Local filmmaker reveals how regional Native Americans work to reclaim culture

Posted Oct. 21, 2010, at 6:31 p.m.

Imagine waking up one day to find a group of strangers at your door telling you that you’re no longer allowed to speak English — despite all of your ancestors speaking that language, and it being the only language you and your family know. Maine’s own Passamaquoddy tribe and countless other American Indian tribes throughout the continent have been through just that. The language of the Passamaquoddy was all but outlawed in the middle part of the 20th century, and the generations since have not produced a single native-language speaker.

A new film, “Language of America,” details the efforts of American Indians all over New England to preserve their languages. Directed by Rockland-based filmmaker Ben Levine, the movie is a fascinating look into a world non-Native Americans rarely get to see, and a well-researched study of how a society tries to reclaim and relearn a language.

“Everything we do is connected to language,” said Levine. “It’s impossible to separate the world around us from it. Now imagine the language of your people being stripped from you, and the loss of identity and society and connectedness that comes along with that.”

As a filmmaker, Levine always has been interested in language. His 2003 film “Reveil — Waking Up French” dealt with similar issues surrounding language and culture. In that case, it was the loss of language among Franco-American people living in the Lewiston area and efforts to recover French-speaking skills among that population.

A screening of that film happened to have Allen Sockabasin and Sharon Tomah in the audience. Tomah is the director of the Wabanaki Mental Health Association. Sockabasin is a Passamaquoddy teacher, storyteller, musician and counselor, who just this week was awarded the 2010 Catalyst for Change Award, given by the University of Southern Maine’s Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity. Sockabasin approached Levine after the screening.

“I was so taken by what he was doing, I asked him if it was possible for him to look into the language recovery of the Passamaquoddy, that we had been working on for many years,” he said.

“It was immediately clear to me that there was another story to be told,” said Levine. “I realized I knew virtually nothing about the Passamaquoddy culture and language, and I’ve lived in Maine for more than 25 years.”

Levine and co-collaborator Julia Schulz, a language educator and co-founder of Rockland’s Penobscot School for Language Learning, soon began work on what was to become “Language of America.” A grant from the National Science Foundation helped fund the project. They collaborated with the Passamaquoddy Dictionary Project, at that time an in-the-works effort to document the language. The dictionary was eventually published last year, and is available at libraries across the state and online.

The dictionary itself is a massive tome, which settles on a tabletop with an appealing thud. Inside it is thousands of pages of vital documentation of an ancient language so unlike English it takes a while to wrap your head around it — especially in written form, as Passamaquoddy was originally an oral language. When you do start to get a sense of it, however, the mysterious beauty reveals itself.

Unlike English, which is based around nouns, Passamaquoddy is based around verbs. As is explained in the film, the word for flower is “pesqasuwehsok,” where “hsok” expresses the idea of “the little one,” “pesq” means “bursting open” and “asuwe” means “brightness.” Combined, the Passamaquoddy word for flower literally translates into “the little one bursting open with brightness.”

“More than almost any language you can think of, it really embodies the history of the place,” said Levine. “It reflects experience very vividly, and the worldview that the Passamaquoddy have. It comes out of the land directly.”

“Language of America” took six years to complete and involved many hours of interviews with native-language speakers of Passamaquoddy, Wampanoag and Narragansett, the latter of which are based in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They range from Sockabasin, Tomah and Passamaquoddy historian Donald Soctomah to Wampanoag scholar Jessie Little Doe Baird, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained linguist and recent recipient of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, also known as the “genius grant.”

The end result is a moving film about the history of New England’s American Indians, the accompanying destruction of language and culture after white settlers arrived in the early 1600s and began displacing and in many cases murdering them, and the recent efforts to preserve and revive the language.

It’s an uphill battle attempting to teach the Passamaquoddy language to young people who have grown up speaking English and are constantly surrounded by English, whether in the media or in day-to-day life. Sockabasin and Tomah have a son, Zoo Sap, whom they are trying to teach Passamaquoddy.

“He’s still struggling. He is tuned into the media, so it’s almost impossible to have him not learn English first,” said Sockabasin. “It would be wonderful if we could have toys and movies and games that we could have in Passamaquoddy. Young people in general have that problem. I do the best I can.”

“Language of America” has inspired discussions at nearly every screening — whether it’s in a Native American school or facility, or in a public library in towns across the state.

“I think people are very reflective after seeing the film,” said Raney Bench, curator of education at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, which showed the film two weeks ago. “They’re appreciative to see a personal look at not just Native people as being Native, but as community members, as family members. It’s done in a very personal light, expressing those things that are very dear to them, in relation to language and identity and continuation of culture. It’s very valuable, in that regard.”

Sockabasin found that the film made Native American audiences very emotional — and also encouraged Native Americans to speak out more about their lives and their feelings. A screening in Bangor encouraged lots of conversation.

“All the people that were in the audience were very, very emotional about it,” said Sockabasin. “Many of them wish they could do more towards recovery. There’s a lot of politics involved in it, though. That’s one of the biggest obstacles that we have to overcome. We certainly have the drive. One of the things the film taught us is that when you put someone in front of a camera, people want to talk. They want to share. That’s really important.”

Efforts continue to educate younger Native Americans, in the hopes of someday producing a speaker.

“We’re now changing the focus of what we do for recovery, and focusing more on individual speakers, less on groups,” said Sockabasin. “We still have not produced a new speaker. But we are working towards it. The Mohawks did it. They started with no speakers. They brought the Native community into the schools. Now the kids graduate from school as fluent speakers. If they did it, we can.”

“Language of America” will be shown at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 26, at the Calais Public Library; 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 27, at the Porter Public Library in Machias; 6 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 28, at Shead High School in Eastport; 2 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 2, at the Rockland Public Library; 6 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 4, at the Bangor Public Library; and 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 10, at the Holocaust and Human Rights Center in Augusta. All screenings are free.

For information, visit www.languageofamerica.com.

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