JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, another in our Economist Film Project series. This one is the story of a unique linguistic project, one that’s revived the ancient culture of a modern Indian tribe.
The Wampanoag Indians of southeastern Massachusetts stopped speaking their native language 150 years ago. But, in 1993, Jessie “Little Doe” Baird began trying to restore their fluency.
And filmmaker Anne Makepeace chronicled her efforts.
Here’s an excerpt from the documentary “We Still Live Here.”
MAN: We were discussing whether or not there should be a language program. Do we want to bring it back? You know, should we bring it back? How do we do it?
RUSSELL PETERS, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe: We had committees from Gay Head and from Assonet and from all the different Wampanoag communities. We had to bring it all together and figure out how we could get it in a cohesive way.
MAN: The decision was finally made that, yes, we’re going to try to work on this language and we’re going to support it fully, and we’re going to work together, which was an historic decision in and of itself.
JESSIE “LITTLE DOE” BAIRD, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe: Nobody said no. Nobody said, I’m not interested. Nobody said, don’t do it. This never happens, I tell you.
MAN: Luckily, we had the written language there to see where — the basis of where it all came from.
RUSSELL PETERS: All of the town halls around here, a lot of the original deeds and a lot of the original documents are all in Wampanoag. If you go back far enough, you will find them.
And she says, oh, yes. And she started looking around.
WOMAN: We’re just lucky that the native written documents for this language is the largest corpus of native written documents on the continent.
JESSIE “LITTLE DOE” BAIRD: In the beginning, when we first started meeting, we discovered that we really needed a trained individual. And, at the time, I was working in human services. I had absolutely no training in linguistics.
Some months later, an application for a research fellowship at MIT was given to me at a tribal meeting. I opened it up, and it said that you could have a research fellowship there for a year, and you could research anything you wanted for a year.
So, I thought, oh, I wonder if that school has linguistics. And I looked, and, lo and behold, it’s one of the premier linguistic institutes in the world.
I’m going to name off some nouns, and I want you to tell me whether or not they’re animate. And if they’re animate, tell me which rule applies.
JESSIE “LITTLE DOE” BAIRD: What about the stars?
WOMAN: They’re animate. They’re shooting stars.
JESSIE “LITTLE DOE” BAIRD: Because stars, they actually change their position in the sky.
So what about the sun?
WOMAN: Inanimate, because it doesn’t move.
JESSIE “LITTLE DOE” BAIRD: What does that mean Wampanoag people knew?
WOMAN: The world wasn’t flat.
JESSIE “LITTLE DOE” BAIRD: They knew the world was moving, not the sun. Yet, they knew the moon was. They were really brilliant about their environment. So that was huge for me. When I learned that, I’m like, oh, you know? Europeans just figured this out a few hundred years ago, and we have known straight along.
But if you figured there was a time when there was nothing else here but the Earth…
MAN: You have a kind of access to your own language that you can never have to somebody else’s language. So there are all kinds of linguistic insights that are only available to native speakers.
JESSIE “LITTLE DOE” BAIRD: So it’s animate — all the birds, all the animals, all the bugs, all the flies, all animate.
MAN: So there are all kinds of things that we can only learn about these languages if native speakers will begin to work on them.
NITANA HICKS, Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe: And that means Wampanoag language.
It does give such a broader perspective of your culture, to be able to learn the language and know those things that you wouldn’t have otherwise known that didn’t, for whatever reason, get passed down, something that if we weren’t doing this would have been locked on that piece of paper for who knows how long.
MAN: We didn’t have many people singing songs in the language 20 years ago. And right along with the songs comes more ceremony, more recognition by our own people of those things. And that’s something that has come back with the language. It’s really a connection with those who have gone on before us.
MAN: We are still the first people of this land. And we are still connected.
MAN: All of our songs, they have stories that go with them, reasons why we have made them. And there is an appropriateness. It fills you up inside. It just makes that connection that much deeper.
JESSIE “LITTLE DOE” BAIRD: In (INAUDIBLE) linguistics, you are learning. You’re — the continuum of learning is just — there’s not a beginning and end. There’s just so much know. I mean we have got to get people to be able to have casual conversation first, without a break, without having to stop and think about every word. And we just don’t have that yet.
MAN: The language is not just words. I mean, it’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in the language. So, it’s really the revival of a culture and a way of life
JEFFREY BROWN: Jessie “Little Doe” Baird went on to earn a master’s degree in linguistics from MIT and a MacArthur genius grant in 2010. She continues her work on the project. There are now more than 13,000 words in the Wampanoag dictionary, and more students learn the language every year.
The film “We Still Live Here” airs on the PBS program “Independent Lens” on Nov. 17.