Language Revitalization Comes to William and Mary

    Dr. Gene Tracy, interim Dean of Arts and Sciences and the Department of Anthropology are proud to announce a conference and panel discussion entitled “Reclaiming Virginia’s Native Languages,” featuring Jessie Little Doe Baird (of the Mashpee Wampanoag), Wôpanâak language specialist and a 2010 MacArthur Foundation grant award recipient. At the conference, Ms. Baird, Mr. Jason Baird (of the Gay Head Ahquinnah), members of Virginia’s native communities, and William and Mary faculty and students will meet to assess the options for reclaiming the Native Languages of Virginia, and what role the College of William and Mary might play.

    Jesse Little Doe Baird has devoted much of her life to recovering and reanimating the Wôpanâak (Wapanoag) language, an J. Little Doe BairdAlgonquin language once widely spoken in southern New England.  Of the more than 6500 languages world-wide, hundreds face extinction each year as the number of speakers decline and as modern communication and economic forces pressure younger speakers to drop their traditional languages.  This proces has been going on for some time -- for East Coast American Indians, since the middle of the 17th century.  Spoken Wôpanâak seems to have died out by the time of the American Civil War, and there are currently no 'native' speakers -- speakers who learned the language informally in a natural setting as what is often called a 'mother tongue'.

    But Wôpanâak, along with a number of Algonquin and other languages encountered by the earliest Europeans in America, has another life, another existence, one embodied in written form.  Bibles, catechisms, word lists and other documents in Wôpanâak were created by the Puritans as part of their effort to evangelize the Indians.  Other Algonquin texts were created in New France by missionaries, often members of religious orders, for similar purposes.  Ms. Baird realized that this resource could be used to reclaim a linguistic heritage, and she set out to do so.

    Along the way, Little Doe studied linguistics at MIT with Kenneth Hale, and in 1993 she founded the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project (  As the McArthur Foundation puts it: 

    "By turning to related Algonquian languages for guidance with pronunciation and grammar, [Baird and Hale] produced a 10,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary, which Baird continues to develop into an essential resource for students, historians, and linguists alike. In addition to achieving fluency herself, she has adapted her scholarly work into accessible teaching materials for adults and children and leads a range of educational programs—after-school classes for youth, beginning and advanced courses for adults, and summer immersion camps for all ages—with the goal of establishing a broad base of Wampanoag speakers. Through painstaking research, dedicated teaching, and contributions to other groups struggling with language preservation, Baird is reclaiming the rich linguistic traditions of indigenous peoples and preserving precious links to our nation’s complex past."

    It is this experience in finding and reclaiming a 'lost' language which Ms. Baird is bringing to William and Mary next month. Today Virginia's Indian tribes -- not Federally recognized but with a long legal standing in the Commonwealth -- have a much diminished linguistic heritage.  Many of these tribes, such as the Mattaponi, Pamunkey and Chickahominy, also spoke Algonquin languages. Baird's work dovetails with the work of William and Mary faculty Dr. Kathleen Bragdon in researching historical sources for Algonquin langauges, and Dr. Jack Martin who has been working to revitalize native Muskogean languages across the southeastern U.S.. So Little Doe's visit and the ensuing conference bring the possibility of language revitalization -- with both specific textual resources and as an inspiration to action -- to Virginia.  The Department of Anthropology is proud and happy to play a part in this process.  For more information about the up-coming conference, please see our conference announcement.