PLEASANT POINT, Maine — A three-year, $750,000 federal grant from the Administration of Native Americans is aimed at helping the Passamaquoddy revive their language.
The tribe will use the money to develop two language immersion programs for preschoolers and a handful of adults — one at each of the reservations in Pleasant Point and Indian Township, said Donald Soctomah, who is serving as administrator as an in-kind contribution required by the grant.
The programs should be up and running in January or February 2016 and initially will accommodate a total of about seven children, ages 3 to 5, along with four “comprehenders” — adults who understand the language but cannot speak it, he said.
Leading the class will be master speakers, who will teach the language to the comprehenders. The comprehenders will serve as language apprentices, teaching the children, he said.
The teachers, comprehenders and anyone else interested can check out the Passamaquoddy language portal, which has been developed in part by the Speaking Place, a nonprofit group based in Rockland that documents endangered languages. The organization has been working with the Passamaquoddy since 2007, according to Speaking Place co-director Julie Schultz. She provided a video explaining how to use the portal.
“I’m so excited,” Margaret Apt, the lead teacher/project director for the language immersion program, said. “I just can’t put into words how hopeful I am about doing this program with the little ones and helping the older ones who understand but don’t speak.”
“It’s a dream come true,” said comprehender Newell Levey, who said he gave up his job as the tribe’s full-time planner so he could participate.
“It’s always been my dream to be able to speak Passamaquoddy,” he said.
Classes are expected to last four or five hours per day, five days per week. But the parents of the children involved in the program also will be taught how to help the youths continue to learn the language at home after school. In this way, the program reaches out to the entire community, Soctomah said.
Soctomah said he hopes that in its second year, the school can double the number of children and comprehenders it serves and then double that for the third year.
Through this outreach, the tribe hopes the language will take hold.
Only about 12 percent of the tribal population of about 3,500 are able to speak the Passamaquoddy language. All of these people are over age 60, Soctomah said.
This represents a sharp decline from 30 years ago, when 70 percent were fluent speakers, he said.
The decline comes from efforts by outside cultures to assimilate the Passamaquoddy, according to Ben Levine, co-director of the Speaking Place.
Parents encouraged their children not to speak the language because they risked punishment and humiliation.
“They didn’t expect their children not to learn how to speak, but that’s exactly what happened,” he said.
This is not the first time the Passamaquoddy tribe has taken steps to preserve its language. In 2008, David Francis, 91, a Passamaquoddy tribal elder, and Robert Leavitt, a retired professor from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, finished work on a tribal dictionary. It now contains more than 19,000 words.