Long before there was a University of Maine, a pair of towns called Orono and Old Town, or any Europeans to be found anywhere in what is now Maine, there was wαsαhpskek mə̀nəhan — a 5-mile-long island in the Penobscot River that’s part of the ancestral homeland of the Penobscot people. In English, that’s Slippery Rock Island, so named because canoe landings on the island can be difficult due to the slippery rocks.
Today, wαsαhpskek mə̀nəhan is known as Marsh Island, home to the University of Maine and part of the towns of Orono and Old Town. In 1783, John Marsh, one of the area’s original white settlers, purchased the island from the local Native people for, supposedly, “30 bushels of good corn.”
Some 236 years after white settlers first laid claim to the land on which UMaine stands and renamed every Wabanaki place with an English word, many of the English language signs at UMaine — including those labeling the Memorial Union, the Collins Center for the Arts and Fogler Library — have been replaced with signs that bear those names in both English and Penobscot.
Last fall, the first sign was installed at Corbett Hall, home to UMaine’s Wabanaki Center. In the Penobscot, the name is interpreted as wαpánahkik — “in the dawnland,” referencing the term the Wabanaki people use for their homeland.
Professor Darren Ranco, chair of Native American Programs at UMaine and a member of the Penobscot Nation, led the committee that, over the course of 2018, interpreted place-names across campus from English to Penobscot in preparation for the installation of a first wave of signs across campus.
“This is something that’s been talked about in one way or another since the mid-’90s,” Ranco said. “It’s something that has been done in Canada quite a bit but not as much in the U.S. We were very much inspired by what has been done at various Canadian colleges and universities that are similarly very close and connected to local reservations or reserves.”
The seven-member committee identified a number of roads, sites and landmarks across campus to translate into Penobscot. Between January and May 2018, two Penobscot language masters, Carol Dana and Gabriel Paul, worked each week on a different word or concept.
Words such as “library” or “museum” do not specifically exist in Penobscot, so Dana and Paul had to interpret the concept of those places into wording that made sense in Penobscot. Thus, Fogler Library is translated as awihkhikaní-wikəwαm, or “book house,” while the Hudson Museum, home to UMaine’s extensive collection of indigenous art, is translated as wəmihkolawemα, or “he reminded him.” The New Balance Recreation Center is translated as αttali-milahəyαwələtimək — “place where you play a variety of games.”
The names of roads and some dormitories have also been translated. Rangeley Road, which runs the length of the eastern side of campus, is àkʷəssok, or “at the blueback trout place” — reflecting the Penobscot place-name for Rangeley, Maine. Places that already have Wabanaki names have been clarified with Penobscot lettering and translations, such as Aroostook Hall (wə̀lahstəkok, or “at the bright river”) and Sebago Road (sopekok, or “at the ocean”).
“It’s not exactly translation. It’s something else. It’s interpretation. It’s an act of creation,” Ranco said. “It was a very thoughtful process. We really had to think about what each place means within the context of the landscape.”
More signs will be installed in the coming year, and a pronunciation guide is set to be published this fall to help incoming students correctly say the words.
Ranco said that so far, the reaction to the signs has been overwhelmingly positive, at once sparking conversation and recognizing the region’s thousands of years of Wabanaki heritage.
“It is doing the work that we hoped it would do, which is to invite the community to engage with the understanding of this place — where we are on the landscape, who we are and to remind you that you are on Wabanaki territory,” Ranco said. “The place-names in our language are already descriptive, in that they tell you where you are in the world. These signs are here to help people better understand that.”
As the signage may be the first exposure to the Penobscot language for many members of the UMaine community, it has some more playful elements that reflect the imaginative, often humorous nature of the Penobscot language. For instance, on the digital display that greets people entering campus from the Alfond Arena entrance, there’s now a Penobscot greeting: kkʷey pahkʷinάkʷəsəyekʷ, or “hello, you all are pleasing to the eyes.”
“This is an inclusive act, not an exclusive act,” Ranco said. “It’s something that everybody, Wabanaki or not, can be involved in and take pride in and learn from.”