Restoration of 18th-century choir book in Abenaki language may help revitalization efforts

The restoration of an 18th century manuscript of liturgical choir songs written in the Abenaki language will be an important resource for language revitalization efforts in Odanak, Que.

'These documents are very precious,' says Sylvain Rivard

There are only a few documents from the 18th century written in the Abenaki language, including Father Joseph Aubery's manuscript of choir songs. (Ministère de la Culture et des Communications )

The restoration of an 18th century manuscript of liturgical choir songs written in the Abenaki language will be an important resource for language revitalization efforts for Odanak, Que., according to those working to save the endangered language.

"These documents are very precious," said Sylvain Rivard, a French-Canadian and Abenaki artist. 

The manuscript was written in 1750 by Father Joseph Aubery, a Jesuit priest from France assigned to the Saint-François-de-Sales Roman Catholic mission from 1709 until he died in 1756. It's one of the few and earliest documents available in Aln8ba8dwaw8gan, the Abenaki language.

Rivard said the document is an important source for old words not used anymore.

"There's only two or three speakers left in the world," he said.

"Our language is endangered, so any document would be good."

The manuscript had many holes and tears before it was restored. (Patricia Bufe/Ministère de la Culture et des Communications )

A critically endangered language

According to the UNESCO Atlas of the World's Languages in Danger, the vitality of the language is "critically endangered" with only one speaker left and few knowledgeable second-language learners.

Even though Rivard has been learning Aln8ba8dwaw8gan for over a decade, he doesn't consider himself a speaker and feels he's still at the proficiency as a child. 

Sylvain Rivard has been learning Aln8ba8dwaw8gan for over a decade but considers himself to be at a child's skill level. (Jessica Deer/CBC)

Daniel Nolet, the general manager at the Conseil des Abenakis d'Odanak, felt similarly as someone with more advanced knowledge of the language.

"We're capable of speaking a few sentences, maintaining a short conversation, but that's about it," he said. 

Both are still learning, and take weekly evening community classes between September and March with Philippe Charland, a non-Indigenous teacher.

Charland started learning the language in 2008, and replaced a community member after she retired from teaching and no one else was able to take her place. He now teaches college students at Kiuna Institute, as well as evening classes in Wôlinak, Sherbrooke and Montreal.

"I thought the right thing to do was to teach the language," said Charland.

"It's a really fascinating language, and I thought it would be a big loss for humanity to lose the language." 

He said Aubery's manuscript will be useful to his students in the future to provide good examples of sentences in the language that you can't find anywhere else, and many of his students like to learn through music.

"They can sing songs, and the sentences are created in a way that follow the rules of the language," he said.

"When you don't have any speakers around, you have a good example of how a sentence is made, you can read it and understand it."

Restoration process

The Centre de conservation du Quebec (CCQ) has been restoring the manuscript since 2011 at the request of Odanak's Abenaki Museum. Emily Cloutier, a paper conservator at CCQ, said it has been a challenging process.

The restored manuscript will not be able to fit in its old worn leather cover. (Guy Couture/Ministère de la Culture et des Communications)

When the manuscript arrived, it was in poor condition with water damage, many tears, insect damage, and pages filled with what Cloutier described as a "couple of hundred of years" of "finger grease."

"Over the course of the book's history people tried to repair that damage by oversewing and adding glue, which probably saved many of the pages from being lost but made it difficult to open properly," she said. 

"It's very rare that we take apart an entire book or manuscript and wash every single page. We only do that if it's absolutely necessary and if the document itself is very important and in this case, it was."

The manuscript just has to be re-bound before the restoration is complete and it is returned to the Abenaki Museum in Odanak, Que. (Ministère de la Culture et des Communications )

The manuscript still has to be re-bound before it returns to the museum.

For Nolet, the priority is preserving the manuscript for historical value and making it accessible to the community. But he'd also to see forgotten songs revived and sung beyond just church mass.

He said one choir song "Weg8damoda," has become the community's unofficial anthem despite it being about the birth of Jesus.

"We enjoy singing them a lot because they sound nice. We sing it year round at funerals, at the powwow," he said. 

"People took pride in learning the song, but the reality is, it's a Christmas song."


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawà:ke, south of Montreal. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.