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Jessie Little Doe Baird with daughter Mae, the first native speaker of Wampanoag in generations
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We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân

Part of the PBS series Independent Lens

Directed and produced by Anne Makepeace

Screening at MIT November 17

The Wampanoag people of southeastern Massachusetts, who helped the Pilgrims survive 400 years ago, had no spoken language to call their own until about 20 years ago. Anne Makepeace’s newest documentary, We Still Live Here: Âs Nutayuneân, delves into the fascinating linguistic — and consequently, cultural — revival of a tribe.

At the center of this change is Jessie Little Doe Baird, a Wampanoag and former social worker who began to have recurring dreams in which familiar-looking people would address her in an unfamiliar language. When Little Doe realized that the language being spoken to her was Wampanoag, she took it as a sign and began to study linguistics in an effort to learn more about this lost language. What started out as a one-year research fellowship at MIT turned into graduate school and the gradual transformation of a written language into a spoken one.

The Wampanoag had learned early on to write down their language in the English alphabet, so Baird’s project involved intensive examination of old written records, including legal documents and Bibles that had been translated into Wampanoag. To sound out the words, Baird also studied the Algonquin language, which is still spoken and is related to Wampanoag.

The amount of information that Makepeace is able to squeeze into 56 minutes is, quite frankly, astonishing. The film explores the history of the Wampanoag through the eyes of language, and if there ever is a time to feel embarrassed about those darker incidents in America’s past, it’s while watching this film. In Wampanoag, “I lost my land” comes out as “I fall down.” As Baird points out, the early Wampanoag did not have horses and always had at least one foot on the ground: to fall down, then, was “to literally fall off your feet, to have no ground beneath you.”

Supporting this documentary are a series of animated graphics that illustrate the Wampanoag situation — indeed, the story of almost any Native American tribe — perfectly. In the Wampanoag creation story, the first man and woman were made of pine trees; this theme repeats itself in many of the graphics. As the documentary talks about the white settlers taking away land from the Wampanoag people, we see a forest of trees, their roots drawing inwards and their trunks toppling down. As the documentary explores the loss of many of the Wampanoag people to the yellow fever, trees turn into the silhouettes of people, which in turn begin to fall to the ground.

We Still Live Here is a story about the enrichment of a culture through language, but mostly it is a story about the fierce independence and pride of the Wampanoag. When Baird interviewed for a position at MIT, one of the first questions she was asked was what her biggest fear was about coming to MIT. Baird’s response had nothing to do with her own abilities, but rather with MIT’s unfamiliar environment. As she recounted it, “Honestly, I don’t know my way around Boston. I come from a small Indian community and once we get past Plymouth, it’s all Boston. … Beyond that, I’m not afraid of anything yet.”