Can a people without words truly be a people? That unanswerable question no longer applies to the Wampanoag, thanks to one of its members, Jessie Littledoe Baird. Anne Makepeace’s modest documentary, “We Still Live Here,” focuses on Baird’s immodest achievement. She single-handedly resuscitated the tribe’s spoken language, which for many decades had survived only in written form.
How Baird came to undertake her task is nearly as remarkable as what she accomplished. In her dreams, she would hear people addressing her in a language she didn’t recognize. They weren’t people she knew, yet they seemed familiar somehow — in the way that people you regularly pass in the street look familiar, even if you don’t know who they are. Then Baird realized that they were other Wampanoag and it must be the tribe’s language they were speaking.
“Hmm, I don’t know anything about our language,” Baird found herself thinking. “What was it like?” In trying to answer that question, she had two great advantages.
One was that Wampanoag is related to a number of Algonquian languages that are still spoken today. That made determining pronunciations in any sort of reliable way feasible.
The other advantage was the extensive number of Wampanoag texts. “We’re just lucky that the native written documents for this language is the largest written corpus of native written documents on the continent,” Baird says in the film. Why so many documents? Many are petitions, deeds, or titles: The Wampanoag took up writing early because documentation was one way, however inadequate, of trying to deal with the depredations of European settlers.
Language, it must be said, isn’t the most compelling subject visually. Makepeace strives to compensate. There are many shots of Baird driving in her car. We see Wampanoag language classes, a Wampanoag language-camp, even a round of the card game Go Fish being played in Wampanoag. There are shots of MIT, where Baird earned a master’s in linguistics while educating herself in Wampanoag.
Makepeace’s camera pans over old maps. It pans over old documents written in Wampanoag. Thanks to Ruth Lingford’s elegant animation, the words will frequently shift into drawings of birds taking flight or Colonial-era Wampanoag in robes. It’s a lovely effect, though after about the third iteration it begins to seem a bit precious.
“Death, if we can call it death, isn’t permanent for languages,” Norvin Richards, an MIT linguist, says in the film. “They can come back.” His MIT colleague Noam Chomsky isn’t quite so sanguine — but he happily cites Baird’s achievement as an exception. “There’s nothing that I know of that’s anything like the Wampanoag case,” he says. “If I’d been asked if it could have been done, I’d have said it’s impossible.”
The other talking heads in the film are Wampanoag. An unidentified older woman recalls people’s treatment of her late older brother, one of the last speakers of the language: “They laughed at him. ‘Oh, just talking Portuguese or something.’ ” A much younger woman, Eva Blake, marvels at how things have changed. “I think all my life I’ve been under the impression our language was dead.” She was happy to be proven wrong.
Mark Feeney can be reached at email@example.com.