Night sky in Maine  by Jon Secord

Night sky in Maine by Jon Secord


Dr. Ives Goddard studies the Penobscot language in the way an astronomer might study a dead star—listening for clues to an earlier moment in the universe. And the curator at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History says he’s frustrated by Americans’ disinterest in such science.

“Americans’ attitude toward language is pretty uninformed,” he said in a recent phone interview from his Washington, D.C., office. “They just want to speak English to the rest of the world. But on the scientific side—there’s a bad word, ‘scientific’—our ability to understand ourselves as human is threatened by languages being endangered. It hurts our ability to see the diversity of the way the mind works.”

For Richard Garrett, a non-native photographer from Wellington who says his language-preservation work has been praised by Buddhist monasteries for its “good dharmic karma,” the issue can be expressed even more succinctly. “Language and culture are inseparable. You understand that concept, don’t you?”

In case you don’t, the idea is that language carries inside of itself important information about a society’s world view—an entire way of life expressed in grammar. For instance, Penobscot, through its place names, offers clues to something as simple as a people’s preferred mode of transportation. “If you’re describing places along the river in Penobscot,” explains Dr. Pauleena MacDougall, associate director of the Maine Folklife Center, “you describe them from the perspective of someone who is in the water, on a canoe maybe, as opposed to someone on land. For example, Treat’s Falls on the Penobscot River, in Penobscot, is called Penjeejawok, which means ‘current raggedly dropping down.’”

Small observations like this can bloom into larger ones, suggesting, for instance, the value Penobscots place on clean water.

Dr. Maureen Smith, a native Ojibwe and director of Native American Studies at the University of Maine, offers another example. “The word for ‘blueberry pie’ in Ojibwe is like this long [she holds out her arms]. And when you break it down, it’s almost like a recipe. Its parts tell you what kind of blueberries, where you find them, how you mix the dough.”

Not passing this kind of information on to children means depriving them of a crucial link to their cultural identity. Still, kids can get by without knowing pie recipes, can’t they? They can, of course, but Smith points out that language is much more than that. When asked about whether she grew up speaking Ojibwe, Smith admitted: “Oh no. And to tell you that involves a lot of shame. The story is that when you die, the creator will call you by your name in your language. I worry that I will be in some mixed-blood limbo.”

For an oral language like Penobscot, which is always a single generation away from disappearing—and scientists like Goddard do, in fact, argue that it is extinct—the key to survival is teaching the children. And these days, the children are a tough sell.

“The problem is that for our children, there are so many conflicting things out there, different demands on their attention,” Smith said. “How do you convince a 13-year-old that their language is important?”

It was easier for John Bear Mitchell, a native Penobscot who is fluent in Passamaquoddy, which is a close linguistic cousin of Penobscot. He grew up with the language. Still, the pressure to abandon it increased when Mitchell started school in Old Town. “I remember having difficulties on my very first day in school, with teachers being so intolerant over there,” he said. “I remember saying this expression, which could mean a bunch of different things depending on the context. And I remember the teacher just stopping the class … and slamming something down and saying to me, ‘What does that mean? Explain what that means.’”

Mitchell responded that he didn’t know, and today likens the phrase to “holy cow” in English—untranslatable. The teacher recommended that he be suspended. “He was my main mission for coming to a teaching profession,” said Mitchell, who has taught Native Studies at the Indian Island school for four years. “Because he was so ignorant and so rude that I didn’t want to have another kid go through that again ever.”

Carol Dana, who teaches Penobscot at the tribal school, recalls with frustration her efforts to learn the language from one of its last native speakers, Madeline Shay Tomer. “It won’t make me any more Indian if I do speak the language,” she said. “But without it, I couldn’t talk to my grandmother.” When Dana expressed an interest in teaching it, however, she was urged to get an education degree. The time she spent in classrooms, she says, she might have better spent speaking with Tomer, who died not long after Dana picked up her degree. “That window of opportunity was gone,” she said.

“I don’t really believe in education,” the Yiddish writer Aharon Appelfeld recently told the Irish Times. “What a child sees at home is what matters. How people act with each other, how they walk and talk.”

Dana agrees. “Why should anyone be able to tell us how to teach our own people our own language?”

In fact, there’s some slim reason for hope with regards to the long-term health of Maine’s Indian languages. James Neptune, curator of the Penobscot Tribal Museum on Indian Island, remembers Catholic nuns not allowing him to speak the language as a child. But now he has begun to learn Penobscot from his kids, who bring worksheets home from school. And Tina Clavette, a native Penobscot who works at the tribal school, admits that at least she regrets not having learned. “There’s a whole lot that I don’t know,” she said. “When I was a kid and we went to the old school house, we used to make moccasins and Indian dresses for Indian Day, and now none of that’s done.”

According to Smith, however, language preservation should come with a caveat. “‘Preserve’ sounds like all you’re doing is taping it and storing it away somewhere. That’s important, but it’s also kind of meaningless, because language is a living, breathing entity.”

So John Bear Mitchell continues to teach his students their ancestors’ language. “You can sit there and close your eyes and you can listen to them talk, read that book, and it’s pure language, pure spoken language out of a young voice,” he says. “You don’t hear that too often. It sounds so pure, so innocent, so nice.”

He pauses.

“Oh, but then you say, ‘What did you just read?’ And they have no clue.”

Maine Times, May 2001