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Downeast Times Profile
Passamaquoddy Historian Donald Soctomah to Deliver UMM’s Commencement Address, Receive Honorary Degree
No one talks too much about oral history anymore, not in this golden age of technology and telecommunications. Today, those communications are more likely to be between computers than people. But up until this “golden age,” whole races of people only survived with their unique identity in tact because of oral history. Among those people are the Passamaquoddy Tribe.
What exactly is oral history? The OHS (Oral History Society) says it is the recording of people’s memories. Further, it is the recording of their experiences, their language, their songs, poems, legends, rituals, and almost anything else having to do with their culture. These days, besides written material, both audio and visual recordings are made to codify and chronicle the story of a people. This material is then passed down from generation to generation helping to endow each one with a sense of its heritage.
The tribes traditionally considered this process so important, there was often an assigned role of Oral History Keeper. In the early part of the 20th century, the person who held that position for the Passamaquoddy people was Sopiel Selmore. Today, it is his great grandson, Donald Soctomah, who is upholding and strengthening that same vital tradition.
Most of us in this region know Donald Soctomah as the tribe’s Legislative Representative to the Maine Legislature from 1999 to 2002. It was the fervor he felt for historic preservation (perhaps inherited from his great grandfather), that drove him to see to it that Native portraits now hang in the State House in Augusta where there were none before. The protection of key archeological sites, Native graves, and natural resources were just some of the accomplishments of his political career. Today, the work goes on...
Resource and forest issues are a natural for Soctomah–his education at Michigan State, The State University of New York, and the University of Maine was primarily in silviculture and forest management. Silviculture is defined as, “the science, art and practice of caring for forests with respect to human objectives.” For Soctomah, this has involved not only a seat in the Legislature, but he has brought his concerns to his seat on the Board of Directors for Wabanaki Studies at the University of Maine in Orono (UMO). Add to that a seat on the Board of Directors for the Downeast Heritage Center, another for the Abbe Museum, another on the Maine Rural Development Council, another on the Commission for Environmental Cooperation, Gulf of Maine, yet another on the St. Croix International Waterways Commission, and the list goes on.
These days, Donald Soctomah is a moving target. The office he now holds, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer, is a time-honored post he recreated for the tribe in 2003. His work here is so comprehensive as to defy any precise definition. The results, however, are there for all to see. These efforts range from being tribal consultant to filmmakers (he has consulted for the Discovery Channel, Maine PBS, and the Animal Planet Network), to grant writing, to authoring volumes of history of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. The first in this series came out in 2002. It was entitled, “Passamaquoddy at the Turn of the Century.” It features, in addition to well-researched, written history, an extensive pictorial history of that period. The second, “Hard Times at Passamaquoddy” came out in 2003. It too is rich in photographs.
A new children’s book called, “Meeting the French and Passamaquoddy” has also been released with Soctomah’s contributions.
In 2003, work was completed by two scientists, Professors Ray P. Gerber of St. Joseph’s College and Mark H. Hedden from University of Maine at Farmington, on a film documentary called, “Song of the Drum.” It is about Maine’s petroglyphs–the ancient drawings and symbolic engravings in stone by Maine’s Native peoples. Throughout the project, Donald Soctomah served as guide, liaison, and contributor. The piece debuted on public television in the fall of 2004.
Also under his guidance, the first compilation of Passamaquoddy traditional tribal music on CD was released in the spring of 2004 under the title, “Songs of the Passamaquoddy.” In it, Native artists make old music new again, some of it dating back to before any living memory.
A groundbreaking project which will serve school children for generations, is Soctomah’s interactive learning CD, “Landscapes, Legends & Language of the Passamaquoddy People,” released last year. In it, maps including the historic range and movements of the tribe are highlighted with their historic place names, many of them known only to older tribal members. In the research phase, Soctomah interviewed many of the Passamaquoddy elders, mining their memories for clues to these key locations. Along with those memories came the stories that will enrich the learning experience for children and adults alike.
One of the most comprehensive, ambitious tasks he has undertaken so far, is the collection of tribal tapes, some of them dating to the 1890’s, for enhancement and preservation. The first 40 hrs of this oral history, with the help of grant money from Maine State Archives, has just been completed.
What’s ahead for this man of many missions? “My work is diversified, going off in many directions at once. We will continue to record our tribal songs in the Native language. We will be discovering more tapes to enhance for the use of the tribe. We will be completing our cultural study of the archeological site at Meddybemps. My work on Volume III of our history is already underway. It will cover the period from 1850-1890. This year, we will have a building for our new tribal museum. We will fund this and other projects through sales of books and CD’s, grant money, and donations. My overall goal is promote our culture and our language. I feel that my time to do this is now.”
Donald Soctomah is living up to, and probably beyond the standard set by his great grandfather, Sopiel Selmore. With his tireless contributions to tribal culture and preservation, it is safe to say its oral history is assured.
(Downeast Times March 8, 2005; Randy Spencer)