New Brunswick

Passamaquoddy rely on new and old technology to reverse loss of language

Language learners can take advantage of online resources, and thanks to technological advances, hear the voices of Passamaquoddy speakers recorded on wax cylinders in 1890.

Digital program makes it possible to decipher songs and stories not heard for generations

Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal historic preservation director. (CBC)

As a young boy, Donald Soctomah heard the Passamaquoddy language spoken all around him.  At home, his grandmother, mother and older sisters were fluent.

Soctomah was born in 1955, and when he was four years old, television sets started making their way into the community.

"Everybody would gather around the TV set and we'd get the station from Saint John — CBC," he said.

"That was probably where a lot of my language loss came from, and now I'm trying to get it back."

A language app was developed for members of the Passamaquoddy tribe, featuring words and phrases for everyday use. (Passamaquoddy Tribe at Indian Township, Passamaquoddy Tribe at Pleasant Point)

Soctomah is an author and historian. In 1998, he served as a tribal representative to the Maine House of Representatives for a total of eight years. He describes himself as a comprehender, meaning he understands much more of the language than he can speak. 

He's one of the people behind efforts to reverse the loss of the Passamaquoddy language in the U.S. and Canada. About 3,700 members of the Passamaquoddy Nation live in Maine's Washington County and Charlotte County in New Brunswick. 

A language portal and app

The language-revival efforts include making use of new technologies, and they've been bolstered by recordings made in the late 19th century.

The Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Language Portal is an online resource born out of the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary. It was developed not long after the ink and paper version of the dictionary was published in 2008.

The online dictionary allows users to look up words and hear the pronunciation. The portal features videos of everyday conversations, with subtitles in English and Passamaquoddy-Maliseet.

It's a descriptive language. A lot of times, conversation is about who you're with and the space you're in."- Newell Lewey

In addition, an app is available to members of the tribe.

"Our grammar school wanted something with technology associated with it for the children," said Soctomah, who is also the tribal historic preservation director. "So grades 1 through 8 access this in the cultural class. And there are games on there too, which they like."

Soctomah said the app took about two years to develop. Users can browse English phrases and words they might use every day, see the Passamaquoddy translation and hear it spoken.

Categories of words and phrases include relationships, office phrases, money, internet and email.

Lifelong speaker Newell Lewey said there are a number of what he calls meta words in the language — English words made to be Passamaquoddy.

Notepads full of Passamaquoddy

The dictionary is comprehensive, he said, with more than 19,000 entries.

A 30-year project, it was co-authored by Passamaquoddy elder David Francis and University of New Brunswick professor Robert Leavitt, with help from community research co-ordinator Margaret Apt and other Passamaquoddy and Wolastoqey elders.

"The story's been told about David Francis and all of his yellow notepads," Lewey said.

"He went through the Webster's dictionary and duplicated it into Passamaquoddy, and he had stacks and stacks of these yellow notepads just full of Passamaquoddy words and sample sentences to formulate them."

Anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes recorded Passamaquoddy stories, songs and words on wax cylinders during a visit in 1890. (Wabanaki Cultural Centre)

Lewey said the sample sentences are helpful because they show the user different tenses of the words.

"It's a descriptive language," he said. "A lot of times, conversation is about who you're with and the space you're in."

"To talk about the abstract — if I'm telling you about something in Bangor, Maine — it's a little harder to describe in the language."

A number of years ago, as part of the effort to promote the language, Lewey was asked to teach. This led him down an unexpected career path that would see him earn a master's in linguistics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Lewey now teaches the Passamaquoddy language at the university level.

A revival of old songs

Advances in technology like the app and the online portal are bringing the language to a new generation of Passamaquoddy learners, but they've also allowed songs not sung for generations to be heard again.

The Wabanaki Cultural Centre in Calais, Maine, houses a museum full of artifacts and displays — including a wax cylinder.

Recordings of Passamaquoddy speakers were made on wax cylinders by an anthropologist who visited Calais in 1890.

Jesse Walter Fewkes recorded 31 cylinders of songs, stories and words.

Wax cylinder on display at the Wabanaki Cultural Centre in Calais, Maine. (CBC)

In the last five years, a digital program has been developed to allow some very old recordings of the language to be heard and understood. Much of the interpretation, Soctomah said, has been done by Dwayne Tomah, a fluent speaker.

"We've been working with the Library of Congress to try to translate them," said Soctomah.

"Because they're the first and the oldest, the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., rates them as our number two most valuable sound resource."

Soctomah even uses a snippet of one of the recordings as the ringtone on his cellphone.

Classroom teaching

However, there's still plenty of face-to-face learning.

The Passamaquoddy Tribe ran a three-year project from 2015 to 2018, setting up two immersion schools for children three to five years old.

Soctomah said they knew it would be challenging to teach the children, because the language has to be reinforced at home. Outreach was provided to parents, with success.

Language courses are also being offered to older students.

"In the public high schools, from grades 9 to 12, a lot of the local schools wanted to incorporate the native language," said Soctomah. "So they've hired fluent speakers to come and teach a course on the Passamaquoddy language."

There are language teachers at two high schools, and elective courses on the Passamaquoddy language are offered at the University of Maine at Machias and at Orono, and at the University of Southern Maine. 

Maliseet/Passamaquoddy instruction is also part of Indigenous language programs at St. Thomas University in Fredericton.

"Passamaquoddy and Maliseet are pretty closely the same language," Soctomah said.

Dictionary updates

This summer, Roger Paul, a graduate student in linguistics at MIT and a member of the editorial committee for the dictionary, will visit various communities to talk to elders about disputed words and spellings.

He said he's also been asked to record a few more video conversations for the online portal.

Paul said the work on the dictionary is part of his research, but it initially drew questions from a native Passamaquoddy speaker from Indian Township in Maine, who wondered how academics could ask Paul to prove his use of the language was correct.

"She was upset [and] she said, 'Who the heck is he to tell you about your language? You know your language.'"

Paul said he jumped to explain that's how academia works, and he had to defend his work.

"She laughed and she looked at me and she goes, 'I learned my language the same way you did.' I said, 'Well, yeah, we grew up speaking it.' She goes, 'No no no, I learned it at MIT, just like you.'

"I said, 'Really? You went to MIT?' She goes, 'No, no, no — in the middle of Indian Township!'"

with files from Myfanwy Davies

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