Passamaquoddy Tribe Looking to Children to Preserve Language

Dec 23, 2015

Languages across the world are disappearing as fewer people learn to speak, read, and write the words of their ancestors. Research suggests that roughly half of the 7,000 languages currently spoken will be gone by the start of the next century.

In the U.S., at least three native languages have become extinct over the last ten years, part of the long-term consequence of English-only laws and cultural assimilation. But in Maine, the Passamaquoddy tribe is determined to ensure its language will not meet the same fate.

"My age group is probably the last group of truly fluent people," says Wayne Newell, now in his early 70s.

When Newell was a child in Pleasant Point, speaking Passamaquoddy was an everyday occurrence. But by the mid 1960s, Newell says his younger siblings, who understood their native language, began talking exclusively in English.

"That was about the time television was introduced into the homes," he says. "And that was a major factor I think. We did not notice it until later on though, that that was harming our ability to communicate in our own language, our native language."

Newell says it's essential that he, and others like him, encourage those who comprehend Passamaquoddy to speak it as well.

With only about 3,500 members in the whole tribe, and the fluent generation rapidly aging, the fear is that the language could be lost. So Newell and other members of the tribe are learning to teach what they know.

Speaking Place is a Rockland-based nonprofit that works to restore endangered languages and support the communities that speak them. As a linguist, Speaking Place Co-Director Julia Schulz has worked extensively in Acadian communities and developed a Penobscot language teaching program.

Now she's doing something similar with the Passamaquoddy tribe as part of a three-year grant from the Administration For Native Americans.

"We're working on the assumption that the language that you're exposed to as a child is in your brain — your brain is hardwired for it," Schulz says. "So even if you don't use it for many many years, there are vestiges of that language and they can be brought back to life."

While not a speaker of Passamaquoddy herself, Schulz knows how to get lapsed speakers and new speakers speaking.

Newell Lewey reads a Passamaquoddy song.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / MPBN

Eleanor Stevens is one of the fluent speakers helping with the class. She says her age group didn't realize how much knowledge was being lost.

For example, she says Passamaquoddy humor and jokes just don't work in English. And she says the right language is important for conveying certain cultural moods.

"If I was going to relate to you how my weekend was, I'd probably, it probably would be easier for me to speak it in Passamaquoddy than in English," Stevens says.

Stevens will help members of the tribe achieve the fluency they've never had. Another part of the project involves the creation of a Passamaquoddy language immersion school for the tribe's littlest members. Lesson plans will include songs, pictures, stories, and miming techniques.

Donald Soctomah, the tribe's cultural preservation officer, is the grant's administrator. He's a Passamaquoddy comprehender, but says after a lifetime spent absorbing English, he struggles to speak his native tongue.

Fortunately, he says, it's not too late for the Passamaquoddy.

Donald Soctomah (right)
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / MPBN

"At least 10 percent of our population are fluent speakers," Soctomah says. "And if you look at the whole nation, that's a high percentage."

Additionally, Soctomah says a good number of Passamaquoddy Gen-Xers are able to understand the language fairly well. And their young kids, he says, have been learning bits of the language in the tribal schools.

"But they have to have that parent acknowledgment at the other end, and if the parents are comprehenders, they're not speaking," he says. "So it's sort of slowly disappearing. But we see this as a new start. A new hope for us."

The tribal comprehenders in the class will continue to work with Schulz and the elders for several weeks to become language apprentices. Then, in late January, they'll begin teaching 3- to 5-year-olds what they know, while continuing their own practice.

The pilot class will teach seven children. If successful, that number will double. By the time the grant ends, Soctomah hopes that 21 tribal tots will be well on their way to a lifetime of Passamaquoddy fluency, and a generation of comprehenders will at last be able to speak the language of their parents.