Can you imagine hearing the lost language of your ancestors in a dream? Linguist and Wampanoag language activist Jessie Little Doe Baird claims that the inspiration for the Wampanoag Language Reclamation Project she founded came to her in a recurring dream she had as a young woman. She recounted the dream for the Lexington Minuteman:
“People were talking to me and they looked familiar. I knew these people but I didn’t personally know them. I had no idea what they were saying. I was in a place where everything had been burned … purposefully burned. There was a yellow house, and inside, circles of Indian people making circles, chanting. I’m going around this massive room listening,” said Baird. She tried to leave but was blocked. “Someone asked me: ‘What does this mean?’” But it wasn’t in English. “I don’t know,” Baird replied.
The dream inspired Baird to study linguistics at MIT, where she graduated with a Master’s degree in 2000.
The language of the Wampanoag and Massachusett tribes, Wampanoag was once spoken by tens of thousands of Native Americans in what is now New England. It was the language of Tisquantum (Squanto), Massasoit and the other Native Americans who helped keep the Pilgrims from starving during their first winter in America. Unfortunately, by the mid-19th century, it had been replaced by English as the Native Americans were converted to Christianity, assigned to reservations and decimated by disease.
However, the Wampanoag tribe’s close association with the early colonists has made the task of reviving it much easier, as before it fell into disuse many of the tribespeople had learned to write using the English alphabet. Missionaries also translated the King James Bible into the language, and that translation has survived.
With these written texts to work with, Baird has managed to become fluent in the old language, and now offers classes to other members of her tribe. She’s also compiled a 11,000 word dictionary and has written a children’s book in Wampanoag, called “Sâpaheekanuhtyâtôh,” or “Let’s Make Soup.”