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Nearly 130 years ago, an anthropologist visited Calais and recorded songs, words and stories from members of the Passamaquoddy tribe. For years, these field recordings, some of the oldest in the world, were largely hidden from public view.
But more than a century later, the recordings have been digitally enhanced and shared with the tribe. The Passamaquoddy are working to interpret and present them.
Dwayne Tomah sat at his kitchen table in Perry recently and pulled up an audio file on his computer. When he hit play, his speakers emitted a scratchy, slightly garbled recording. Through the white noise, Tomah scratched out the words he heard, rewinding every few seconds. Word by word, Tomah was attempting to transcribe and interpret dozens of these old recordings, some of which were being heard for the first time in more than a century.
“I really wept,” Tomah said. “Hearing their voices. Knowing that I’m probably one of the last fluent speakers on the reservation. And that we’re still continuing this process to be able to revitalize our language and bring it back to life again, so to speak. And give it some attention that it really deserves.”
But to understand the story behind these recordings — and their significance — you have to go back to the year 1890 to an anthropologist named Walter Jesse Fewkes.
“He was on a quest of documenting tribes across North America,” Passamaquoddy tribal historic preservation officer Donald Soctomah said.
Soctomah said that before Fewkes embarked on his journey, he borrowed an early audio recording device, a phonograph from Thomas Edison that recorded sounds on large, wax cylinders for about three minutes at a time.
“So this was the first time they took a big piece of equipment and modernized it so he could use it outside,” Soctomah said.
In March of 1890, Fewkes went to Calais, phonograph in hand, and met with three representatives for the Passamaquoddy tribe.
“The three spokesmen for the tribe sang songs, told stories and did basic things like pronunciation of words and days,” Soctomah said.
Fewkes recorded more than 30 cylinders in total. But for decades, the recordings were forgotten by many.
Historians said Fewkes’ family likely held on to them for a time, and they eventually ended up at Boston’s Peabody Museum. Tribal members did not hear the recordings again until the 1970s and 1980s, when the Library of Congress reached out to them. It was part of an effort to catalogue thousands of the wax cylinders and share them with tribes. A Passamaquoddy tribal elder then received a cassette of the recordings, but at that point, they were scratchy and difficult to understand.
Then, about a decade ago, a similar effort was attempted using digital technology. Guha Shankar, a folklife specialist at the library’s American Folklife Center, said the 1890 Passamaquoddy recordings were some of the first that the library wanted to restore.
“They are, historically, the oldest materials that we have in our archives,” Shankar said.
In 2013, Soctomah met with the agency.
“I told him that one of the things I’d like to do is develop a culturally-based website where the tribe controls its stories, its language, without any outside forces trying to take it over or commercialize it,” Soctomah said.
Over the next few years, the tribe agreed to partner with the library and other institutions on the project. The library would restore the recordings. From there, the Passamaquoddy would decide the next steps.
Since last year, the tribe’s youngest fluent Passamaquoddy speaker, Tomah, has spent hours painstakingly transcribing and interpreting each cylinder. He notes words, stories and musical attributes, even how the language has morphed and changed over 130 years. The work is then reviewed by a panel of other fluent Passamaquoddy speakers. Some pieces have been added to a curated digital website kept by the tribe.
After efforts to eradicate Native American culture and language, Tomah said this project is critical for passing Passamaquoddy culture to future generations.
“I think that’s really what the goal is, really, is to influence the children,” Tomah said. “Because they are really the key to passing this language on. And for them to continue it, I think it needs to stem from them.”
There’s still a lot of work ahead. While several cylinders have been reviewed, more than 20 remain. But already, the songs and stories have begun to weave their way back into tribal events. Tomah has sung several of them in public. His daughter also joined him for a song last year at an annual celebration.
The year before, Soctomah played a song from the wax cylinder recordings to a group of young children at the tribe’s language immersion school. He said one of the teachers joined in. She had learned a version of the song from her grandmother. Then, a month later, Soctomah visited again.
“I said, I’m going to play it again. And the teacher said, No, you don’t have to play it. Just listen to the kids. Those kids around the table were singing that song,” he said. “And I just had a big smile on my face. I don’t smile much. So, you know, my heart was smiling. My face was. So, it was good.”
This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.