Jessie Little Doe Baird, Wampanoag linguist, wins MacArthur “genius grant”


Jessie Little Doe Baird of Aquinnah and Mashpee has been named a MacArthur Fellow by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Along with 23 other recipients across the United States, she will receive an unrestricted grant of $500,000 that will be distributed over the next five years. A native of Mashpee who now also lives in Aquinnah with her husband, Jason Baird, Ms. Baird is program director of the Wopanaak Language Reclamation Project (WLRP).

For 17 years she has devoted herself to reclaiming the language spoken by the Wampanoag until the middle of the 19th century. In Aquinnah, she has taught Wopanaak to both adult and child tribal members over the last several years.

In its citation for the award, the MacArthur Foundation described Ms. Baird as an “Indigenous Language Preservationist reviving a long-silent language and restoring to her Native American community a vital sense of its cultural heritage and to the nation a link to our complex past.”

Responding to dreams some 20 years ago in which she heard what she took to be the voices of her ancestors, Ms. Baird became intrigued by what amounted to a lost language and started the WLRP. She began a fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1996, despite not having an undergraduate degree.

As Ms. Baird continued to move the WLRP forward she realized that the program needed a trained linguist who would be committed to living in the tribal community. Unable to find one, she decided to apply to MIT’s graduate program in linguistics herself. Once accepted, she worked with the late Kenneth Hale, a professor of linguistics, to create a 10,000-word dictionary of Wopanaak. She was awarded a master’s degree in 2000.

Since then she has continued to push the WRLP forward, teaching tribal members in Mashpee and Aquinnah. Ms. Baird plans to use some of the money she receives from the MacArthur Foundation to develop a Wampanoag language school.

The motives for creating a school come naturally, according to Ms. Baird. “Your one job as an Indian person is to be able to lay on your deathbed and say, ‘I left something for my community that wasn’t there when I came, and I left my community in a better place than I found it,'” she told the Boston Globe.

According to its website, “The MacArthur Fellows Program is intended to encourage people of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations… They may use their fellowship to advance their expertise, engage in bold new work, or, if they wish, to change fields or alter the direction of their careers… Although nominees are reviewed for their achievements, the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person’s originality, insight, and potential.”