama, where news reports said that a Native American high school senior’s diploma was being withheld pending payment of a $1,000 fine after she wore an eagle feather in her cap during a graduation ceremony.
“I’m really proud of the Mashpee school system,” she said. “Not only are children allowed to wear ceremonial clothing and speak their language, they are celebrated — not just allowed or tolerated. That’s a big difference, and it gives me a lot of hope for relationship between the tribe and the school system.”