Historic Recordings Revitalize Language For Passamaquoddy Tribal Members

Sep 3, 2019
Originally published on September 4, 2019 10:38 am

Dwayne Tomah sits at his kitchen table in Perry, Maine, and pulls up an audio file on his computer. When he hits play, the speakers emit a cracked, slightly garbled recording. Through the white noise, Tomah scratches out the words he hears, rewinding every few seconds.

Word by word, Tomah is attempting to transcribe and interpret dozens of recordings of Passamaquoddy tribal members, some of which are only recently being heard and publicly shared for the first time in more than a century.

"I really, I wept. Hearing their voices. Knowing that I'm probably one of the last fluent speakers on the reservation," Tomah says. "And that we're still continuing this process, to be able to revitalize our language and bring it back to life again, so to speak. And give it some attention that it really deserves."

"It's language"

Dwayne Tomah listens to and transcribes an old Passamaquoddy story from a digital copy of a wax cylinder recording. Tomah and others in the Passamaquoddy tribe are translating and interpreting the 129-year-old wax cylinder recordings, which have been digitally restored.
Robbie Feinberg/Maine Public

The story behind these recordings goes back to 1890, when an anthropologist named Walter Jesse Fewkes took a research trip to Calais, Maine. He borrowed an early audio recording device: a phonograph from Thomas Edison that recorded sounds on large, wax cylinders — about 2 1/2 to three minutes each.

"So this was the first time they took this big piece of equipment and modernized it so he could use it outside," says Donald Soctomah, the Passamaquoddy tribal historic preservation officer.

In March of that year, Fewkes visited Calais, phonograph in hand, and met with three Passamaquoddy representatives.

"The three spokesmen for the tribe sang songs. Told stories. And did basic things like pronunciation of words and numbers and days," Soctomah says.

In total, Fewkes recorded onto more than 30 cylinders. But for decades, the recordings were largely forgotten. Historians say Fewkes' family likely held on to them for a time, and they eventually ended up at Boston's Peabody Museum.

Tribal members didn't hear the recordings again until the 1970s and 1980s, when the Library of Congress reached out to them as part of an effort to catalog thousands of the wax cylinders and share them with tribes. A Passamaquoddy tribal elder received a cassette of the 1890 recordings, but at that point, they were scratchy and difficult to understand.

Then, about a decade ago, a similar effort was attempted using digital technology. Guha Shankar, a folklife specialist at the Library's American Folklife Center, says the 1890 Passamaquoddy recordings were some of the first that the library wanted to restore.

"Historically, they're the oldest materials that we have in our archives," Shankar says. In 2013, the agency began to meet with Soctomah.

"And then I told him that one of the things I'd like to do is develop a culturally based website where the tribe controls its stories. It's language," Soctomah says. "Without any outside forces trying to take it over or commercialize it."

Traditionally, that's been rare in the world of museums, says NYU professor Jane Anderson, who worked with the tribe on the project. She says that only relatively recently have institutions begun to partner with communities like the Passamaquoddy to share cultural artifacts.

"What we see when this material starts to be returned, it gets activated in new ways," Anderson says. "And it gets activated in ways that are kind of, previously, from a Western cultural lens, impossible to anticipate."

Over the next few years, the tribe agreed to partner with the library and other institutions on the project. The library would restore the recordings, and from there, the Passamaquoddy would decide the next steps.

"My heart was smiling"

Passamaquoddy Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Donald Soctomah stands inside the Passamaquoddy Tribal Museum in Indian Township, Maine.
Credit Robbie Feinberg/Maine Public

Since last year, the tribe's youngest fluent Passamaquoddy speaker, Dwayne Tomah, has spent hours transcribing and interpreting each cylinder. He notes words and stories — even how the language has morphed over nearly 130 years. The work is then reviewed by a panel of other fluent Passamaquoddy speakers. Some pieces have been added to a curated digital website kept by the tribe.

After efforts to eradicate Native American culture and language, Tomah says this project is critical for passing Passamaquoddy culture to future generations.

"And I think that's really what the goal is, really, is to influence the children," he says. "Because they are really the key to passing this language on. And for them to continue it. So I think it needs to stem from them."

While several cylinders have been reviewed, many are still being transcribed and interpreted. But already, the songs and stories have begun to weave their way back into tribal events. Tomah has sung several of them in public. His daughter also joined him for a song last year at an annual celebration.

The year before, tribal historic preservation officer Donald Soctomah played a song from the wax cylinder recordings to a group of young children at the tribe's language immersion school. He says one of the teachers, who learned a version of the song from her grandmother, joined in. Then, a month later, Soctomah visited again.

"I said, 'I'm going to play it again,'" Soctomah says. "And the teacher said, 'No, you don't have to play it. Just listen to the kids.' Those kids around the table were singing that song. I said, 'Wow.'"

"I just had a big smile on my face," he adds. "I don't smile much. So my heart was smiling."

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Some of the oldest audio recordings in the world have been digitally restored and returned to the descendants of the people who made them, the Passamaquoddy tribe of eastern Maine. Now younger members of the tribe are learning songs and stories once thought to be forever lost. Reporter Erin Slomski-Pritz has the story.


DWAYNE TOMAH: (Singing in Passamaquoddy).

ERIN SLOMSKI-PRITZ, BYLINE: Growing up, Dwayne Tomah learned many Passamaquoddy songs from his grandmother, but the one you're hearing now was not among them. Tomah learned this song as an adult off of a 129-year-old wax cylinder recording. This recording.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in Passamaquoddy).

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: This song is part of a collection of 26 surviving songs, stories and histories recorded on wax cylinders. They are the oldest ethnographic recordings in the world, made with one of Thomas Edison's brand-new inventions.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking in Passamaquoddy).

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: In 1890, anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes traveled to remote Calais, Maine, to meet with the Passamaquoddy and test out Edison's phonograph. In this archival recording, Fewkes shows the Passamaquoddy how the device works.


JESSE WALTER FEWKES: You can talk into it as fast as you like, or you can speak as deliberately as you choose. In either case, it reproduces exactly what you say.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: A handful of respected members of the Passamaquoddy tribe took turns recording their voices onto 35 wax cylinders.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in Passamaquoddy).

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: A century would pass before the Passamaquoddy would hear these recordings again. While the cylinders gathered dust in a museum archive, many of the documented songs and stories disappeared from cultural memory, largely due to state-sanctioned policies in Maine that discourage the Passamaquoddy from speaking their language. In that time, the rate of fluency went from 100% to around 10%.

Passamaquoddy historian Donald Soctomah, who is 64 years old, experienced this shift firsthand.

DAVID SOCTOMAH: I grew up in a household where everybody spoke the language. But when they spoke to me, they spoke in English.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: The recordings first resurfaced around 1980. The tribe received a collection of cassettes from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. One of the Passamaquoddy elders listened to the tapes. Here's what he heard.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing in Passamaquoddy).

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: The quality was bad. But underneath the static, according to Soctomah, the elder was able to identify the speaker.

SOCTOMAH: He did recognize the voice, and he said that's Passamaquoddy, and that's my godfather.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: As meaningful as it was to have these recordings, they were just too hard to understand. Again, they sat in storage. Then in 2016, the Library of Congress digitized the recordings, and, thanks to another advance in technology, removed a good portion of the static. For the first time, fluent Passamaquoddy speakers, like Dwayne Tomah, could not only recognize the voice. They could understand the words.

TOMAH: It was really actually a very emotional moment for me. That I am a descendant of the people that are actually documenting this stuff and to be able to understand them - it was really, really a powerful moment.

TOMAH: Now Tomah has joined a group of Passamaquoddy elders on a project to reintroduce these songs and stories into their community.

TOMAH: If we didn't have access to these cylinders, these songs would never be sung ever again. They have a second life. I think it's really - it's amazing, really.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: This second life involves passing on these songs to the next generation of Passamaquoddy.


TOMAH: So it was an honor for me to be here today to honor the students who are graduating.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: Just a few miles away from where these first recordings were made in Calais, Maine, Dwayne Tomah stood dressed in deer skins in a crowded high school gymnasium. He told the crowd of students and families, many of whom were Passamaquoddy, that he had chosen a special song for this day.


TOMAH: And this song was a gathering song to bring people together as one people.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: It's a song that many of their ancestors would have sung, a song that was almost lost, a song that Tomah has brought home.


TOMAH: (Singing in Passamaquoddy).

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: For NPR News, I'm Erin Slomski-Pritz.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE LAB BEATS' "PINEAPPLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.