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(Many Paths)
An Online Newsletter Celebrating Native America
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"Genius Grant"
A Boost To Linguist As She Revives
A Native Language
by Laura Collins-Hughes - Boston, (MA) Globe Staff

First she cried. Then she found out about the money and nearly fainted.

Jessie Little Doe Baird was overcome at the news that her 17 years of linguistic work — resurrecting the language the Wampanoag people spoke and wrote until at least the mid-1800s — had landed her a MacArthur Fellows "genius grant" of $500,000. The 23 recipients of this year's John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation grants, including five others from New England, were announced this morning.

When the foundation notified Baird, 46, a Mashpee linguist and the program director of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, two weeks ago of the fellowship, the honor brought her to tears. As far as she knows, her 6-year-old daughter is the only child since the 19th century raised from birth to speak Wampanoag (or, in that language, Wôpanâak).

The 2010 MacArthur Fellows from New England are an eclectic mix: typeface designer Matthew Carter, 72, of Cambridge; Harvard Law School historian Annette Gordon-Reed, 51, of Cambridge; stone carver Nicholas Benson, 46, of Newport, R.I.; Massachusetts Institute of Technology quantum astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala, 42, of Cambridge; musician and music educator Sebastian Ruth, 35, of Providence; and Baird.

Baird, one of the principal authors of a developing 10,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary, does not view her personal role in reviving the language as critical. Instead, she talks about the benefits of being able to speak the language of her ancestors. "The opportunity to hear what my fifth great-grandfather had to say, even though he's gone, because he wrote it down, really is a powerful motivation," she said.

She hopes to spend some of the money to hire an artist to illustrate some of the children's books she has written in Wampanoag.

"I think that the work would've happened with or without me," Baird said over the weekend, between sessions of certifying volunteer instructors to teach Wampanoag in community classes at all levels around the state. "We have a prophecy about a time when language would go away from the people and a time when language would come back home to the people." As she sees it, she is merely "along for this ride."

The ride began in 1993, when Baird had a series of dreams in which people spoke to her in a tongue she could not understand. At the time, she was working in human services on Cape Cod. But the dreams, which she grew convinced were of her ancestors speaking Wampanoag, pulled her toward a new interest in language. That's when she founded the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project.

In 1996, determined to acquire some training in order to work on the dictionary, Baird left her job at the Community Action Committee of Hyannis to begin a one-year research fellowship at MIT. She did not have an undergraduate degree, but she did have a lifelong fascination with patterns, which, she said, are what linguistics is all about.

She fell in love with the science. Soon, however, she realized that in order for the language project — a collaborative effort of the Assonet, Mashpee, Aquinnah, and Herring Pond Wampanoag communities — to get funding, it would need someone with a credential in linguistics, specifically in the Algonquian family of languages, to which about 40 Native American languages belong.

"So then the question becomes, where do you find an Algonquian linguist that's going to stay in your community for many, many years?" said Baird, who is the project's program director. "You have to make your own."

She applied to MIT's graduate program in linguistics, using her fellowship research as part of her application, and was admitted. She studied there with the late scholar Kenneth Hale, collaborated with him on the dictionary, and received her master's degree in 2000.

Born and raised in Mashpee, Baird views it as "every Wampanoag person's birthright to have their language of heritage," a language that she said has "been spoken here for at least 10,000 years."

According to Baird, her ancestors were "the first American Indian people to use an alphabetic writing system," and the first Bible published on this continent — a key document in her research — was printed in 1663 in Wampanoag.

After English missionaries arrived on this continent, the Wampanoag people were quick to realize the power of the written word, Baird said, especially to resolve land disputes with the Europeans. "And so Wampanoag people started to record land transfers, wills, personal letters," she said. The result is what she called "the largest collection of native written documents on the continent."

But there are no documents from the second half of the 19th century, which to Baird suggests that Wampanoag disappeared then. Much of her task in reconstructing it as a written and spoken language is a kind of detective work.

"There was no standardized spelling for English, and there was no such thing as a dictionary," she said. "So the rule of the day was spell a word any way you like. And Wampanoag people started the same tradition."

Other Algonquian languages that are still spoken, such as Cree and Passamaquoddy, are especially useful for figuring out pronunciation. "If I'm not sure of my vowel in a particular syllable, or my consonant even, then I can appeal to Passamaquoddy and see what's going on with that word," she said. "I can say, 'Yes, I was right. That's the vowel we want in this spot' or 'Oh, no, I missed the boat. It's actually a long A instead of a short A."'

How the MacArthur fellowship will aid her work is a new question for Baird to ponder. The grant money is paid out over five years, and the fellows may do with it what they wish.

So far, Baird has a long list of possible uses, including giving some of it to the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe's language department, buying audio equipment, and getting help with interactive software to produce a distance-learning curriculum.

The money will also help in planning and developing a Wampanoag language school, Baird said.

"Your one job as an Indian person," she said, "is to be able to lay on your deathbed and say, 'I left something for my community that wasn't here when I came, and I left my community in a better place than I found it."'

The others named as MacArthur Fellows this year are high school physics teacher Amir Abo-Shaeer, 38, of Goleta, Calif.; marine biologist Kelly Benoit-Bird, 34, of Corvallis, Ore.; biomedical animator Drew Berry, 40, of Melbourne; population geneticist Carlos D. Bustamante, 35, of Stanford, Calif.; theater director David Cromer, 44, of New York; biophysicist John Dabiri, 30, of Pasadena, Calif.; anthropologist Shannon Lee Dawdy, 43, of Chicago.

Also, fiction writer Yiyun Li, 37, of Davis, Calif.; optical physicist Michael Lipson, 40, of Ithaca, N.Y.; jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran, 35, of New York; sign language linguist Carol Padden, 55, of La Jolla, Calif.; installation artist Jorge Pardo, 47, of Los Angeles; economist Emmanuel Saez, 37, of Berkeley, Calif.; author, screenwriter, and producer David Simon, 50, of Baltimore; computer security specialist Dawn Song, 35, of Berkeley, Calif.; entomologist Marla Spivak, 55, of St. Paul; and sculptor Elizabeth Turk, 48, of Atlanta.

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