Historic Recordings Revitalize Language For Passamaquoddy Tribal Members A partnership between members of the Passamaquoddy tribe and the Library of Congress to transcribe wax cylinder recordings from 1890 is bringing the tribe's language back to life.

Historic Recordings Revitalize Language For Passamaquoddy Tribal Members

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Some of the oldest audio recordings in the world have been digitally restored and returned to the descendants of the people who made them, the Passamaquoddy tribe of eastern Maine. Now younger members of the tribe are learning songs and stories once thought to be forever lost. Reporter Erin Slomski-Pritz has the story.


DWAYNE TOMAH: (Singing in Passamaquoddy).

ERIN SLOMSKI-PRITZ, BYLINE: Growing up, Dwayne Tomah learned many Passamaquoddy songs from his grandmother, but the one you're hearing now was not among them. Tomah learned this song as an adult off of a 129-year-old wax cylinder recording. This recording.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in Passamaquoddy).

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: This song is part of a collection of 26 surviving songs, stories and histories recorded on wax cylinders. They are the oldest ethnographic recordings in the world, made with one of Thomas Edison's brand-new inventions.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking in Passamaquoddy).

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: In 1890, anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes traveled to remote Calais, Maine, to meet with the Passamaquoddy and test out Edison's phonograph. In this archival recording, Fewkes shows the Passamaquoddy how the device works.


JESSE WALTER FEWKES: You can talk into it as fast as you like, or you can speak as deliberately as you choose. In either case, it reproduces exactly what you say.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: A handful of respected members of the Passamaquoddy tribe took turns recording their voices onto 35 wax cylinders.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in Passamaquoddy).

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: A century would pass before the Passamaquoddy would hear these recordings again. While the cylinders gathered dust in a museum archive, many of the documented songs and stories disappeared from cultural memory, largely due to state-sanctioned policies in Maine that discourage the Passamaquoddy from speaking their language. In that time, the rate of fluency went from 100% to around 10%.

Passamaquoddy historian Donald Soctomah, who is 64 years old, experienced this shift firsthand.

DAVID SOCTOMAH: I grew up in a household where everybody spoke the language. But when they spoke to me, they spoke in English.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: The recordings first resurfaced around 1980. The tribe received a collection of cassettes from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. One of the Passamaquoddy elders listened to the tapes. Here's what he heard.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Singing in Passamaquoddy).

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: The quality was bad. But underneath the static, according to Soctomah, the elder was able to identify the speaker.

SOCTOMAH: He did recognize the voice, and he said that's Passamaquoddy, and that's my godfather.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: As meaningful as it was to have these recordings, they were just too hard to understand. Again, they sat in storage. Then in 2016, the Library of Congress digitized the recordings, and, thanks to another advance in technology, removed a good portion of the static. For the first time, fluent Passamaquoddy speakers, like Dwayne Tomah, could not only recognize the voice. They could understand the words.

TOMAH: It was really actually a very emotional moment for me. That I am a descendant of the people that are actually documenting this stuff and to be able to understand them - it was really, really a powerful moment.

TOMAH: Now Tomah has joined a group of Passamaquoddy elders on a project to reintroduce these songs and stories into their community.

TOMAH: If we didn't have access to these cylinders, these songs would never be sung ever again. They have a second life. I think it's really - it's amazing, really.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: This second life involves passing on these songs to the next generation of Passamaquoddy.


TOMAH: So it was an honor for me to be here today to honor the students who are graduating.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: Just a few miles away from where these first recordings were made in Calais, Maine, Dwayne Tomah stood dressed in deer skins in a crowded high school gymnasium. He told the crowd of students and families, many of whom were Passamaquoddy, that he had chosen a special song for this day.


TOMAH: And this song was a gathering song to bring people together as one people.

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: It's a song that many of their ancestors would have sung, a song that was almost lost, a song that Tomah has brought home.


TOMAH: (Singing in Passamaquoddy).

SLOMSKI-PRITZ: For NPR News, I'm Erin Slomski-Pritz.


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