Guest column

The return of (and to) distant wisdom

By Diane Oltarzewski | Oct 01, 2017

A language, long suppressed or abandoned, can find its way back through memory to some kind of rejuvenation. Those who hearken to that memory, and devote faithful energy to amplifying it, chart a path for others to all the wisdom and worldview a language contains.

Against all odds and naysayers, indigenous linguists and teachers in Maine are engaged in a heroic mission: creating access to the knowledge of fluent elders before they pass from this life, and expanding this knowledge base in ways that can nourish coming generations.

As colonial power metastasized across North America, the pressure on native communities to disband and assimilate reached a destructive peak with the boarding school movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as well as the policy of placing native children in "white" foster homes, which has been addressed by Maine's Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

It is painful to learn the truth of our history: that very young children were seized, callously uprooted from their natural extended families and culture, and cruelly punished for each innocent and honest expression in the language they had grown up with. Today many of us are grappling with what this history means for all of our communities.

In so many ways, language is inextricably linked to tribal culture, and these vital links were severed almost irreparably. Yet throughout the long decades and centuries of cultural sabotage, somehow the torch of preservation is passed along, and impressed upon each new generation.

In her poem "Birth Witness," Ofelia Zepeda (Tohono O'odham) wrote of her parents:

...They speak a language much too civil for writing.

It is a language useful for pulling memory from the depths of the earth.

It is a language useful for praying with the earth and sky...

This Indigenous Peoples Day, Monday, Oct. 9, Belfast will welcome three Wabanaki keepers of that sacred fire of learning who will speak about their work. The panel discussion will begin at 4 p.m. at Belfast Free Library, 106 High St. Panelists are:

  • Roger Paul (Passamaquoddy), who teaches Wabanaki language in the elementary school on Indian Island.
  • Carol Dana (Penobscot), a guardian of her nation's language, who is currently at work on a bilingual edition of “Transformer Tales” (the creation stories and guides to honorable living that were once passed down orally from Newell Lyons), as well as an updated and expanded Penobscot dictionary.
  • Newell Lewey (Passamaquoddy), who has taught the Passamaquoddy language in the Princeton school system, and is currently involved in a linguistic research program at MIT.

Carol Dana writes: "Some loss of language may have occurred in the boarding school experience; some of our people were taken to Carlisle, Pennsylvania. But our loss of language also occurred right here in the schools on the reserve, the parochial schools... Now it is more difficult to get people on board, because they feel they can't read it. One has to speak it to bring it back. Recording writings today will be important in years to come for interested young people. It's storytelling through time. It is a way of leaving a record about someone and events or teachings."

In a recent article for American Indian (the magazine of the National Museum of the American Indian), John Haworth (Cherokee) highlighted the work being done by such "guardians of memory, language, and life-ways," noting that Congressional action to lend needed support came at last with the 1990 Native American Language Act and in 2006 with the Esther Martinez Native American Languages Preservation Act.

These laws acknowledge our collective responsibility to preserve such unique cultural streams of human experience. UNESCO estimates that about 3,000 languages are endangered worldwide. In 2010, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) declared a language state of emergency on Turtle Island (North America).

Here in Maine, a campaign is currently underway to support the teaching of Passamaquoddy language at the secondary school level in Washington County. Donations received on Oct. 9 will go to support this campaign, and you can also contribute online at

Another helpful resource is Dr. Conor McDonough Quinn, University of Southern Maine Department of Linguistics, who has teamed with the Penobscot Nation Department of Cultural and Historic Preservation to publish a 15,000-entry Penobscot dictionary. Dr. Quinn has been engaged in several efforts to digitize Penobscot-language manuscripts for learners, and has also worked with Passamaquoddy-Maliseet and Mi'kmaq teachers on accessible, streamlined approaches for heritage learners of these languages.

Even as a white person and relative newcomer, it is not hard for me to imagine how instruction and socialization in traditional practices and ceremonies can reinforce a young person's positive self-image and pride in their culture, building strong and healthy communities. When this teaching is expressed in the unique language that gave rise to such traditions in the first place, how much richer and more powerful must be the experience!

So I hope you will join us Oct. 9 at Belfast Free Library to celebrate the continuing development of indigenous languages in Maine. Our panelists will share sounds and meanings that better connect us to the earth and to each other.

Diane Oltarzewski lives in Belfast.

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