When we link to stories about efforts to conserve intangible heritage, especially those related to indigenous culture, we feel fortunate to have found them. Those that detail the complexities are rare. Today is my lucky day. Alice Gregory, who has appeared in our pages twice previously, is to thank. The time I first read anything by her I was in a bamboo and thatch structure in northwest Belize awaiting a major hurricane whose path I was in. I had nowhere to go. The distraction I found in her subject, combined with her wordcraft, kept the fear of total destruction at bay. If you are looking for something like that right now, try this:
The Penobscot language was spoken by almost no one when Frank Siebert set about trying to preserve it. The people of Indian Island are still reckoning with his legacy.
When I first met Carol Dana, in the spring of 2018, she told me that she was thinking of getting a parrot. Dana, a member of the Penobscot Nation, one of five hundred and seventy-four Native American tribes recognized by the United States federal government, was attending a small ceremony at the University of Maine’s anthropology museum. She wore her silver hair pulled back from her face, and introduced herself to me as the tribe’s language master, a title, she added, that she wasn’t fully comfortable with. The idea of mastery seemed an imprecise way to describe the fraught relationship she had with the Penobscot words inside her head. Though not fluent, Dana has a better grasp of the language than anyone else on Indian Island, where six hundred of the world’s estimated twenty-four hundred members of the Penobscot tribe live. She admitted to being linguistically lonely. “I’ve been talking to myself in Penobscot for years,” she said. “You need to say it out loud, so your own ears can hear it.” Though she knew that a bird wouldn’t be able to carry on a conversation, she thought that simply hearing Penobscot words spoken at home by another living creature would be better than nothing.
Dana, who is sixty-eight, learned most of what she knows of Penobscot not from her tribal elders but from Frank Siebert, a self-taught linguist who hired her, in 1982, as a research assistant. He was seventy; Dana was thirty. Siebert had grown up in Philadelphia and had been passionate about Native Americans for as long as he could remember—as a child, he had slept with a toy tomahawk in his bed. He, Dana, and a few other assistants worked in a bare office on Indian Island, a mile-wide shallot-shaped island in the middle of the Penobscot River. Dana, who was brought up there, had as a child been forbidden to go to the mainland, and she’d spent her school-age days picking blueberries and mayflowers, building lean-tos, and impaling apples on sticks, throwing them like javelins. In the summer, she and her friends swam in the river; in the fall, they wrestled in the leaves. Siebert, who had moved to Maine permanently about fifteen years before Dana joined him in his work, had no such memories, but together they muttered and scribbled in a language that only a handful of people still spoke.
I first heard about Frank Siebert a year before I met Dana, from Jane Anderson, a legal scholar at N.Y.U. I was interested in the ways in which indigenous knowledge, passed down through many generations and often collectively held, is considered essentially authorless by Western intellectual-property law. Anderson, who is Australian, works with indigenous communities around the world to help solve conflicts over the ownership of ancient ideas. I had come to her with questions about a burgeoning movement in Guatemala to trademark traditional weaving designs, but within an hour I was convinced that I should travel not to Central America but to Maine, which, she told me, was home to a sovereign nation whose language was technically owned by a dead white man who had devised a way to write it down.
The name Penobscot is a mangled rendering of punawuhpskek—or pαnáwαhpskek, in the writing system Siebert introduced—meaning “the place where the rocks clear out.” For more than three hundred generations, the tribe, which once had fifty thousand members, hunted on the banks of the Penobscot River, navigated its waters, and spoke one of the many Eastern Algonquian languages heard along a swath of the northern Atlantic coast—an area that today extends from Nova Scotia to North Carolina. Siebert began studying the Penobscot language in the nineteen-thirties, four hundred years after European explorers arrived. By then, all that was left of the Penobscot territory, which once encompassed half of Maine, was a reservation that included Indian Island, which can be circumnavigated by foot in less than an hour, and some smaller islands along the river. The tribe’s language had nearly disappeared from use. Beginning in the eighteen-eighties, Penobscot children were sent to government-sponsored residential schools, where teachers beat them for speaking anything but English. “Anywhere else in the world, you’re thought to be more intelligent if you’re bilingual—except for us, for some reason,” Dana told me. The strategy, replicated across the country, was effective: more than three hundred indigenous languages were once spoken in the United States; today, linguists worry that within thirty years there will be only twenty. By the middle of the twentieth century, there were just two dozen Penobscot speakers on Indian Island, most of them elderly. When they tried to teach Penobscot to younger members of the tribe, their efforts were met with complaints that there was no use for it anyway.
But Dana loved listening to her grandmother speak the language of her ancestors. Like other indigenous New England dialects, Penobscot does not distinguish between certain commonly used consonants—“B”s and “P”s, for instance, or “Z”s and “S”s. The sonic effect of Penobscot—melodic, gentle, and worn-sounding, almost like singing—is at odds with the language’s structure, which is especially visual, efficient, and kinetic. Single words can express full ideas. Canoe is “that which flows lightly upon the water”; an otter is a “wandering portager”; lunch is “noon eat”; butter is “milk grease”; flower is “something bursting forth into the light.” Dana describes Penobscot words as “little poetic pictures.” Her grandmother was a stoic and remote woman when she spoke in English, but she seemed transformed when laughing and joking and talking with her Native friends. “That’s how language is conveyed,” Dana said. “Around the kitchen table.”…
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