Preserving the Passamaquoddy language through music, family

Posted June 12, 2014, at 1:29 p.m.
Last modified June 12, 2014, at 3:57 p.m.

HOLDEN, Maine — At the end of a week of landscaping and working at Wabanaki Health and Wellness, Allen Sockabasin relaxes by playing music with his sons. Noah Tomah, 14, lifts a stand-up bass as large as he is and takes his place, and Zoo-Sap, 11, takes his perch on a nearby stool with a three-quarter-sized guitar in hand.

The afternoon sun peeks between closed blinds, dimly lighting the room. Sockabasin begins to sing.

But he’s doing more than that: Sockabasin is playing to preserve a language he fears is dying.

While he strums a guitar — a soulful version of “Amazing Grace” — his eyes remain closed, hidden behind a leathered face and long gray hair. His eyebrows are furrowed as he sings, “I once was lost but now am found,” in English and his native Passamaquoddy tongue, part of the Algonquin language group. He fades between languages almost seamlessly.

Others may not know the Passamaquoddy words he’s singing, but that doesn’t matter.

“With our journey we can promote language to a greater height,” Sockabasin said.

He and his sons — Noah Tomah, a student at John Bapst Memorial High School, and Zoo-Sap, a student at Holbrook School — perform in a bluegrass trio with the larger plan to preserve their native language. The Passamaquoddy, part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, mostly live in a village at Peter Dana Point, where Sockabasin resides.

Today, the village contains fewer than 25 native speakers.

“Whenever a tribal elder dies, they die with our traditional language,” Sockabasin said. “I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to leave as much language as possible.”

The nameless trio began a year ago. After Sockabasin spent 40 years of fighting for but “not progressing” language preservation, he decided his method wasn’t working. He decided to seek a new solution through the constant throughout his life: music.

That music has since taken a new form in Sockabasin’s world. Through small performances at fundraisers, schools, small dinner parties and funerals, the trio educates about the Passamaquoddy language by singing tunes in English and the Sockabasins’ native tongue.

“We’re not really musicians. We know what we can do if we put our minds to it. We’re relaying a message about our people’s history,” Sockabasin said. “Every song that I do in a public setting has to have Passamaquoddy in it.”

The trio has a few adaptations of tribal Passamaquoddy chants, but the majority of their songs are American classics pulled from the song books of western bluegrass culture.

Sockabasin has been inspired by country western music his entire life. When he was a boy living on Peter Dana Point, one radio station from West Virginia came in at 4 a.m. It played the music of Johnny Cash and Jimmie Rodgers. They both sang of poverty and the blues — issues Sockabasin could relate to while his tribe was dealing with bouts of tuberculosis.

“[They] told real-life stories,” Sockabasin said.

In 1965, Johnny Cash’s album, “Bitter Tears: Ballad of the American Indian,” helped bring the issue of Native American rights into national discussion. Cash was known for inviting Native Americans who lived near his concert venues backstage.

He also made a difference in Sockabasin’s life, as an inspiration while he embarked on a lifetime of music and performance.

“Johnny Cash put native people on the map” Sockabasin said.

Early in his life, before he began playing with his sons, Sockabasin knew music was an alternative to traditional language education, which he says is “very political” and “full of obstacles.”

When his daughter was young, Sockabasin would sing to her, first in English then Passamaquoddy. When she asked if he would make her an album, that’s when he knew music was a way to educate and communicate.

“This is a much more effective way to teach because you can play it over and over again,” he said.

In the meantime, through a handful of grants and money out of his own wallet, Sockabasin made eight albums, all of which he gave away for free.

The accumulation of money is not important for Sockabasin, but making sure people hear his music is.

The trio often plays at forums where Sockabasin says no one else plays.

For the older people who can’t always attend bigger concerts, he has a simple solution.

“We go to them,” he said.

Much like other Friday nights at the Sockabasins’ home, Zoo-Sap, who crawled on to his father’s stage at a concert at the age of two, sits on a stool playing a black three-quarter-sized guitar. His brown bangs almost cover his eyes under a “Duck Dynasty” cap.

“It grows on you,” the 11-year-old said of the trio’s bluegrass sound. “It’s the right way to spread the culture of old songs.”

A gray-and-brown cat lounges in the afternoon sun. To the left of Zoo-Sap is Noah Tomah, wearing a purple Nike shirt, playing a stand-up bass. Sockabasin gives cues and plays guitar, sitting on a tan leather couch.

Both sons nod to acknowledge their father’s musical cues but turn bright red after playing “You Are My Flower,” when their father says they have an ulterior motive for their interest in music.

“It’s girls. [The girls] give them a lot of attention,” Sockabasin said with a laugh.

Conversation shifts to memories of the time Zoo-Sap and Sockabasin first began strumming together.

Sockabasin becomes serious. The preservation of his language is important, but his family has made it that much more meaningful.

“It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened to me, to have a family that plays together.”