Looking Ahead with the Passamaquoddy

By Lura Jackson

 

A multi-generational family of artists, the Danas are well-known for their many artistic talents. Martin Dana carved the totem by hand, and his mother Joan taught him to utilize porcupine quills to create ornate baskets.

What keeps a culture alive? The answer is always the same. When we connect with our roots, and share them with our youth and with each other, our cultures endure. The Passamaquoddy are among the Native American tribes that are committed to preserving their rich heritage, a notion strongly reinforced during the recent Nihkanapultine, which translates to “Let’s look ahead.”

The community room at the Wabanaki Cultural Center is buzzing with voices young and old. Occasionally a sporadic burst of drumming from one of the three drumming circles in the center reverberates through the assembled crowd of approximately ninety tribal members.

The smell of sage soon permeates the room as a young woman named Hailie begins to cleanse the spirit of each member of her drum group, utilizing a feather to spread the smoke across their bodies. The drum is the same one that’s been used since 1994; cultural teacher Barbara Paul travels around with it to share it with Passamaquoddy youth. “It’s a commitment to our ways,” she explains. “To remain part of the drum group, they have to remain clean: no drugs, no alcohol.”

At the invitation of elder Wayne Newell, Paul’s group of young adults begins to play, banging the large drum between them in perfect rhythmic unison. The women of the group join their voices together in beautiful, keening harmony. After they finish, the next drum group begins. Named Spirit/Brook, the group is a union of two others, Spirit Circle and Huntley Brook. Together, they sing in proud, strong voices, each shared beat of the great drum between them echoing across the high ceiling. Inspired to movement, two young women dance around the circle, one with purple hair and a flannel shirt—emphasizing the tribe’s openness to its youth’s diversity. After the men have finished, a group of older women open their throats to share in a song that carries emotions both sad and resilient as they beat upon their hand-carried drums. 

Even without knowing the language, the impassioned music is enough to bring tears to the eyes. Witnessing the proceedings, it is abundantly clear that the Passamaquoddy are proud of their heritage, which at one point—like that of other Native American tribes—faced extinction. 

“I was born with a drumstick in my hand,” drummer Larry Robichaud jokes afterwards. “It’s my gift that I want to share with my people.” A performance musician for over thirty years, Robichaud continues traveling with the group out of a love for its shared comradery and for the opportunity to meet friends old and new. 

Once the drum circles complete their warm up, elder Newell addressed the crowd. “The theme of this event is looking forward because one of you may be chief one day.” 

Newell then invited elder Ruby Richter to share a prayer in Passamaquoddy. Later, she translates it as giving thanks to the Creator for everything, and reminding those present to respect and forgive each other and to always help those in need. “It’s rubbed off on the younger people,” Richter says of her teachings. “The youth are the ones that will be carrying on everything about our tribe.”

The first night concluded with a feast and additional music and dancing, preparing those present for the business of the next day.

Bright and early the next morning, attendees from various area schools and the community were present at Washington County Community College to welcome each other and to explore the available options for careers and in education. 

Elder Wayne Newell spoke to the crowd, “As you move forward in your career and education, be confident in your identity as a tribal person. Learn your culture, speak your language. Remember, your roots run deep. Our people have lived here for over ten thousand years. Always give back. Your actions have a lasting impact on your family and your tribe.”

Newell then introduced Linda McLeod, who is the newly named Superintendent of Maine Indian Education. “It’s always been my dream that more of us get into education, and that’s finally happening,” Newell said. “Having a Maliseet as our new superintendent is a cause for celebration.”

WCCC President Joe Cassidy expressed his honor at having members of the tribe at the college, particularly Wayne Newell, who he said has always been a personal hero. “Wayne demonstrates that through education and knowledge you can lift yourself and your community up. I’m so proud how he has been leading the reinvigoration of the language.”

Guest speakers at the event included former Chief of the Penobscot Barry Dana, artist Jeremy Frey of the Passamaquoddy, and Tiffany Martinez, a Passamaquoddy tribal member now working in Portland as a psychiatric nurse practitioner. 

Of the many vendors present, one was the Tribal Forestry Department. Clayton Sockabasin described how members of the department could be called to respond to forest fires all over the nation. Last year, he himself traveled to California and Idaho, and in prior years he has been to Alaska and Oregon, among other locations. “It’s an adventure,” he said. “The training is offered community-wide.” Sockabasin praised the expo and its organization. “This is perfect for reaching younger kids not only interested in firefighting as volunteers, but also those interested in it as a career.”

 

Whether young or old, and all ages in between, whether interested in art, music, politics, medicine, firefighting, or education, the Passamaquoddy tribe is, as a whole, looking forward.