Wayne Newell sang during a ceremony on the St. Croix River in Baileyville in 2013. Credit: John Holyoke/BDN

Wayne A. Newell, a Passamaquoddy educator, writer and scholar who devoted his life to preserving his tribal language and cultural traditions, died Thursday at age 79.

The tribal elder was survived by his wife of more than 50 years, Sandy, and their children and grandchildren. He grew up in a two-room tarpaper shack on Passamaquoddy Bay, overcoming poverty, legal blindness and discrimination to become a pioneering chronicler of his heritage.

“It’s just a huge loss,” Penobscot Nation Chief Kirk Francis said. “He was just a wealth of information and an amazingly sweet guy.”

When Newell was a student at Shead High School in Eastport, he sat in the back of the classroom with all the other Passamaquoddy kids. They were separated from the white students by a row or two of empty seats and called on only rarely by the white teachers, according to an article about him that was published in the BDN in 2007. But he also received a lot of support from people at the school, including access to books for vision-impaired students, his son, Chris Newell, said. 

Those challenges did not deter him from achieving great things. He helped publish a tribal dictionary, helped create a tribal language writing system and more. He was a singer of native music and a storyteller for his community and he served as the first native trustee for the University of Maine System.

In 1970, he applied to a master’s degree program at the Harvard School of Education without a bachelor’s degree. Newell made the case that life experience mattered and he was accepted. At Harvard, he worked to help construct a writing system for an oral language. After graduation, he went back to Indian Township to help preserve the Passamaquoddy language.

Wayne Newell was confirmed as the first Native member of the University of Maine System in 2007. BDN photo| Gabor Degre

“He was always so dedicated to our people and to the cause, and to the language,” said Lauren Stevens, a Passamaquoddy Tribe member from Bangor. “The language is the biggest part. That’s our cultural identity. He devoted his time and energy to keeping our language alive, which in a sense keeps our people alive.”

Newell was the longtime director of bilingual education at the Indian Township School and directed the first bilingual-bicultural education program for Maine Indian Education in the 1970s.

He helped develop the American Indian studies program and the Wabanaki Center at the University of Maine and was a storyteller who wrote and edited hundreds of books, many in his native Passamaquoddy language.

“I’ve written about 400 books,” he joked in 2007. “But only about 600 people can read them.”

Newell was recognized both in and out of Maine. He was appointed to the National Advisory Council on Indian Education by presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama. He was named a “national treasure” in native education by his tribe and the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Despite the accolades and honors he received over his life, Newell was humble. He loved singing, drumming and telling stories, and was a familiar sight at Passamaquoddy tribal events.

“He didn’t boast,” Stevens said. “He was so kind and caring. You could just sit and talk to him. He always remembered you.”

His loss is hitting the community hard, according to Lisa Sockabasin of Indian Township, the co-CEO of Bangor-based Wabanaki Public Health and Wellness, saying every tribal citizen she spoke to on Thursday described “deep, profound loss.” she said.

She has good memories of Newell and her own father, who died a few years ago, speaking Passamaquoddy together and talking about the old days.

“When we lose one of our elders with this knowledge, that loss is felt,” Sockabasin said. “It’s also a real recognition of what Wayne has done for the Passamaquoddy people, for our culture and our language. I feel immense gratitude for what Wayne has done his entire life. He committed himself to his people.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified where Wayne A. Newell went to high school and gave an incomplete characterization of his high school experience.