Lost in Translation
The preschoolers at the Penobscot Indian Children's Center fidget on their carpet squares, eager to show their stuff. With daycare coordinator Tricia Stewart leading them, they sing "Itsy Bitsy Spider" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star," name colors and numbers, recite days of the week - all in Penobscot, their native language. In their glad grand finale, they name a multitude of animals.
"How do we say . . . bee?" asks Stewart. " Amrwes!" they shout in unison. "How about . . . beaver?" "Tomake!" And porcupine? "Matawehso!" Skunk? "Apikcilo!" Bear? "Awehsohs!" Crab? "Nemcinohset!"
The squeaky voices struggle with tune and pitch, but they sail right through the words - the melodic, exotic, ancient words of their ancestors, words that for centuries told the singular stories of their people but have since been largely lost to their parents and grandparents.
The Penobscot Nation is waging an uphill battle to save its musical language and, some say, its culture as well. Like native languages worldwide, the languages of Maine's four tribes are dwindling. But the status of Penobscot is deemed especially dire. In recent years, as elders have died off, the number of fluent speakers has dwindled to a slim handful.
Still, tribal members involved in the revitalization effort dismiss press reports of the death of Penobscot as laughably premature; many note that such reports have been circulating for hundreds of years. And they are fighting back with an innovative, wide-ranging program aimed, in the words of Carol Dana, at "renaming our world."
Beyond the games at the Children's Center on Indian Island, there are summer immersion camps, programs at the Boys' and Girls' Club, even a computerized primer. There are illustrated dictionaries and books with CDs to aid pronunciation. At the elementary school, teachers mentor teachers. Their students attend weekly language classes, hear morning announcements in Penobscot, go to bathrooms marked "phenomak" (girls) and "senapak" (boys), and practice traditional skills like drumming in recognition of the belief, in Dana's words, that "language and culture are one and the same."
The tribe's "language master," Dana remembers lying in bed as a child, hearing her grandmother and her peers tell old stories in their native tongue. But she also heard painful new stories. It was widely said that the nuns who ran the elementary school, fervent believers in assimilation, slapped kids' hands if they spoke Penobscot rather than "the Lord's English." Over time, intent on survival, the elders declined to pass along the troublesome tongue to their children.
Broadening the gap between old and new, young people obliged their parents: most "crossed the bridge" to a white high school - and kept on going. After decades of "being educated out of who we are," says Dana, shame and time won out and the language largely withered.
Now fifty-five years old, Dana spent twenty years arduously relearning what she had lost. Slowly, fragments from her childhood began to come back to her. Today, she says, she thinks in Penobscot. She admits it can get lonesome.
As befits an oral tradition spanning thousands of years, Dana diligently passes on what she has learned, from the words themselves to the values they reflect. She teaches two tribal language apprentices, who teach Tricia Stewart and the daycare workers, who teach the squeaky, ardent kids.
The task facing the Penobscot Nation, Dana says, is simple, daunting, and essential: "We have to recreate ourselves."
Linguists agree that native languages around the globe are disappearing. Common estimates suggest that between half and 90 percent of the world's six thousand languages will die within the next century.
According to many experts, Penobscot is among them - though debate continues as to whether it is "dead" or merely "dormant." Either way, outsiders paint a grim picture. Dr. Ives Goddard, curator and senior linguist at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, has been quoted as declaring: "The Penobscot language is extinct. There are no native speakers."
Of course this is news - alternately amusing and infuriating - to tribal members who exchange daily pleasantries in their native tongue. In reality, almost anyone of a certain age on Indian Island will say they can still hear echoes of a native-speaking grandmother or aunt, and many repeat the native phrases of daily life to their children: "scowi mits" (come eat!) "koli keseht" (good job!) "ciksrta" (be quiet!) "krselrmzl" (I love you).
The disconnect between white and native perceptions is centuries old, a fragment of what one Penobscot activist calls "our twistory."
Part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, the Penobscot numbered up to ten thousand in the 1600s, but dwindled by the 1800s to about three hundred. Today the tribe has roughly 2,500 members nationwide, more than half of whom live in Maine. Of those, almost 450 live on Indian Island, a wooded cluster of tidy houses, health center, community center, tribal court, school, and Bingo Palace in the Penobscot River just outside downtown Old Town. Another hundred or so non-natives and members of other tribes also live there.
Of the New England states, only Maine's four tribal languages are recognized by the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs as "living," or still spoken fluently, at least by some. Penobscot, Passa-maquoddy, and Maliseet, all derived from Eastern Algonquin, are closely related; Micmac is "discrete."
Penobscot is characterized by polysyllabic words and sing-song rhythms that sound both melodious and profoundly foreign to non-native ears. Verbs are all-important, concisely conveying active images: floor translates to "as it's going it's nailed down," field is "where the fire has been," mouse is "it wakes you in the night," canoe is "it flows lightly upon the water" - lightness being essential in the days of long portages.
Tribal members grieve that that kind of cultural context, what tribal historian James Francis calls "the meaning behind the language," is lost along with the words themselves. A self-described "second-generation non-speaker," Francis runs the educational outreach program mandated by a 2001 law requiring all Maine schools to teach native history and culture.
Such enlightened laws seem light years away from the 1940s and 1950s, when native culture began to fall prey to outside pressures and, says Francis, "it wasn't fashionable to be Indian." In the post-war boom, young people crossed the bridge in droves to seek their fortune and, often, a new sense of self. They left behind their language.
The trend continued for decades. One of the first to turn the tide was Barry Dana, Carol's cousin and a dynamic teacher who later become chief. In 1985, he began teaching Penobscot as part of a native studies program at the school on Indian Island. Over time, others picked up the vital thread.
In 2002 the tribe formed the Penobscot Indian Nation Cultural and Historic Preservation Department with a grant from the federal Administration for Native Americans. Several subsequent grants have funded the department's array of programs, along with a Web site offering classroom and other language resources to "allow us to open the language gates that, out of shame, were closed so many years ago."
The goal of the program, says director Maria Girouard, is to "spread out the burden of language learning." Like others, Girouard has vivid memories of her grandmother and other elders speaking Penobscot, especially when they didn't want the kids to understand. She continues to use native phrases with her two teenage children. She says that even if they respond in English, which they often do, "I know they're hearing it, and I'm doing my piece."
Noting there are pockets of native-speaking Penobscot around the state, Girouard rejects the oft-circulated reports of the death of the language. She says she recently read a Penobscot history about the 1800s in which worried elders proclaimed one of their own the last native speaker - the same title conferred in the 1990s on Madeline Shay, a famed Penobscot basket maker who died a few years ago.
"The reality is, we're still here, and we still have a handful of people - going on two handfuls - with a good grasp of the language," Girouard says.
Thanks are due in large part to Carol Dana, who concedes, "I kinda carried it for years." Having left the island to get an education, she worked through the 1980s to build on her childhood scraps of Penobscot. She pestered Madeline Shay, or "Muddlin," to talk to her. She consulted English as a Second Language teachers, conjugated verbs, assembled vocabulary lists.
In the 1990s, she taught language at the elementary school, focusing on "the things kids like to learn" - body parts, animals, relatives. More recently, she has translated songs for the daycare, compiled a pictionary, and worked at collecting native legends - "the basket in which we carry our language." Her one regret is that she was so busy, she failed to teach Penobscot to her six children. She hopes her four grandchildren will pick up the torch.
Dana also teaches Maulian Dana, Barry's daughter and one of two tribal language apprentices. When she started studying Penobscot at fifteen, says Maulian, "it was just another thing to learn." At twenty-three, with a young daughter, "I get how deep that work is." She is now compiling an English-to-Penobscot dictionary.
Above all, tribal members say young people must learn early and often to speak their native tongue. At the handsome Indian Island School, 120 kids from kindergarten to eighth grade hear that message daily.
Native culture is everywhere: the birchbark canoe at the entrance, the display cases with sweet-grass baskets, the airy library adorned with totem poles and hanging tapestries celebrating clan animals. In the gleaming gym, the floor bears the headdressed icon for the Warriors, the school's basketball team. That, too, has been misrepresented, says language teacher Roger Paul.
" `Warrior' means `put yourself in harm's way to protect others,' " he notes mildly. "As always, a lot is lost in translation. We try to straighten that out here."
Paul, a forty-six-year-old Passamaquoddy, was raised by elders who insisted he speak his native tongue. Here, he returns the favor: kids asking to use the bathroom must use the Penobscot "wikamiss," or "little house."
Strolling the halls, he smilingly greets and is greeted in Penobscot by native and non-native teachers alike. Hearing the melodic words, he says, brings him comfort and a sense of belonging, "like the elders are holding me."
For Paul, "the language is the culture." He stresses its spiritual aspects, its reflection of values, belief systems, "the way we've lived for generations."
"When we teach our children the language," he says, "it's showing them the world of our ancestors."
Paul loves to tell stories, his voice lilting even in English. Stories about creation and "the big ice," about the spirit world, about the "great dying" that was smallpox, about how the history of his people is told in their braids. He likes to tell of a linguistics conference where he sat chattering with other native speakers while an "expert" at the podium declared their language dead.
And he tells of the time the second graders presented a skit in Penobscot at the assisted living facility, a building deliberately constructed across from the school so the old can see the young at play, and take heart. As the children spoke their careful lines and the elders once more heard their native tongue, many cried. Telling the story, Paul does, too.
The World, Renamed
The Penobscot Nation owns 315-acre Indian Island, in the Penobscot River, along with more than a hundred thousand acres of tribal land throughout Maine. The language the Penobscots use to describe the world around them is vivid, often conveying their past, their stories, and the way their ancestors long lived. Thus, Kenduskeag Stream is "Kkztasuihtrj" or "place of the water parsnips," and Blackman Stream is "Alahkrcimehsihtrj," or "where there is little fishing with casting nets." Islesboro is "Pitzpeji menahan," or "the island that lies between two channels," and Cape Rosier is "Mosikatcik," or "the moose rump." Rivers and streams become "where the current tumbles downward," "where the water is still," "where there is an upright bank," "where the flow changes direction," "where there is a centrally placed rock." Islands are "the place for tanning hides," "the place where there are ants," and "where he makes a little - or bad - carry," or portage. The Penobscot River is "Pznawzhpskek mrnrhan," or "place of the white rocks." The word for a Penobscot person - "Pznawzhpskewi" - ripples, much as "the people of the water" it describes. Most tellingly, Indian Island itself is
"Alrnzpe mrnrhan," or "the people's island.".
Saviors - of a Sort
Depending on their temperament, tribal members are alternately enraged or bemused by white experts' periodic pronouncements of the extinction of their language. At the same time, several white men have played a key role in the revival effort, a fact that prompts mixed feelings among Penobscots.
Dr. Frank Siebert was an eccentric, curmudgeonly, nationally recognized expert on Native American languages who spent years deciphering the Penobscot language and compiling a dictionary. Over time, he also assembled two volumes of Penobscot legends
Much of that material made its way to the Penobscot via Conor Quinn, a young, white, gifted linguistics student at Harvard University who grew up in Portland. Quinn spent several summers in the 1990s working with Siebert, transcribing his lengthy notebooks and learning Penobscot in the process.
Quinn's role remains pivotal, if controversial. Some native speakers say he saved their language. Others recognize as much, but ask at what cost. Carol Dana studied with Quinn and is grateful for his contributions, but also decries the often-fatal native tradition of "always chasing after some Western model that doesn't work."
To Dana, Siebert recorded "what is, not the thinking behind it." As a result, she feels his work remains vital, but too literal. "We're left with the book, the words on the page," she says. "We need the native thought that goes with it."
Both Siebert and Quinn also knew Richard Garrett, a white photographer from Wellington, Maine. Working with Madeline Shay, one of the last elder native speakers, Garrett developed a computerized interactive primer on the Penobscot language. As always, much was open to interpretation. He would show her a picture of, say, the refuse from a paper mill; she would translate as "the white man's bad medicine."
Today, the primer is available at the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine. It is dedicated to Shay's grandchildren.