ORONO, Maine — Travel to an Indian community north of Florida and you probably won’t hear the tribal language being spoken.
That’s not the case, however, in the communities of Pleasant Point and Indian Township in Washington County, and it’s something of which residents are proud.
But there’s also a concern the continuation of the spoken language won’t last. In the past year alone 14 fluent speakers of the Passamaquoddy language died, one local leader said recently.
The concern is so grave that several members of the community intend to use a grant from the Administration for Native Americans, or ANA, to support a language revitalization program.
Donald Soctomah, the director of the Historic Preservation Office for the Passamaquoddy Tribe, recently received notice of the 12-month, $73,329 grant, the application for that he helped prepare.
The tribe will combine the ANA grant with other contributions, grants and in-kind donations for a total of $125,000 for the project.
The ANA is part of the Administration for Children and Families, a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The grants, which totaled nearly $41 million, were allotted to communities located in 28 states, American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Recipients were announced Monday.
The goal for the length of the Passamaquoddy tribe’s grant, Soctomah said, is to develop sound files on a CD-ROM format and a curriculum with which the language can be taught in the community. The grant will focus on working with community members in the 30-50 age group, which Soctomah said is the group from which the next Passamaquoddy elders will come.
“They’re the last group to be born in a house where the language was spoken 100 percent,” he said. “So [the program will focus on] people like me who were raised speaking it and can understand it, but somewhere along the way, it doesn’t come out.”
Encouraging language development in 30- to 50-year-olds also hits a group likely to have children in school. Soctomah said Passamaquoddy is taught through cultural classes in both the Indian Township and Pleasant Point schools, but may not be reinforced when students are at home.
Soctomah will work with Wayne Newell, director of native language and culture programs at Indian Township School, and David Francis and Robert Leavitt, co-authors of the recently published Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary.
The group’s first step is to gather all the existing Passamaquoddy language resources, including old recordings and research done by outside linguists, into one place so Newell and Leavitt can access the information and develop a curriculum. The group will conduct field tests of the curriculum in the community and then develop sound files based on the dictionary.
The sound files could eventually be uploaded to the Internet.
The decline in the use of Passamaquoddy, Newell said, is just a sign of the times.
“You take an isolated community and expose it to all of the things of the modern world, of which television is a significant part, and that’s the outgrowth of it,” he said. “I wrote in the forward [of the dictionary], when you speak a language forever you just never dream of a time when nobody will speak it. So it kind of snuck up on us a little bit, the language loss.”
Newell estimated there are fewer than 500 Passamaquoddy speakers left in the two communities that have a combined residency of about 2,000, not counting Passamaquoddy Indians who live outside of Pleasant Point and Indian Township.
Many of those Passamaquoddy speakers, however, are elders. A survey conducted in the communities about 1½ years ago showed the younger the age group, the less of an understanding there was of the spoken language.
“The results, I think, really woke up our tribal council a bit, to see that this is a crisis,” Soctomah said. “It was interesting when I showed them the graph, because it showed a spiral down if we don’t do anything. If we don’t do something now, the language is going to be just words. It won’t be spoken.”
The University of Maine’s Wabanaki Center, which focuses on Wabanaki scholarship and the relationship between UMaine and the state’s Indian communities, will also be involved in the project.
The existence of the dictionary was one of the strong aspects of the grant application, Soctomah said, to prove to ANA that the Passamaquoddys had a foundation in place for the grant.
“The dictionary was about 30 years of work, and the next logical step after completion of the dictionary is to follow it up with some curriculum development using the dictionary as the base, because we have something solid right there that we can rely on,” he said.
Newell hopes the grant will extend into an even bigger effort years from its expiration date — because the effort, he said, will probably take years.
“You have to have patience when you do this,” he said. “But I think the time is right. I think there’s a willingness out there in the community to really take back what is ours, and that is our language. Without the language you don’t have a way to properly convey the culture. That’s the ladder to get up on the roof.”