Linguist breathes life into ancestral language
By Samantha Balaban/Correspondent
GateHouse News Service, Lexington
“Sâpaheekanuhtyâtôh” — translated as “Let’s Make Soup”— is a children’s story that Jessie “Little Doe” Baird wrote in Wampanoag, the Algonquian language of her ancestors.
Wampanoag, or Wôpanâak, was spoken by tens of thousands of people in southeastern New England until the middle of the 19th century. After the fragmentation of Wampanoag communities in a land dominated by English speakers, the language ceased to be spoken and was preserved only in written records.
A linguist and 2010 MacArthur Fellow, Baird is reviving the long-silent language of her Native American community through children’s stories, educational programs and an 11,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary.
On Thursday, Feb. 17, Baird spoke at the Lexington Depot in a talk presented by Lexington Community Education.
Baird, who introduced herself in fluent Wampanoag, is a “Mashpee Wompanoag woman.” Pointing outside the Depot at the full moon, she concluded her introduction by saying: “This is a powerful night for us ... don’t mess with me tonight.”
She soon switched back to Wampanoag to read “Sâpaheekanuhtyâtôh” to the audience. Speaking in a language that has been dormant for more than 150 years, Baird glided over long and complicated words with ease, clearly pronouncing both letters and what appears to be the number 8.
“In English, all these words are separate and string together like a choo choo train to make sentences. In Wampanoag, it’s all packed together,” said Baird. As for the 8, it’s pronounced “ooh”.
Although she is now fluent, Baird wasn’t familiar with Wampanoag until it came to her in a dream. According to Baird, there was a time when she kept having the same dream over and over.
“People were talking to me and they looked familiar,” she said. “I knew these people but I didn’t personally know them. I had no idea what they were saying.”
One night, “I was in a place where everything had been burned ... purposefully burned,” she said. There was a yellow house, and inside, circles of Indian people making circles, chanting.
“I’m going around this massive room listening,” said Baird. She tried to leave but was blocked. “Someone asked me: ‘What does this mean?’” But it wasn’t in English. “I don’t know,” Baird replied.
Sometime after her dream, Baird was driving down Cape Cod, a drive that she had done thousands of times, when she saw a sign that said “Sippewissett.”
“A light went on,” said Baird. “I wonder if this is my language? I wonder what my language sounded like?”
From that point on, Baird was on a journey.
In 1995, Baird undertook graduate training in linguistics and language pedagogy at MIT where she worked with the late Kenneth Hale, a scholar of indigenous languages and a Lexington resident. Baird received her master’s degree in linguistics from MIT in 2000.
Determined to teach others and revive the language, Baird founded the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project and developed accessible teaching materials, including a dictionary for adults and children to use.
Today Baird leads a range of educational programs and afterschool classes for youth, beginning and advanced language courses for adults, and summer immersion camps for all ages in the hopes of establishing a broad base of Wampanoag speakers.
The goal, she said, is to produce documents that the average person can use to keep the language “breathing.”
“It’s a living thing that people have a right to,” said Baird.
In her talk, Baird spoke of the Wampanoag language prophecy. According to the prophecy, there is “a time when our language goes away from us and a time when it comes back. The same children who had a hand in breaking the circle have a hand in bringing it back together.”
Thanks to Baird, it is the time for Wampanoag to come back.
Read more: Linguist breathes life into ancestral language - Lexington, MA - Lexington Minuteman