June 26, 2019
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How a Passamaquoddy musician made language preservation his life’s work

Gabor Degre | File
Gabor Degre | File
Allen Sockabasin spent decades trying to preserve his native Passamaquoddy language. In the late 1990s, Sockabasin developed a phonetic language system to ease some of the challenges of teaching a new generation of speakers Passamaquoddy. He died in Bangor on April 29 at the age of 73.

Allen Sockabasin, born at Peter Dana Point (Md-doc-mig-goog), grew up on the Passamaquoddy reservation at Indian Township, steeped in the traditions and language of his people.

As a child, he also became fascinated by the music heard on a West Virginia radio station that came in at 4 a.m. — country and bluegrass, from the likes of Johnny Cash, Jimmie Rodgers and other legends.

Their songs of poverty and the blues resonated with Sockabasin, growing up in an era when his tribe was dealing with widespread food security issues, and with bouts of tuberculosis.

“[They] told real-life stories,” Sockabasin said, in a 2014 Bangor Daily News profile.

Sockabasin, a Passamaquoddy tribal leader, musician and preserver of the language, died in Bangor on April 29 at the age of 73.

In the 1970s, Sockabasin assumed a number of leadership positions within the tribe, including stints as a member of the tribal council at Indian Township and, later, as tribal governor. In the 1980s and 90s, he worked in child welfare, and as a health educator with Wabanaki Health and Wellness in Bangor.

It was both music and the Passamaquoddy language that remained his lifelong passion, however, and in the 1990s, Sockabasin turned his attention more fully to both those things. In the late 1990s, Sockabasin developed a phonetic language system to ease some of the challenges of teaching a new generation of speakers Passamaquoddy. As of 2014, there were fewer than 25 native speakers in Indian Township.

“Whenever a tribal elder dies, they die with our traditional language,” Sockabasin said, in that 2014 BDN article. “I don’t want that to happen to me. I want to leave as much language as possible.”

In 2006, Sockabasin began collaborating with the Language Keepers organization to help preserve the Passamaquoddy and Maliseet language by creating a dictionary. The resulting 19,000 word compendium, completed in 2016 and available online, is the work of linguists, archivists, educators and members of the Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes, including Sockabasin. A 2012 documentary, “Language Keepers,” featured Sockabasin prominently, including many scenes of Sockabasin teaching his youngest son, then eight-year-old Allen Zoo-zap Sockabasin, how to speak Passamaquoddy.

“Preserving the language was something he was passionate about from a very early age,” said his daughter, Lisa Sockabasin. “I have poems he wrote in the 70s. He was always a writer. And even more than that, he was always a musician.”

In the early 2000s, Sockabasin began translating the lyrics of classic bluegrass and country songs into Passamaquoddy, performing them in many different settings — from to country and bluegrass jams at local grange halls, to nursing homes and hospices. Over the course of the past decade he recorded six albums of his Passamaquoddy versions of songs.

In 2005, Sockabasin collaborated with illustrator Rebecca Raye to publish “Thanks To The Animals,” a children’s book that tells the story of Passamaquoddy baby Zoo-Sap (also the name of one of Sockabasin’s sons) who is lost in the woods and is protected by animals until his father comes to retrieve him; it has sold more than 30,000 copies, according to publisher Tilbury House. In 2007, Sockabasin published an autobiography, “An Upriver Passamaquoddy,” telling the story of his youth in Indian Township. Daughter Lisa said Sockabasin had nearly finished another book at the time of his death.

Lisa Sockabasin said her father was playing music right up until the day he died.

“He was playing in the hospital. He was in bed with his mandolin, with all kinds of friends jamming with him,” she said. “He died surrounded by instruments and voices, in both languages. It was beautiful.”

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