Vice Chair Testifies Before U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Council Vice Chairwoman Jessie “Little Doe” Baird testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs Wednesday, August 22 about the tribe’s effort to revive its native language, saying the linguistic work is critically tied to the tribe keeping its reservation.
“Having a reservation helped us open our own school,” Baird told the committee. “Here Wampanoag children attend a tribally run preschool and kindergarten, where they are taught in our language. It would be nearly impossible on an off-reservation public school to exercise this level of sovereignty.”
Baird’s testimony comes as the tribe awaits a decision from the U.S. Department of Interior on the status of its 321 acres of reservation land in Mashpee and Taunton.
In her native tongue there is no other way to say “land” without evoking the interconnectedness between “land and body,” Baird said.
“Our land and our language are inextricably tied to one another, and to our ultimate survival as a people,” she said. “My blood and bones come from the land you know as Mashpee.”
The tribe is funding its Mukayuhsak Weekuw language nest, or the “Children’s House,” with the support of an Esther Martinez Immersion grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through the Administration for Native Americans, Baird said.
The Mashpee nation was the first Indian nation to adopt an Indian writing system in 1632, and the first Bible printed in the New World was printed in the Wampanoag language, she said.
Pressure from non-Indian settlements in Mashpee robbed tribe members of their ability to speak the language, she said.
Seven generations later, the tribe is attempting to heal that wound. In 1993, the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project was established. The tribe recently partnered with Mashpee Public Schools to bring more tribe-based education to the school district.
“We have immersion language camps, schools that teach in our language and community language classes,” Baird said.
She said the tribe is the first tribe in history with no native speakers to reclaim a language. The tribal team of linguists is presently developing a dictionary that has over 12,000 entries.
“My nation could not have accomplished these things without federal assistance,” she said. “Continued funding is crucial.”
The tribe, which traces its ancestral roots back 12,000 years in the Northeast, had its land taken into trust in 2015 before a judge ordered the decision be remanded.
“We pray that our lands remain in trust so that we can continue this vital work,” Baird said.