Ms. Baird, Wampanoag Language Program Given High Honors

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By: Brian Kehrl
Published: 10/01/10

The telephone call in mid-September to Jessie (Little Doe) Baird from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation came out of the blue.
The man on the phone began by telling her about the different committees that administer a fellowship program awarded by the foundation, known as “genius grants.”
“I thought he was going to ask me to sit on a committee and volunteer. I was trying to figure out whether I had time to do it,” Ms. Baird, director and co-founder of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, said in a telephone interview this week.
“And when he told me that I had the award, I had been in the back yard, having ceremony, because I had been having a bad week. I had just finished asking for help. I just started bawling my eyes out,” she said. “Then he asked if I was still sitting down and he told me about the grant. I almost fainted.”
She had no idea that she was even being considered for the annual fellowship given to between 20 and 25 people for making innovative contributions to their fields and society. It comes with a $500,000 award over five years, no strings attached.
“Shock is pretty much how I would describe it,” Ms. Baird said of her initial reaction.
Ms. Baird, a Mashpee resident, is a trained linguist who has been working since 1993 to bring back Wôpanâak, the Wampanoag language, which had been unused for a century and a half. It was preserved only in written documents, like a Bible published in the language. Wôpanâak was the first American Indian language to develop and use an alphabetic writing system.
“In addition to achieving fluency herself, she has adapted her scholarly work into accessible teaching materials for adults and children and leads a range of educational programs—after-school classes for youth, beginning and advanced courses for adults, and summer immersion camps for all ages—with the goal of establishing a broad base of Wampanoag speakers,” according to a press release from the MacArthur foundation. “Through painstaking research, dedicated teaching, and contributions to other groups struggling with language preservation, Baird is reclaiming the rich linguistic traditions of indigenous peoples and preserving precious links to our nation’s complex past.”
Ms. Baird has helped to train a half dozen people to conversational fluency and has raised her 6-year-old daughter from birth in her ancestral tongue.
“I think it is an affirmation for the Wampanoag Nation, for sure. Because it helps the rest of the world see that there was a critical point in US history that has its genesis in this place,” she said. “The culture that is in the Northeast doesn’t get the focus that it probably should in Indian country. So this is also an affirmation of culture and the importance of culture in this region.”
Ms. Baird said she plans on using some of the grant to purchase costly audio and video recording equipment to create educational materials for the project, as well as hiring artists to illustrate children’s books in the Wampanoag language.
“A lot of the money will go back into making sure the project has what it needs,” she said.
The language reclamation project is a joint effort by the Mashpee, Aquinnah, Assonet, and Herring Pond Wampanoag communities, not directly affiliated with the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council.
The public announcement of the MacArthur fellowship came the same week that the project received another grant, a two-year endowment from the federal Administration for Native Americans, to train three apprentices in obtaining advanced fluency in the language and to develop early childhood education curricula for a preschool and kindergarten school planned to open in the fall of 2012.
Ms. Baird said the education-focused grant represents a milestone in creating the institutional infrastructure to carry on the project. In order to reach high levels of fluency, students need to dedicate significant time to the language—“like every day, 25 to 30 hours a week,” she said. “Without being able to give them a salary, how can you do that? They need to pay their bills, they need insurance.”
Ms. Baird said the three apprentices have already been selected: Nitana Hicks, a Mashpee Wampanoag tribe member who has received a master’s degree in linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is working on a doctorate in education from Boston College; Melanie Deetz, representing the Assonet Band of Wampanoags; and Jamie Sue Vanderhoop, from Aquinnah.
Ms. Baird said creating the school curricula for young children is key to ensuring that the language will be carried down through generations. “And it is no accident that I asked three ladies who have young children or are planning to have children,” Ms. Baird said.
“This is going to be topnotch, I hope. We are trying to make ANA pleased with the funding they gave us,” she said.
“If things keep moving, if we are taking preschoolers and kindergartners, and not charging parents but requiring them to do five hours of immersion studying a week, so the kids have someone to talk to when they get home, we will be sailing,” she said.
The school is planned to be open to members of each of the Wampanoag tribes, as well as to members of their households.
The project also received another boost this summer, when Ms. Baird was awarded a Documenting Endangered Languages fellowship, a joint effort between the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities. The $50,400 award is aimed at allowing Ms. Baird to build on her earlier work producing a grammar book.
Despite the project’s recent milestones, Ms. Baird said there were times when she doubted its ability to even survive. “There were times when there was just no funding, so I had to take other work and I had to just work at this at night,” she said.
For the “genius grant,” Ms. Baird said she is getting an undue portion of the credit. She said two professors at MIT, where Ms. Baird earned a master’s degree in linguistics, have been helpful throughout, including assisting with a dictionary and teaching in the project’s annual immersion summer camps. American Historian Kathleen J. Bragdon encouraged the project along. Judi Urquhart, the project’s treasurer, has helped to write grants.
The tribal council, too, has supported the program, offering up dedicated space in the planned new administration headquarters on Great Neck Road South, she said.
“You can’t do it by yourself,” she said. “A lot of people have put in a lot of time on this project. I feel like they earned it, too.”
“But when I told [the MacArthur foundation] that, they said this is not about them,” Ms. Baird said.
In addition to supporting the project, Ms. Baird said she plans to use some of the money at home. “I am going to put some insultation in my living room, because it is freezing in there in the winter,” she said.
She said she may also take some time to write a history of the region from a Wampanoag perspective, based on the documents she has translated. “That has not been done,” she said.
She said the money comes in installments and does not come for several months, which will provide time to plan what to do with it. “One of the directors warned about calls from people looking for money. I said, ‘That’s just my family. I’m used to that,’ ” Ms. Baird joked.
Ms. Baird is joined by a wide variety of peers winning the award this year, ranging from David Simon, a writer and creator of the television crime drama “The Wire,” to a high school physics teacher, a biomedical animator, a population geneticist, a computer security specialist, an entomologist, and a sculptor.
The nominees are decided by one committee, which submits names to a separate committee that decides the awardees. The membership of both committees is anonymous.
“Unfortunately, you can’t thank anyone,” Ms. Baird said.

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