Passamaquoddy Language Reaches Milestone in Preservation Practices

Listening to their recorded voices are these members of the Passamaquoddy tribe in 1890. The recordings – taken by Jesse Walter Fewkes, in center – are the oldest field recordings in the world. Now being digitally restored, they represent an important turning point in the tribe’s role of ensuring its cultural preservation for future generations. (Submitted photo)

By Lura Jackson

Imagine, if you will, that you obtained a recording from the late 1800s that captures the voices of your relatives. How important would it be to you to be able to understand what they were speaking about? For an oral history-based culture like the Passamaquoddy, the significance of such a recording – and being able to understand it – cannot be understated. Now, as efforts continue to move forward to digitally restore and transcribe wax cylinder recordings taken in Calais in 1890, the tribe is approaching a level of connection between its cultural past, present and future that is unprecedented in the modern era.

Prior to the arrival of colonizing powers, the Passamaquoddy language was the primary tongue spoken in the St. Croix Valley. In the 1800s, efforts to disconnect the language from the Passamaquoddy were employed by the federal government, which forcibly enrolled tribal children in boarding schools where they were forbidden from speaking their language. The widespread practice continued through the 1970s, effectively eroding the number of speakers in generation after generation.

Within that window of forcible disconnection, a whisper of preservation was made. Anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes set out in 1890 with a wax cylinder recording device that he had borrowed from Thomas Edison. He brought it to Calais at the request of the Indian Agent’s wife, Mrs. Wallace Brown, and for three days he sat with the Passamaquoddy tribe and recorded their language and their songs. The event marked the capturing of the oldest field recordings in the world. Afterward, he continued on his whirlwind tour of preservation, visiting the Hopi and the Navajo, among others. He returned to Calais later that year and played the cylinders for the tribe – but then came a long period of silence.

In 1979, the federal government set out to gather and catalogue a database of field recordings for the Library of Congress. Among them were 31 wax cylinders containing the 1890 Passamaquoddy recordings, which had been lying dormant at Peabody Museum in Massachusetts. Without Fewkes’s journal – which was kept somewhere else entirely – the archivists could only note the basics of what they could decipher. “They really didn’t know what was being said or what tribe it came from, without the journals,” explained Passamaquoddy tribal historian Donald Soctomah.

In 1980, copies of the recordings were returned to the tribe for the first time in the form of reel-to-reel tapes. Tribal linguist David Francis received the tapes and began the work of transcribing them. “But the actual sound was so staticky, he had a hard time hearing it,” Soctomah said.

Even with the challenging audio quality, Francis was able to decipher pieces of what was said, grasping words and stories – though most of the recordings were too hard to hear.

As technology continued to improve, the American Folklife Center began to digitize its wax recordings in 2015, including the Passamaquoddy cylinders. As they did so, they knew they would need to involve the Passamaquoddy as partners in the project. As Dr. Jane Anderson of New York University’s anthropology department explains, “On one hand, this meant leaving the recordings with Passamaquoddy elders and custodians with no expectation of the Passamaquoddy sharing what they heard on the recordings. On the other hand, it meant that the Library [of Congress] had to find a more equitable way of incorporating Passamaquoddy authority into the future cataloguing and classification records of these recordings. After all, they are Passamaquoddy heritage.”

Bridging the gap between the Library of Congress and the Passamaquoddy meant recognizing the oppressive colonial history that was, in part, evidenced by how the recordings were made and kept – including “the erasure and marginalization of Passamaquoddy names, of the content of the songs, and of their cultural context,” Anderson provided. In 2016, after getting approval from Soctomah, the collaboration began.

“One of the first things we wanted to do was to title these songs correctly,” Soctomah said, describing how Fewkes had titled them generically with names like War Song 1 or Trading Song 2. “They have tribal titles. They have meanings.”

As an example, the song that Fewkes titled War Song 2 was about the American Revolutionary War and the long shot that Chief Francis Joseph Neptune took which instantly killed British Admiral Cox on his ship in Machias. The song has since been given a title that recognizes Chief Neptune’s role.

Since David Francis has passed, Passamaquoddy language expert Dwayne Tomah has come forward to transcribe the songs, working alongside Soctomah and tribal elders to decipher the language. “There are some differences, especially with the endings [of words]. It’s very emotional for me to listen to it,” Tomah said, describing how he can’t do so without considering who will be able to understand the recordings in the future.

One of the recordings features Tomah’s ancestor, Newell Tomah, singing a trading song that hadn’t been heard by the tribe until the recordings were recovered. “It was very moving to hear my ancestor – and, 128 years later, to understand him!” Tomah’s enthusiasm is powerful and authentic, lending to an unshakable experience at the Library of Congress when he sang that same song.

“There were a lot of people there, and I was feeling emotional because I was so connected to this song, and I was so connected to the spirit of this whole process,” Tomah said. “My voice started cracking when I opened up. My friend put his arm on me and said, ‘Be strong, brother.’”

Tomah took the ensuing strength and let it flow into his voice. Dr. Anderson recalls the experience, which she says gives her goosebumps to reflect on. “There was not a dry eye in the room as Dwayne stood and said, ‘We are still here,’ with tears streaming down his face, and then sang a song that had not been heard or sung for 128 years. In that moment, I think everyone in the room understood that this work – which requires working with communities, prioritizing community needs and time, and properly working towards new spaces for archival justice – is the future of Native collections. There is no other option but to slow down, listen, change practices and put the legal and cultural authority back to where it always should have been recognized as being.”

Work is actively continuing on restoring and transcribing the cylinders, including three that were damaged in storage, and in enabling the Passamaquoddy to have full digital archival rights and access via an indigenous peoples’ webspace. The recordings – and reintegrated versions of the songs themselves – will be shared as appropriate with the tribe and the extended community in upcoming presentations.


In doing so, Soctomah and Tomah see promise for the future of the language, and, in turn, for their culture. “Language is such a main thing about culture – when you speak the language or understand the language, you’re looking at it through the Passamaquoddy vision,” Soctomah said. “Nobody else on Earth can look at it that way, because of the language… It’s like a voice that’s echoed down the St. Croix River for countless generations. Something that the eagles understand because they’ve heard it for over 10,000 years. That’s the way I look at it.”