Linguist Jessie Little Doe Baird – 2010 MacArthur Fellow!

Jessie ‘Little Doe’ Baird, Co-Founder and Director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project and Mashpee Wampanoag tribal citizen, was just honoured with a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. Baird is an MIT-trained linguist, and has been active in advocating for endangered languages, especially her ancestral language, Wôpanâak, which had disappeared for five generations. For seventeen years, she has worked to revive Wôpanâak, helping to write a dictionary for the language, teaching language classes, preparing children’s books, and a host other efforts, including 17 books of different sorts.

Jessie 'Little Doe' Baird

Daniel wrote a lovely post on Shannon Lee Dawdy, another 2010 MacArthur Foundation Fellowship winner, and I felt like we needed to acknowledge the two other recipients who also work on Neuroanthropology-related areas (the other, Carol Padden, works on another topic we like here: sign language). The MacArthur Foundation website describes why Baird was chosen to receive the award:

Jessie Little Doe Baird is a linguist who is reviving a long-silent language and restoring to her Native American community a vital sense of its cultural heritage. Wampanoag (or Wôpanâak), the Algonquian language of her ancestors, was spoken by tens of thousands of people in southeastern New England when seventeenth-century Puritan missionaries learned the language, rendered it phonetically in the Roman alphabet, and used it to translate the King James Bible and other religious texts for the purposes of conversion and literacy promotion. As a result of the subsequent fragmentation of Wampanoag communities in a land dominated by English speakers, Wampanoag ceased to be spoken by the middle of the nineteenth century and was preserved only in written records. Determined to breathe life back into the language, Baird founded the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, an intertribal effort that aims to return fluency to the Wampanoag Nation.

When the English settlers first arrived in the area controlled by the Wôpanâak nation (present Rhode Island, Connecticut, and large parts of Massachusetts and Long Island), the Wampanoag learned to use Roman characters to write documents in their language – land titles, wills, and a host of other pieces. According to Baird, it’s the largest collection of Native American-written documents in existence, but it stopped growing in the second half of the nineteenth century, evidence that Wôpanâak was slipping away.

Cultural Survival, one partner to the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, describes how the project has grown:

The project now has two MIT-credentialed Wampanoag linguists, six conversationally fluent teachers, a dozen advanced students, and has instructed over 150 community members, including participants at annual 3-day family immersion camps, serving tribal citizens from the Wampanoag communities of Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet and Herring Pond.

In addition, here’s the MacArthur Foundation video clip that features Jessie ‘Little Doe’ Baird talking about her work.
MacArthur Foundation with Jessie \'Little Doe\' Baird

Inspired to revive

The story of Wôpanâak has all sorts of interesting wrinkles, but one is the role of religious inspiration in both the preservation of the language and its revival. Baird was only able to make progress on recuperating the language because of the original documents written in Wôpanâak. That collection existed indirectly because of the work of John Eliot, a minister in the Church of England, who was motivated to learn Native American language and promote Native American writing by his religious convictions.

Eliot was an English clergyman who likely realized that his Puritan leanings made his future prospects in England bleak. So Eliot emigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 and quickly became the first permanent minister of Roxbury, Massachusetts. At the time, he was surrounded, not merely by the earliest colonists, but also by thriving communities of Native Americans, and he took to evangelizing among the local tribes, even attempting to learn their languages. Many Native Americans converted to Christianity but did not wholly assimilate culturally, leading to the rise of an early mixed community in the Colony.

Two editions of the Eliot Indian Bible were the first Bibles published in America. 1663 edition is shown here.

One of the tools for converting the Native Americans of New England would be a Bible in their own language, so Eliot set to work translating the Bible, enlisting help from Native Americans who he taught to write phonetically during their ten-year effort. As Jeffrey Mifflin describes in the Technology Review, one of Eliot’s assistants was ‘John Sassamon, an orphan raised in Dorchester by an English family who probably converted him to Christianity.’ Eliot wrote about the effort: ‘When I taught our Indians first to lay out a word into syllables, and then according to the sound of every syllable to make it up with the right letters … They quickly apprehended … this Epitomie of the art of spelling, and could soon learn to read.’ (quoted from Mifflin’s article) A professional printer was dispatched to the colony, and one thousand copies of what is now called the ‘Eliot Indian Bible’ soon followed, one of the most important printing projects in the new colonies prior to the Revolutionary War. Eliot wanted to change the Native Americans, and he was aided by epidemics which ripped through the New England communities, disrupting social and economic life and demoralizing the embattled survivors.

As Mifflin describes, all did not go well with the Eliot Bible project. John Sassamon attempted to convert the Wampanoag sachem (a kind of paramount chief) Metacomet, called ‘King Philip,’ by the English, and wound up floating in a frozen pond for his efforts. Three Wampanoags were tried and executed for the crime, eventually prompting the start of ‘King Philip’s War’ in 1675. When the colonists’ militias crushed the uprising, they also consigned the first edition of the Eliot Bible to the fires; only 37 are known to still exist. Eliot, undeterred, arranged for a second printing.

Although the start was rocky, this attempt at missionization drove the training of the first scribes in the Wôpanâak language, and the group would continue to produce texts for close to two centuries. (For a longer version of this story, I have to recommend Mifflin’s excellent article, ‘Saving a Language: A rare book in MIT’s archives helps linguists revive a long-unused Native American language,’ published in 2008.)

Ironically, 150 years after the written word dried up, a spiritual message would help bring about the language’s revival. Baird told a writer from the Boston Globe: “We have a prophecy about a time when language would go away from the people and a time when language would come back home to the people.’’ Baird began her work on reclaiming Wôpanâak after she had a series of dreams.

The ride began in 1993, when Baird had a series of dreams in which people spoke to her in a tongue she could not understand. At the time, she was working in human services on Cape Cod. But the dreams, which she grew convinced were of her ancestors speaking Wampanoag, pulled her toward a new interest in language. That’s when she founded the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project. (from the Boston Globe)

The decision to go to graduate school and complete a masters degree in linguistics was motivated by the desire to resurrect her nation’s language:

“So then the question becomes, where do you find an Algonquian linguist that’s going to stay in your community for many, many years?’’ said Baird, who is the project’s program director. “You have to make your own.’’ (from the Boston Globe)

Baird talks on the YouTube video about her desire to use the support of the MacArthur Foundation to write histories of her people from old settlers documents to help restore the group’s sense of history, but I’ve also seen suggestions in the various articles that she might spend the money on remote-learning software, an immersion language school, an illustrator for Wôpanâak children’s books, or equipment for a language teaching centre for the group’s children.

‘Your one job as an Indian person,’ she said, ‘is to be able to lay on your deathbed and say, “I left something for my community that wasn’t here when I came, and I left my community in a better place than I found it.”‘ (from the Boston Globe)

Final note on my own axe grinding

Jessie ‘Little Doe’ Baird is especially interesting to me because I’ve been involved in a little online dustup with Razib Khan, weblog writer for Gene Expression (Discover and independent) over the issue of indigenous languages. (He’s still at it, but I’m resisting the reflex to respond to his last whiny post and not even linking through to it.) At some point, I’m going to have to write a longer post on this issue as Khan’s been using his misconstrued versions my views on Indigenous languages preservation as a strawman for his own purposes, but for the moment, I just want to focus on congratulating Jessie ‘Little Doe’ Baird.

While I was pulling together this post though, I came across a really powerful piece on the Cultural Survival website discussing Why you should care about language extinction. I’m going to leave on this note, but I’ll return to the subject when I finish writing a book chapter that’s overdue:

Native American languages are not dying a natural death. They are not dying because no one wants to speak them. They are dying because they have been murdered. For more than 50 years, ending only in the 1950s, the United States government operated a program of boarding schools expressly designed to destroy Native Americans’ language and culture, to turn Native children into white children. By removing Native children from their families and elders, these schools aimed to break the cycle of language transmission. If children dared to speak their language at school, they were severely punished, often beaten or worse. When these children grew up, they chose not to speak their language to their own children for fear that they would suffer the same fate, and the language began to die.

More links

Boston Globe, ‘“Genius grant” a boost to linguist as she revives a native language,’ by Laura Collins-Hughes.

Ben Zimmer posts an announcement, ‘MacArthur Fellowships for two linguists’ on Language Log. I’m going to try to do a post on Carol Padden as well, as soon as I finish this overdue book chapter I’m madly writing.

A couple of weblog posts on Languagehat: Wampanoag (2005) and Wampanoag Revival (2008). Both posts have long and interesting discussions about language revival.

For a list of all the 2010 MacArthur Foundation Fellows.

Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project

Cultural Survival’s webpage on endangered language preservation: Endangered Languages: Revitalizing Native American Languages.

Another great article by Jeffrey Mifflin on language restoration is: ‘Language Reclamation 101: How MIT linguists are working to revive Wôpanâak.’ The article explores the challenges faced by MIT linguistics professor, Norvin Richards, as he works on the project.

Download a 2009 podcast hosted by J. Kehaulani Kauanui, where she talks with Jessie Little Doe Baird from the series Indigenous Politics: Indigenous Language Revitalization: The Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project.

An old but interesting article (1998) from The New York Times on Native American endangered languages: ‘Indians Striving to Save Their Languages,’ by James Brooke.


Photo of Jessie ‘Little Doe’ Baird from the MacArthur Foundation website.
Photo licensed under a Creative Commons license. Courtesy the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Bible photo from Technology Review (MIT): ‘Saving a Language: A rare book in MIT’s archives helps linguists revive a long-unused Native American language,’ by Jeffrey Mifflin.
Credit: Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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