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Passamaquoddy People Actively Try to Keep Language Alive

There are around 7,000 living languages in the world, languages that are spoken fluently by living people. It’s estimated that half of them will disappear in the next 100 years. The Passamaquoddy tribe, who primarily live on reservations on the northern coast of Maine, have a language that is thousands of years old, but it’s in danger of disappearing within a few generations. Gabe Grabin of the Salt Institute spoke to those involved in the effort to save it, to find out why it is disappearing, and what they are doing to keep it alive.

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The Passamaquoddy language is a soft, melodic language.

Madonna Soctomah is a Passamaquoddy elder. She’s speaking her tribe’s native language, a language they’ve spoken for 9,000 years. We spoke in Indian Township, a small town full of modest one-story homes near the Canadian border.

"Did you see my face and my body change when I spoke?" asked Soctomah. "Yeah, it makes me happy."

But Madonna, and a few hundred other tribe members her age are the only fluent speakers left. I asked her what it meant to her to see the language disappearing within her lifetime.

"We’ve lost the way. That’s all I can say," she said. "We’re losing our value system, that we grew up with."

So how did this happen? How does an ancient language disappear so quickly? Dolly Apt is another Passamaquoddy elder, a grandmother of ten, who grew up nearby.

I remember the TV coming into our house," Apt said. "We were one of the first homes to have a TV. It was like going to the movies, all the kids that lived on the point at the time would come to my house, there was no floor space left. I really think that was the beginning of the change for us, with the language."

So everybody was being exposed to English through the TV set. But English came into the kids’ lives even more forcefully in the reservation schools, where none of the teachers were Passamaquoddy, or spoke the language. This is Wayne Newell, another elder.

"One of the things you weren't allowed to do was speak your language," said Newell. "That was the first instruction you got. and you were punished if you did."

Before long, no Passamaquoddy children were able to speak the language.

In the early 70s, we started realizing that if we don't do something, we're going to have a very serious problem," Newell said.

But it’s not easy to save a dying language, especially one that’s never been written down. First it has to be documented. Donald Soctomah is one of the tribe’s primary historians.

"A couple of the elders started working with linguists," said Soctomah. "The first dictionary was 6,000 words. They started there and they continued, continued. Today we have an 18,000 word dictionary."

As the dictionary project gained momentum, the team found a way to make it more accessible than just a book in a library.

"My part in the project was to create an audio dictionary," he said.

That audio dictionary is now online, at a site called the language portal.

"The first word, there’s two different ways of saying it," he said.

Dolly Apt showed me how it works.

"And if you wanted to hear it, you’d hit this button," she said. "And then if you wanted to hear the sentence, you’d hit this one."

The dictionary has documented the language. But it’s another thing entirely to bring it back to daily use.

"My brother refuses to speak it because of the way he was treated when he tried to speak it. He was ridiculed, and when that happens to a person, they don’t want to try it again," Apt said.

Linguists call people like Dolly’s brother "fluent comprehenders." They can understand Passamaquoddy when spoken to, but they can only respond in English. So how do you get them speaking again?

Ben Levine, a clinical-psychologist-turned-filmmaker based in Rockland, Maine, said that the first step is to address the pain that stops fluent comprehenders from speaking. The way he does that is by a process called "video feedback," and to illustrate how it works, he told me about one memorable session.

"We had been encouraged to film a group of people who played cards," Levine said.

You can actually watch this video on the language portal site. A group of Passamaquoddy elders are sitting around a kitchen table. Their conversation is subtitled in Passamaquoddy and in English. They start talking about how the teachers would hit them with rulers for speaking Passamaquoddy.

"One of the people talked about how her first period came on when she was in class. And she didn’t know how to tell the teacher that she was having a problem," he said. "And so the teacher started to beat her up. And hung her from a hook."

The woman later told Ben that it felt good to talk about the experience. And when Ben plays the video back for more community members, that feeling gets multiplied.

"It'll trigger a memory in somebody else. so now a lot of memories are coming out of the repressed part of the community," he said.

This kind of catharsis is crucial if you’re trying to get the community to start speaking again.

"Would you try to teach everybody the language from scratch, or would you go to those people who understand everything that’s being said, but they can’t speak it?" Levine asked. "You’d try to help them become speakers, and create a sense of hope and a sense of forward momentum, a new day for that community."

A lot has been done to counteract the loss of the Passamaquoddy language: the dictionary, the language portal, now there’s even a program in the reservation schools to teach the native language to kids. Wayne Newell was instrumental in bringing these changes about, but he admits that its disappearance of the language is still a real possibility.

"We have done some stuff to slow it up, but unfortunately we haven't done enough to be where I want to be, and that is get another generation of speakers," said Newell.

Bert Polchies is one community member who is taking this mission to heart. He raised his son to speak Passamaquoddy as his first language.

"I feel that it needs to be a total immersion," Polchies said. "I think that’s the biggest hope that we would be able to have."

His son was fluent as a child, but he’s a teenager now, and losing his grasp on the language, because there’s really no one for him to speak it with.

"You can do all you can to preserve it, but preservation is nothing if you’re not using it. It’s just like, you can tomatoes, right? To preserve ‘em," said Polchies. "But what good does it do anybody if you’re not eating ‘em? You do that so you can use ‘em, right? And it’s the same thing with our culture. You can’t preserve it and not expect to use it. All these people in our communities talking about how to preserve our ways, well, you need to use ‘em too."

Like so many indigenous peoples around the world, the Passamaquoddy have been defending their culture for centuries against outside forces that threaten to destroy it. If their language ceases to be spoken, the world loses more than just a set of words. We lose a way for people to relate to each other. There’s a word for what’s happening to the Passamaquoddy language. I found it on the language portal...Ksihkawsewiw. Which means “it is disappearing gradually.”


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