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Listening to 130-Year-Old Passamaquoddy Recordings

Dwayne Tomah hopes the wax-cylinder audio can help revive his tribe's language.

Listening to 130-Year-Old Passamaquoddy Recordings
In woods near his Perry home, Dwayne Tomah performs songs recovered from 130-year-old wax-cylinder recordings.
By Will Grunewald
Photographed by Kevin Bennett

In 1890, anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes lugged an Edison phonograph to Calais, near the Passamaquoddy’s Indian Township and Pleasant Point reservations. Then, he had tribe members speak and sing into the device’s bell-shaped horn. The scratchy recordings, on hollow wax cylinders, languished in archives until a few years ago, when Library of Congress engineers digitized them and sent them to the tribe.1

Dwayne Tomah spent much of the past year listening to and transcribing the files, as well as performing the songs at tribal events. As of late last year, he’d worked through 16 of 31 recordings. At 54 years old, he’s the youngest fluent Passamaquoddy speaker, as best he knows. He lives with his wife, Erica, and daughter, Lilliana, in Perry, where he recently discussed what these recordings mean to him and to the tribe.


How did you learn to speak the language?

From my grandmother. I spent a lot of time with her, and she really never spoke English. She spoke Passamaquoddy, so I was completely surrounded by it at an early age. I was fortunate in that way. And in the ’70s, it was spoken a lot more in the community than it is now.

Are there many other fluent speakers?

I don’t know exactly, but the numbers are low. The language is still used — there are people who know bits and pieces, people who can comprehend, and people who speak fluently — but as many of our elders have passed, a lot of that ability went with them. There are so many factors in the diminishing of our people, but health care is a big one.2

The younger generations aren’t picking up the language?

It’s really difficult to keep kids speaking it. Most people don’t realize the challenge of trying to save a language, to preserve a culture, when you have systems in place that violate your rights, your beliefs, your whole way of living. Indigenous languages have their space taken all the time, because English is so dominant. You have to take back that space — find ways to connect with people in your own language.

And the Fewkes recordings can help?

Honestly, I wept the first time I heard one. Just listening is really powerful. It’s such a deep connection, to hear my ancestors’ voices. This is sacred work.

Does the language sound the same?

Some of the endings of the words, it’s amazing how they evolved. You can also pick up differences in fluctuation, in tone. The flow is different. Our language is almost like music. Transcripts are important for preservation, but it’s an oral language.3 There’s deeper meaning in hearing it.

I gather the tribe decides if certain audio is kept out of the public domain.

We’ve had lots of discussion, because it’s so important when you’re dealing with sacred ceremonies — funeral ceremonies, especially — to preserve them and not have them be exploited or used some other way.

Have the recordings made an impact in the wider community?

I certainly hope Passamaquoddy people feel good about themselves, because society has a tendency to ridicule indigenous peoples and to put them down. I think this is a way of helping them be able to understand that their culture and language and history and songs are who they are and not to ever get away from that.

You probably think of your daughter’s future while you do this work.

Always. I try to keep her involved, teaching her the history, the songs, the language. Lilliana is already a very good comprehender.

Could she someday take the mantle of youngest Passamaquoddy speaker?

That’s the goal. Absolutely. We’ve occupied this territory for over 10,000 years, and to sit here in 2019 and say “I can speak my language” speaks volumes to the resilience the people have. So I want to leave a legacy for whoever picks up where I leave off. Somebody will, because I’m picking up where somebody else left off.


(1) Digital repatriation, electronically returning artifacts to the cultures that created them, is increasingly common for museums and other research institutions. The Passamaquoddy now host their recordings at passamaquoddypeople.com.
(2) Life expectancy among indigenous peoples is about five and a half years below the national average.
(3) Until the 1970s, Passamaquoddy language was a wholly oral tradition. The tribe has since adopted a 17-letter version of the English alphabet. In 2008, the University of Maine Press printed an 18,000-word Passamaquoddy-Maliseet dictionary. Now, an online dictionary is at pmportal.org.