Passamaquoddy Website Offers New Cultural Resource

Passamaquoddy tribal historian Donald Soctomah (foreground) speaks during the launch of the tribe’s new cultural website, a project achieved in collaboration with Kim Christen (rear left), Jane Anderson of New York University, and Dwayne Tomah, among others. The tribe’s 1890 wax cylinder recordings – the oldest ethnographic field recordings in the world – are among the website’s offerings. (Photo by Lura Jackson)

By Lura Jackson

 

The cultural endurance of the Passamaquoddy tribe has achieved a new level of technological augmentation in the form of a brand-new website developed with Mukurtu, an indigenous-peoples online platform. The new website hosts a wide range of cultural materials of the Passamaquoddy, including the digitally restored copies of the oldest ethnographic field recordings in the world. Other materials now available to peruse include songs, videos, pamphlets, journal pages, and photographs – all of which represent the mere beginning of what the website’s compilers are hoping will be a vast reservoir of cultural heritage in the future.

The website is the realization of a long, ongoing project with the Passamaquoddy to transcribe and restore wax cylinders recorded in 1890 in Calais by Jesse Walter Fewkes. The cylinders – all of which are of the Passamaquoddy tribe – were in a state of limbo for nearly a century before being recovered for preservation by a federal project.

Transcribing the recordings was made extremely difficult by the high level of static in the recordings. The static was produced by the spinning of the wax cylinder. It took many years to decipher the existing 31 recordings, even though all are between two and three minutes long. Passamaquoddy elder David Francis worked for many years to translate and transcribe the recordings.

 It wasn’t until digital technology made it possible to scan the cylinders and replay them without spinning them that significant headway was made into translating them. Dwayne Tomah, one of the few in the community that could speak the older version of the language, took up the charge of continuing the work.

The process was both time consuming and sentimental for Tomah, who listened intently to the cylinders again and again. “I’d think about precision – authentically listening to what he’s really trying to get across.”

“It has to be a slow process,” said Kim Christen, developer of the Mukurtu platform and collaborator in digitizing the tribe’s cultural materials. “If that took four years, then that’s what it needed to take.”

The word mukurtu refers to what indigenous Australians regarded as a safe-keeping place, Christen explained. She lived and worked with the tribe extensively before developing the platform, which continues their cultural custom. Just as youth in the village would have to request access to a sacred object in a mukurtu from an elder, the website follows a similar protocol. The website thus enables indigenous peoples around the world to “access digital materials through your own cultural protocols,” Christen said.

The Passamaquoddy are making most of their cultural materials available for public access, though some pieces will be restricted to tribal members for specific purposes. Tribal historian Donald Soctomah will be continuing to add to the database. “This is endless, what can be done,” he said. “It just takes an idea and a little bit of work, and then it’s on here.”

During the website launch event, Passamaquoddy Lynn Mitchell shared her thoughts. “Thank you guys,” she expressed. “This is wonderful. This is a treasure for every one of us. For our children. Woliwon.”

 

The website may be viewed at www.passamaquoddypeople.com.