Jesse Little Doe Bird Presents on Wampanoag Language

“Nat-ou-su.” This words, meaning “I am” in Wampanoag, a Native American language, greeted attendees to a presentation by Jesse Little Doe Baird, who has worked to reconstruct the Wampanoag language using archived Wampanoag documents and other Algonquian languages. A recipient of MacArthur Genius Fellowship for her work and founder of the Wopanaak Language Reclaimation Project (WLRP), Baird explained her work to the Phillips Academy staff and students in her presentation on April 20, 2011. “The true importance of language, as in any other kind of work, is to help other people come to a place of blessing, from where they can take what they’ve learned and do something beautiful,” said Baird. “Language can give you, even on a very surface level, a look into how people view the world, and because of that, it’s invaluable and exciting.” Wampanoag is a large and varied language, with over 16,000 ways to create different forms of one verb, according to Baird. This breadth is mainly because verbs in a sentence are marked to show the function of all other words in the sentence. Although the language presently has very few fluent speakers, Baird hopes to develop a dictionary, record grammar usage and eventually organize a curriculum to teach new speakers. In her presentation, Baird urged the audience not to think of the Wampanoag language as extinct, but as previously lost and now being pieced back together. Baird plans to reconstruct a dictionary by analyzing primary documents written in Wampanoag and the language comparison to other Algonquian dialects. She has recorded the differences and similarities between each of the Native American languages and noted parallel changes that occurred over thousands of years. In particular, Baird looked at the similar sounds in each languages, such as the r-, n-, l-and th- sounds that each Native language substitutes into the same word, a scheme that produces different but similar-sounding languages. Baird used these related “sister” languages to aid in building her dictionary of Wampanoag words, as each language has a different sound it favors. If Baird could not find a word in the Wampanoag letters and deeds she studied or in the Wampanoag version of the Bible, she could find the word in the sister language and find the correct letter sound to substitute into the word. According to Baird, Wampanoag was split into two main dialects, one used on mainland, and the other used in New England islands, mainly Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Both dialects share similar grammar structures and include only a few different words. Wampanoag was the first Native American language to have a set alphabet and the language of the first Bible printed in America in 1663. The Wampanoag language is native to the New England area and part of the Algonquian family, a group that encompasses many of the Native American languages spoken in the area. Most of the Native American languages in New England have descended from the original Algonquian language, Baird said, and developed as tribes disagreed, separated and colonized different locations. “[Wampanoag] is a print or marking of where my people have been…who touched whom, and which tribes had contact with other tribes,” Baird added. Baird also allowed the audience to try their hand at Wampanoag grammar, outlining rules for determining if a noun is animate or inanimate and then asking the audience to identify the ending sound of the word based on its classification. Baird also gave the crowd a glimpse into the world of the Wampanoag people, describing how they view language to be a gift of creation and means to communicate with the rest of creation. “[Learning Wampanoag] is like someone took at match and lit a passion in me for the language. I didn’t chose the language, the language chose me,” said Baird. As part of her work, Baird organized the meeting of two Wampanoag tribes to discuss restoring the language. With unanimous support, the committee began exploring options and organizing elders in groups to teach younger students. The gatherings serve as a social event within the tribe, Baird said, attracting people of all ages, from newborns to eighty year-olds, to learn the language, interact, and regain a piece of their heritage. Baird’s presentation was a part of the “Native Speakers Series”, several lectures organized by the Robert S. Peabody Museum and funded by the Abbot Academy.