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Mashpee Wampanoag are Reviving A Long-Lost Language

Local tribe learning to speak the words of their ancestors

Local tribe learning to speak the words of their ancestors

Photo by: Kelly Cronin Bicknell

It started with a vision. In 1993—some 14 years before federal recognition of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe—Jessie little doe Baird, a member of the tribe, began having dreams in which people were speaking a language she had never heard. In one dream, they were chanting in this mysterious tongue, and someone said, “Ask Jessie. She knows what it means.”

At the time, Baird did not know. But one day she realized the people in her dreams were her ancestors and they were speaking Wampanoag, a language that had not been spoken for more than 100 years. She also realized that her ancestors were calling on her to see if others would welcome the opportunity to bring the spoken language back to life.

Thus began an academic and spiritual journey that took Baird from a quiet life in Mashpee to a master’s degree in linguistics at MIT in 2000; a starring role in a documentary film, We Still Live Here—As Nutayunean, released in 2010; and a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant the same year. Under Baird’s guidance, some 500 Wampanoag tribal citizens have taken classes in their native language in the last 20 years; 12 are certified to teach; the first Wampanoag dictionary has surpassed 12,000 words; and an effort is underway to open a Wampanoag immersion school. The project has also united four Wampanoag tribal councils in pursuing this common goal: Mashpee, Aquinnah on Martha’s Vineyard, Herring Pond in Plymouth and Assonet in Freetown/Fall River.

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