The Wampanoag language was not dead.
To call it dead would be an insult to the ancestors who left it for future generations, as a way to communicate – and a way to teach.
But it was “unspoken” until linguist Jessie “Little Doe” Baird brought it back. Her project’s Wampanoag dictionary holds more than 11,000 entries. And she’s not done; she may never be done.
Words on paper are not a language. A language lives through the people who speak it. So Baird founded the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project. She teaches community classes and family camps. Kids in grade school and high school have the opportunity to learn the language.
The Wampanoags have lived for 12,000 years in Massachusetts and parts of Rhode Island. When the Pilgrims met the first Indigenous people? Those were the Wampanoags.
The English settlers brought disease that killed thousands – an estimated two-thirds of the Wampanoag Nation died – as well as war and rules that fragmented the tribes. There once were 69 tribes in the nation; now there are three. Baird is a citizen of the Mashpee tribe. Her ancestors left a key to their language. They translated the King James Bible into Wampanoag. They left hundreds of documents in their written alphabet.
Baird describes a vision she had where her ancestors helped her see it was time to bring the language home. She began her research, which led her to a graduate degree at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she learned from and worked with other linguists. In 2010, she was named a MacArthur Foundation Fellow, earning a “genius grant” to further her work.
It’s incredibly difficult to reclaim a language, even more so when there are no speakers alive, and even more so when you’re driving 90 minutes a day, each way, to attend graduate school, with four small children at home.
“I might’ve been afraid to do the work had I known that,” Baird says with a laugh now. “But I didn’t, and so here we are.”
Question: You say your language teaches. Can you share a lesson?
Jessie “Little Doe” Baird: In English, you can just say, “She’s a mother.” But in Wampanoag, you can’t say that. You can say, “She’s my mother, she’s your mother, she’s our mother, she’s his or her mother.” But you can’t just say “a mother.” And that’s the same with all of the kinship terms. Everybody in that circle is defined by the people around them. And that’s reflected in the words. There are all sorts of lessons in the language that are not in English because English doesn’t have the same (worldview). Our families, by recording all of these documents in our language, they left all of the lessons for us.
What was the historical role of women in your community?
It’s egalitarian where leadership is concerned, but where lineage is concerned we’re matrilineal. This means that we reckon our families from our mother’s descent.
One of the women in my line, her name was Weetumuw and that means “she is sweet.” She was really famous for her beauty and for her wampum. Wampum is made from quahog shell, and it was used for trade and for belts and all sorts of things. During the 1670s, we were at war with the colonists. They were pressing Wampanoag people to not move around and they were walling off the property and making rules about where Wampanoag people could or could not live. They really wanted more and more territory. During a battle – what some people call King Phillip’s War – she was leading her men across the Taunton River and she was captured.
The English men wanted to make an example of her because English women at the time were (noticing) Wampanoag women were in positions of leadership. When they captured Weetumuw they mutilated her body. They stripped away her wampum and they removed her breasts and they stripped her naked. And as an example to other Wampanoag women and white women, they decapitated her and they hung her head on a pike in the center of Taunton Green for 20 years.
In the late 1800s, when U.S. officials were trying to get the Wampanoags to become citizens, you say that was actually a step back for your tribe’s women.
Mashpee women objected vehemently because they said, “Well, we are leaders in our community. And if we were citizens of your government, then we wouldn’t have the same right to vote because your women can’t vote.” And so they lost some of the say they had in their own community. And it wasn’t until 1920 that non-Native women would be fighting and win that fight for the vote.
Why do you vote?
I want to make sure that my voice is heard for my kids. I think women need to step up and take more of a leadership role because “mutumwuhsuhs” is a woman in my language and it literally means “the one with say and judgment.” If I’m not going to bother to step up and vote, I’ve put my own hand over my own mouth. I’ve tied my own hands together.
You’ve didn’t have it easy getting to where you are. You’ve talked about being hurt, hungry and, at times, homeless.
As a young mom, after I had my first two kids, I was working two or three jobs at one point to try to make ends meet, and it was really tight but it was August and there were lots of blueberries. So I took the kids blueberry picking and I had some flour and baking powder. And we had a traditional Wampanoag dessert, ate that for maybe four days, which is called blueberry slump. And my daughter, Tracy, says she still remembers thinking, “We have the coolest mom in town. She lets us have dessert every day for lunch and dinner and breakfast. We’re so lucky.” But we were really just poor, and that’s what I had to give the kids.
What do you say to women facing their own adversity?
If you don’t know about women in your line, learn about the women in your line and ask them for strength. Remember that you are made of the creator, that you come from a very powerful place in the universe. That energy that is the universe is also in you. You don’t have to accept things that people put on you that are not good medicine or good energy. I know it’s easier to do that, but you don’t have to do that.
And I would say, too, remember to grab some floor with your knees. Remember to pray whatever your spiritual teaching is from your people or your family. And it’s OK for things to get difficult and it’s OK to cry and it’s OK to be angry, but it’s also OK to tell yourself you’ve done a good job and that things are going to be OK.
Nicole Carroll is editor-in-chief of USA TODAY. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.