she cried. Then she found out about the money and nearly fainted.
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.
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
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.
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
hopes to spend some of the money to hire an artist to illustrate
some of the children's books she has written in Wampanoag.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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."
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."'
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.
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.
money will also help in planning and developing a Wampanoag language
school, Baird said.
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."'
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.
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,