2023 2023: University to honor impactful community partners during 2023 Commencement

2023 2023: University to honor impactful community partners during 2023 Commencement
University to honor impactful community partners during 2023 Commencement

Little Doe Baird, Loretta “Lee” Blake, and Mark Dion to receive honorary degrees

honorary degree recipients headshots
Little Doe Baird, Loretta “Lee” Blake, and Mark Dion

During the 2023 Doctoral Commencement ceremony on May 11 at 3:30 p.m. in the Main Campus Auditorium, UMass Dartmouth will award honorary degrees—the highest award that the University can bestow—to Jessie Little Doe Baird, Loretta “Lee” Blake, and Mark Dion.

These individuals were chosen because of their outstanding contributions to their community and the landscape of higher education through their work.

Jessie Little Doe Baird

Jessie Little Doe Baird is a Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe citizen and linguist who is working toward reclamation of her once-silent language of heritage and working with her people to restore a vital piece of cultural clarity. The use of Wôpanâak language brings cultural understanding and philosophy not found in English. Wôpanâak, the Algonquian language of her ancestors, was spoken by tens of thousands of people in southeastern New England when 17th century Puritan missionaries learned the language and taught the Wampanoag to read English, encouraged Wampanoag speakers to write Wampanoag using the Roman alphabet, and to translate the King James Bible under the supervision of missionary John Eliot. As a result, this Bible and other religious texts, as well as many personal letters, deeds, and wills written by Wampanoag were all that remained of the language by the middle of the 18th century. Due to dispossession of Wampanoag territory and laws restricting Wampanoag culture, the language was not spoken for six generations. Determined to answer the call of a Wampanoag prophesy and reclaim the language, Baird founded the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project, an intertribal effort that aims to return fluency to the Wampanoag Nation. She undertook graduate training in linguistics and language pedagogy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she worked with the late Kenneth Hale, a scholar of indigenous languages, to decipher grammatical patterns and compile vocabulary lists from archival Wampanoag documents. 

By turning to related Algonquian languages for guidance with pronunciation and grammar, this collaboration resulted in the undertaking of a wordlist by Baird in 1996. That wordlist that has become a 12,000-word Wampanoag-English dictionary, which MIT Professor Norvin Richards began working on in 2001 and that he and the Wampanoag community continues to develop into an essential resource for students of the language. In addition to achieving fluency herself, Baird has adapted her scholarly work into accessible teaching materials for adults and children for a range of educational programs—after-school classes for youth, beginning and advanced courses for youth and 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.

Jessie Little Doe Baird received an M.Sc. (2000) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She has served as the co-founder and lead linguist of the Wôpanâak Language Reclamation Project serving the Assonet Band, the Herring Pond, Gay Head Aquinnah, and Mashpee Wampanoag Tribes in Massachusetts, since 1993.

Loretta “Lee” Blake

Loretta “Lee” Blake is an educator and president of the New Bedford Historical Society. She has spent much of her life raising awareness about Black history, and the important role New Bedford played in the Underground Railroad in the 1800s. Born and raised in New Bedford, she began to organize students in her high school in the late 1960s, and demanded African American studies classes and African American afterschool programs, so that students could connect to their own identity and have positive images of Black people.

Blake attended UMass Amherst and UMass Dartmouth in the early 70’s and was a member of only the second UMass class to integrate. While still a student at UMass, Lee was one of the founding members of the New Bedford Women’s Center in 1973, where she worked to share information on free women’s health services and birth control throughout the region. After graduation, Blake’s first job was teaching African American studies classes at her former high school in New Bedford. After four years, she moved to New York, where she first worked to integrate the construction unions, and then was appointed Executive Director of the Mayor’s Office of Educational Services in the administration of Mayor David N. Dinkins. There she coordinated education initiatives and served as the liaison to the Board of Education, City University and the New York State Board of Higher Education.

She returned to New Bedford in 2001, seeking more community involvement in New Bedford’s development. For the last eight years, Blake has been President of the New Bedford Historical Society, working with other organizations to make sure that voices from all corners of this richly diverse community are heard through events and preserving New Bedford’s history for people of color. Blake has worked to ensure that the Society proactively supports multicultural and multi-racial history that reflects New Bedford’s African American, Native American, and Cape Verdean communities.

The National Endowment for the Humanities has awarded the New Bedford Historical Society five grants relating to the city’s history with the Underground Railroad and Frederick Douglass. In partnership with UMass Dartmouth, the New Bedford Historical Society has hosted several summer workshops for approximately 400 teachers from around the country to learn about the Underground Railroad from the maritime perspective. Blake led the creation of a movable campus using historical sites in New Bedford, including its Quaker meeting house, the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Mark Dion

Mark Dion was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1961. He received a BFA in 1986 and an honorary doctorate in 2003 from the University of Hartford, School of Art, Connecticut. Dion's work examines the ways in which dominant ideologies and public institutions shape our understanding of history, knowledge, and the natural world. "The job of the artist," he says, "is to go against the grain of dominant culture, to challenge perception and convention." Appropriating archaeological, field, biological and other scientific methods of collecting, ordering, and exhibiting objects, Dion creates works that question the distinctions between "objective" ("rational") scientific methods and "subjective" ("irrational") influences.

The artist's spectacular and often fantastical curiosity cabinets, modeled on Wunderkabinetts of the sixteenth century, exalt atypical orderings of objects and specimens. By locating the roots of environmental politics and public policy in the construction of knowledge about nature, Mark Dion questions the authoritative role of the scientific voice in contemporary society, by tracking how ideology and pseudoscience creep into scientific discourse.

He has received numerous awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship (2019). Dion has had major exhibitions at Miami Art Museum (2006); the Museum of Modern Art, New York (2004); the Institute of Contemporary Art Boston (2017); and Tate Gallery, London (1999). He is the co-director of Mildred's Land an innovative visual art education and residency program in Beach Lake, Pennsylvania. Dion lives with his wife and frequent collaborator Dana Sherwood in Copake, New York, and works worldwide.

Learn more about UMass Dartmouth’s 2023 Commencement ceremonies.