Preserving the Passamaquoddy Language and Culture
Woli Qesawyk, the Passamaquoddy translation of Pleasant Point, is located in the region of Downeast Maine locally known as Sipayik. This region extends from Passamaquoddy Bay south to Reversing Falls in Pembroke. Sipayik, I am told by my host, David Francis, means “along the edge.” Mr. Francis is the language coordinator at the Waponahki Museum at Pleasant Point and an elder of the Passamaquoddy Tribe. He is also very active in the development of a written form of the Passamaquoddy language, which up until 1970 was only a spoken language.
According to Mr. Francis, the Passamaquoddy refer to themselves and other people whose roots go back before the influx of Europeans, as Skicin (pronounced “skee-jin”). Many words are difficult to translate because their meanings are spiritually based. Mr. Francis tried to put it into words that I might understand. “It means… with the earth…human beings with the earth. Native American is a misnomer. Hawaiians are native American, but they are not Skicin. If you are born here, you are a native, but you are not Skicin.” The Passamaquoddy are part of the Algonquin Nation, which includes tribes all over eastern North America. The local tribes include Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy.
Mr. Frances was born in 1917 at Pleasant Point, attended Shead High School in Eastport and graduated in 1935. “Because of the language barrier, it took me five years to graduate,” he admitted. He spoke and understood little English until he enlisted in the Army in 1940. “There, I had to use English, like it or not!” While in the army, he completed a course on the International Morse Code. This interest was perhaps a prelude to his deep involvement in language interpretation that would later come about.
After World War II, Mr. Francis returned to Pleasant Point, and worked at seasonal jobs including digging clams, blueberry raking, and was also employed at the Riviera Fish Factory in Eastport, long-since burned down. In 1975 Professor Robert Leavitt of the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton offered a course at the Beatrice Rafferty School at Pleasant Point, in reading and writing the Passamaquoddy language. Mr. Francis was intrigued by this offering, as it would be a means of preserving the language and thus providing a way to record history and tradition among his people. There began Mr. Francis’ commitment to the “save the language.” With no other formal training or education, he continued teaching himself the concepts with which he would help translate the oral language into written.
Mr. Francis continued to work with Dr. Leavitt and have worked on a second edition Passamaquoddy-Maliseet dictionary. (In terms of language, Maliseet is nearly identical to Passamaquoddy, with differences in dialect.) The first edition contained 2000 words. This second edition, which was painstakingly entered into computer by Margaret Dana who teaches the language through the reservation’s Youth Organization, has over 9000 entries to date. The creation of this second edition was funded by a two-year grant from the National Science Foundation. Unfortunately, the funding has been exhausted, and work has been suspended.
According to Dr. Leavitt’s grant proposal, there are only approximately 2000 speakers of the Passamaquoddy language in the state of Maine. Of that number, less than 500 are fluent and almost all of these fluent speakers are over 50 years of age. With the very real possibility of the Passamaquoddy language, history, and culture being lost forever, Mr. Francis and Mr. Leavitt wanted to continue the work started by Phillip LeSourds, who developed the manuscript from which their first dictionary was published. By developing a written language, all the stories, legends, history, and traditions which up until now were being passed down through the generations by word of mouth, could be put into printed form and permanently recorded.
The effort by Mr. Francis and Dr. Leavitt is an enormous undertaking. Mr. Francis explained that much like any other languages, there are variations of word usage, colloquialisms, indicators of possession and location. The Passamaquoddy language has no words to differentiate between the sexes and there is no verb “to be.” In trying to illustrate the language to me, Mr. Francis explained that all Passamaquoddy words are either animate or inanimate. Just when I thought I was beginning to catch on, he told me that a spoon was animate, but a knife was inanimate. Ice is animate, water is inanimate. Go figure! I was already lost at “no difference between the sexes!” So at this point, I turned our conversation to the museum.
In 1987 with the help of Joseph Nicholas, Mr. Francis opened the Waponahki Museum. The items on display are mostly all donated from area residents. They started with several old-fashioned tin post cards, which were reproduced, into the pictures visitors see hanging on the walls today. A large collection of interesting artifacts was donated by Virginia Pottle of Perry. These irreplaceable pieces include a birch-bark canoe, snowshoes, hand-woven baskets, and a variety of antique tools used by the Skicinuwok. She was concerned because the items had been stored in her barn and she was afraid they would get damaged and donated them to the museum to ensure their preservation.
The resource/language room is where Mr. Francis and Dr. Leavitt do most of their work. On chalkboard at the back of the room there are the remnants of a shared vocabulary lesson including English, Passamaquoddy, and Japanese, when a group of Japanese visitors toured the museum. Across the top of the chalkboard, Mr. Francis has written the Passamaquoddy equivalent to 1999. Because the language does not include any symbols for numbers, the result is a lengthy series of words best described as a word-equation.
In another room, there are life-size plaster likenesses of actual Passamaquoddy people, dressed in traditional attire. Included is a likeness of Margaret Nicholas, an elder who recently passed away at the age of 102.
So much of the Passamaquoddy history is sheltered in the modest building known as the Waponahki Museum. In the thirteen years since its inception, David Francis and Joseph Nicholas have gathered vast amounts of information, and yet there is a tremendous amount of historical information that still needs to be gathered and preserved. They want to expand and upgrade the facility but won’t be able to do so without passing on their passion for Passamaquoddy culture. The deep desire to maintain and preserve has to be infused into the young people so that they will also feel the self-respect and pride of their ancestors. The museum has been successful in that it is often visited by groups of local school children who are eager to learn about their heritage. If just one or two of these kids turns out to have the determination of David Francis or Joseph Nicholas, then the work of these strong-principled men and others like them will have been well worth it.
–written by Andrea Barstow