May 27, 2024

A project with real meaning Tribal dictionary captures language, culture

Thousands of years of oral tradition was unveiled in written form Monday with the release of the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary – which in Passamaquoddy is Peskotomuhkati Wolastoqewi Latuwewakon.

The nearly 50 people attending a ceremony at the Pleasant Point Community Center gave standing ovations to dictionary collaborators David Francis, 91, a Passamaquoddy tribal elder, and Robert Leavitt, a retired professor from the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.

Decades in the making, the dictionary captures not only the language, but also the culture and traditions of the two Indian nations. The Passamaquoddy and Maliseet tribes basically share the same language.

“This is my dream,” Francis said shortly before the ceremony began with a prayer by tribal member Gracie Davis and introductory remarks by tribal Lt. Gov. Thomas Lewey.

Francis and Leavitt began working on the project in the 1970s.

Passamaquoddy tribal member Margaret “Dolly” Apt served as the community research coordinator.

Apt praised Francis before the ceremony began. “He felt if we didn’t do something and do something drastic to help save our language when he passed and

others like him, it would go with him,” she said.

Francis hired Apt, who spoke the language, about 12 years ago.

“When I saw the book today for the first time all together, it was like this was my baby,” she said. “I helped create this. There is so much feeling and emotion; I don’t feel that I can find the right words to express how I feel about this. To know that it was through David and Robert’s work that I became a team with them. And from there I learned how to read and write my language.”

The University of Maine Press published the dictionary. Michael Alpert, director of the UM press, said before the ceremony that this was the largest book the press has ever published. “And certainly one of the most important if not the most important,” he said.

The dictionary has 39,000 entries in all and contains almost 1,200 words with an introduction, history and sketch of the language. Readers can look up an English word and find its Passamaquoddy match.

“I think it is a very lyrical book in that it is much more than a dictionary,” Alpert added. “It has many sentences that include a great amount of cultural information. It is looking deeply into the culture so that a person can read this book with real pleasure.”

Leavitt said before the ceremony that the dictionary was a community-based effort. He is one of only a few whites who reads, writes and speaks the language.

The first tribal member to capture the language in written form, he said, was Lewis Mitchell. That was in the 1880s. “He was really the first Passamaquoddy to write down stories from oral tradition,” he added. “He was the representative to the state Legislature in the 1880s. Quite a self-taught entrepreneurial individual.”

Tribal elder Wayne Newell, who heads up the bilingual program at Indian Township, first proposed the idea of a dictionary.

Phil LaSourd, a linguist at Indiana University, started the project when he was at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “He came up to do some research and started the dictionary,” Leavitt said. “Then David and I took it on after that program ended in 1979 and we published a small version of the dictionary in 1984.”

The two continued to work on it.

In 1996, they got an infusion of cash from the National Science Foundation “to expand the work on the dictionary and accelerate it,” Leavitt said. “And that is when we were able to hire Dolly.”

The grant ran out in 2003. “After that the tribe continued to support the work through the [Wabanaki] museum [at Pleasant Point] and resource center,” Leavitt said.

The dictionary is just a start; the authors said more words would be added in the future.

Copies may be obtained from local bookstores as well as from the University of Maine Press.


Correction: 12/12/2008

A story on Page B1 of Tuesday’s paper about a new Passamaquoddy-Maliseet language dictionary contained an error. The dictionary features more than 1,200 pages of entries.

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