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Legacy of a Saved Language [archive]

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Legacy of a saved language: Laurent worked to preserve Abenaki

If asked now to tell the story of how he stood up a decade ago at a meeting in Conway and spoke Abenaki to the bewildered crowd, Stephen Laurent complies readily.

"Ni agua pasgueda wakaswak Wobankiak weskokogonozsa Maguak (Once upon a time a few Abenakis were intercepted by the Iroquois), kwahliwi Salonnaki Nbesek (not far from Saranac Lake). Maguak paamalozhanik ondaki agmiowo, ni mziwi Wobanakiak wmataoogwobanik chaga Maguak onda wzakpowlegwo. (The Iroquois were more numerous than they, and all the Abenakis would have been killed if the Iroquois hadn't been afraid.)"

As if singing without a tune, he says the words smoothly, his eyes focused on some soft middle ground beyond the tiny Indian store in Intervale where he is standing, dressed in a fringed vest of caribou leather and a red tie beaded with a small blue bird. To pose for a photograph, he has removed his baseball cap, the one that says "Bear's Den - We Scalp Prices, Not People - Mohawks of Akwesasne."

The Abenaki words he spoke then, in 1988, were psychological ammunition; his testimony helped save the store - now a national historic site - from a Route 16 bypass that would have forced its removal. After finishing his story, he told the 500 people listening that he understood them as little as they understood him.

"Which would add more to the honor of New Hampshire," he asked, "the preservation of its culture or the construction of an 11-mile toll road of doubtful effectiveness?"

Today he repeats the Abenaki words without pride, even though he is perhaps one of only five people in the world who can speak them.

Laurent, 90, is an Abenaki man whose red hair and glasses, by his own description in a 1955 speech, made him look "as if he came from East Boston rather than from the Indian Village of St. Francis" in Quebec, also known as Odanak, where his father was a famous chief.

He grew up learning to hunt on a reservation but earned his living at the Jackson post office. He never finished seminary but knows Latin, Greek, Abenaki, French and English; his bookshelf supports titles like Cataracts and Iacocca alongside little-known works of Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, Plato and Leonardo da Vinci.

And he is a man who says he does not particularly care if his native language dies with him but spent 30 years translating the first extensive, published dictionary of Abenaki language in the world.

Asked if that was a paradox, he replies, "I don't know."

Six words for moose

Stephen Laurent's modesty is as legendary as his linguistic work. "I don't know that I'll be able to tell you much," he said two weeks ago when asked if he would accept a visit to his house in Intervale.

Even the title of Laurent's red-covered book, of which only 500 copies were printed in 1995, defers credit to a Jesuit priest dead since 1755: "Father Aubery's French Abenaki Dictionary," it reads.

The telephone demurral was expected. "Though I'm sure he will tell you he has not done anything, this is by far the oldest, intact complete Abenaki dictionary," said John Moody of Vermont, an ethnohistorian who studies Native American cultures of the Northeast.

Laurent also has recorded his entire book on tape, so that scholars will know how to properly pronounce the odd-looking words.

For scholars, the importance of Laurent's achievement is not to be underestimated, even if Laurent does not especially want to discuss it.

"It's very rare," Moody said, adding that the language translated by Laurent (who calls it simply Abenaki) is a middle dialect somewhere between Eastern Abenaki (extinct), Western Abenaki and Penobscot.

"It's crucial to have the kind of detail that this book provides, to get us beyond guessing. It's a snapshot of a very early period." Dismissing the notion that any language is "primitive," Moody described Abenaki as "vast in its descriptive power. There's a tremendous amount of knowledge in the Abenaki language about Vermont and New Hampshire. It's crucial to maintain the integrity of these roots."

There are six words for moose, for example, depending on whether the animal in question is a male or cow moose, a yearling male or female, a 2-year-old and so on.

The value of such an extensive document - "Over 7,000 terms clearly defined and explained," the dictionary promises - reaches far beyond New England, said Ives Goddard, curator of the anthropology department at the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History.

"This contributes to our knowledge of human language in general. We won't know how English works until we know how Indian language works," he said. "The catastrophic extinction of languages that is happening hand over fist is not just a linguistic tragedy, but a tragedy for our ability as human beings to understand how we speak and how we think."

Goddard cited predictions that the world's 6,000 languages now spoken will shrink by 50 to 90 percent in the next century - a devastation unparalleled in any other field of study. Even if an Indian language has a few hundred speakers today, he said, "all it takes is for the 14-year-olds to decide to talk English to each other, and it's gone. A whole community can lose its language in one generation."

Laurent's dictionary, he said, "is one more brick in the wall" helping to stave off extinction.

Laurent describes his contribution in less grandiose terms. "It makes me feel that I'm filling in a gap. Nobody is speaking it, but I am. That brings it to life," he said.

Hard on the eyes

Laurent began translating Father Aubery's dictionary in the 1960s. Using copies of a handwritten manuscript which the French missionary meticulously compiled during the first half of the 18th century, Laurent worked three hours a day translating the French into English and explaining etymologies of many of the Abenaki words.

"It took me 30 years, because I didn't want to damage my eyesight," he said. A friend who observed Laurent toiling in the 1980s said the copies were ragged and the handwriting faint; she was amazed he could read some of the pages at all.

The dictionary lists entries in French, which can be found with an English index. To find a translation for the word "fool," for example, one must find "idiot" in French. The entry reads: Idiot: Niais - idiot, fool simpleton: az8g8, nananbasamatt8 (ned-az8ghi: I am crazy; ne-nannanbazematt8: Il se comporte en niais - He acts like a nincompoop.)

The "8," a modernization of a Greek linguistic convention, signifies the letter "w" in English, which does not exist in French.

Laurent's fascination with the intricate language (which he characterizes from a borrowed quotation as "so soft and fluttery it would not disturb the birds") and the way Europeans came to understand and muddle it, is evident in his writings over the decades.

"Most amazing, perhaps, in view of all the complexity is the fact that without written or verbal instruction, without academies or institutes to establish rules and prevent deterioration or alterations, the Indians managed to speak their language with grammatical correctness," he wrote in a 1958 essay. "In my many years of association with Abenakis of today, I have yet to hear one err in using the proper inflection."

For the white man, "Laying hold on a word was a little like trying to grasp a wriggling eel. Even the simple word 'hand' gave one missionary a great deal of trouble. The Jesuit, pointing to his own hand, looked inquiringly at the Indian. The latter grunted, 'Kelji,' i.e. 'Your hand.' Later to verify his records, he repeated his question, pointing to the Indian's hand. This time the answer was, 'Nelji,' i.e. 'My hand.' "

Finally, to isolate the noun, the missionary persuaded someone inside a wigwam to stick out his hand through a slit in the doorway. The answer was "Awanelji," "Someone's hand."

Missionaries also were deliberately misled by Indians who "would take the easiest way out and give the first word that in any way approximated the French idea," he wrote in 1955. "As an example, one Abenaki, on being called on to translate 'extreme unction' in his dialect, answered, 'awassoswipemi.' The good father dutifully recorded the strange expression in his rudimentary lexicon, not at all suspecting that he was writing down the Abenaki equivalent of 'bear grease.' "

Dwindling voices

According to Moody, there are between 3,000 and 4,000 Abenakis living in Canada and New England - about 1,000 in New Hampshire and 1,700 in Vermont. Of those, he believes a couple of hundred have knowledge of the language. Other scholars subscribe to more conservative estimates. Goddard said he counted 20 speakers of Western Abenaki in 1974; that five remain, as some have suggested, would not surprise him.

Unlike other Indian groups, such as the Mashantucket Pequots in Connecticut (who recently opened a $91 million museum thanks to casino revenue), Abenakis have no federal recognition, and no reservations in the United States.

Abenakis in New England have no political leader or official spokesperson; instead, individual Indian voices rise along with particular issues, such as Conway's Route 16 bypass.

An anthropologist from Swanton, Vt., who claims Abenaki ancestry recently spent $1,800 to open an Abenaki museum there in hopes it will help the Indians gain at least state recognition, which the Vermont governor has consistently opposed.

Without money or clear organization, however, Abenaki tradition lives only in shallow pockets across the Northeast: In Buffalo, N.Y., a young Abenaki man teaches the language to a few students; in Barre, Vt., Jeanne Brink teaches basket-making using ash wood and sweet grass.

"It's the children that we need to be teaching, and that isn't happening," said Brink, who learned her craft from an 87-year-old woman in Canada. "You can never replace these things. All we can do it try to preserve them."

Father's influence

Although Laurent may be the last of a handful of native speakers, Abenaki was not his native tongue. He was born in 1909 at the St. Francis reservation, a settlement of Abenakis whose ancestors had fled north from New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine to escape the diseases and wars brought by English colonizers.

His father, Joseph Laurent, was chief and spoke fluent Abenaki, but Laurent heard mostly French and some English from his parents. "You could explain more things that way," he said. Laurent was the youngest of his father's 21 children (by two wives), and was only 8 when his father died. Nevertheless he was so influenced by him that he spent most of his life carrying on his work.

Joseph Laurent, a well-educated and imaginative man, was elected chief four times between 1880 to 1892; the job that required frequent trips to Ottowa to lobby government officials about the reservation's serious social and economic troubles, often to no avail.

But he became known internationally not for his political leadership, but for the primer he created of his own language, which had no written tradition beyond translated church liturgy and some legal documents. Titled New Familiar Abenakis and English Dialogues, the slim book, published in 1884, remains the standard for Abenaki grammar, and a wonder to modern scholars.

"Although literacy is a little bit more common than we might have thought, this is a really remarkable case of native grammatical tradition emerging among native people. For a native to develop a way of describing his own language in a systematic fashion. . . . It's really hard to think of other examples for North America where that happened," said Goddard.

Other partial grammars and dictionaries existed in French, but none nearly as complete as Laurent's.

The book includes declensions and conjugations ("That I may have a cow; That he may have a cow; I am white; I should be white; I should have been white"), and sample dialogues: "I have been very lucky this week. I have caught twenty beavers and five otters. Did you catch any minks? I have caught sixteen. I have also killed a bear. Was he fat? Very fat."

During that period, in search of a way to supplement his village's hunting-based subsistence, Joseph Laurent set off south for the summer with a group of Abenaki and Sokoki Indians to sell baskets. In 1884 Laurent made a deal with one of the owners of the grand hotels then dominating the White Mountains economy and settled on a permanent spot in Intervale. The seasonal journey continued until 1960, three years before Laurent's second wife died.

The Indian shop there sold sweetgrass baskets and Indian "curios" to the wealthy summer tourists. But if the group knowingly played to white stereotypes about exotic Indians (by wearing Plains Indians' war bonnets, for example), their camp also became a center, and later a symbol, for the preservation of Abenaki culture.

"For tourists, the presence of the 'noble savage' provided entertainment, a source of souvenirs, and an enhanced 'wilderness experience', " Gary Hume, a state archaeologist, wrote about the camp. "For anthropologists, Intervale was an invaluable source of information."

Greatest achievement

Scholars of Indian language and culture began making annual pilgrimages to the encampment, continuing long after Joseph Laurent's death in 1917. The visits made a great impression on Stephen Laurent, his father's youngest child, who credits his contact with these academics for furthering his own education.

A casual comment by University of Pennsylvania anthropology professor Frank Speck in 1944 inspired Laurent to begin recording Abenaki, a task he began systematically in 1960.

By that time he was living year-round in Intervale; in 1952 he married Margaret Pfister, a New York high school teacher of French and English who was of Abenaki decent, and who also had spent summers in Intervale.

Laurent still proudly recalls visiting his family in Odanak with her for the first time. On the street he heard two people talking about them: "Awani na? (Who is that?) Atianskwa (Stephen's wife)."

It was at Odanak that Laurent learned of the French-Abenaki dictionary that would occupy him for decades. "I was a Catholic," he explained. "On the reservation, a priest there told me they had the manuscript of Father Aubery." That copy was singed by fire and mostly unreadable, but a few years later a copy surfaced at the Maine Historical Society, and Laurent went to work.

When Stephen Laurent is mentioned to Conway residents now, their associations are as varied as his life. Some know him as the assistant postmaster in Jackson, where he worked for 30 years. Others remember him playing violin and cello in local chamber music groups; he learned the instruments from a summer resident who played with the Boston Symphony. (Asked if he ever plays now, he replied, "We used to have a quartet, but now there are only two left, and that makes only a duo, and that's not good.")

At the senior citizens' center where he goes every day to read the paper and eat lunch, some call him chief. He speaks sparingly now, but obliges cheerfully when questioned. "Steve, Steve," said a woman at the next table, "What year was the Coconut Grove fire in Boston?" "I don't remember," he answered without pause.

Still others identify him with the Intervale encampment and the store, which has been closed for three years. After his wife died in 1993, Laurent ran the store alone. Now he is too tired. These days he conserves his energy for daily survival: warming up dinner from Meals on Wheels, counting and recounting the many pills he takes, opening his mail, pouring low-fat milk into his thermos. His house, filled with antiques, has mostly fallen into disarray and disrepair. His clothes need mending and cleaning, his glasses need wiping.

Struggling with the locks, Laurent recently opened the shop, where cheap leather wallets stamped with a picture of an Indian chief's head ($3.95) lie in the dust next to extremely rare books and papers about the Abenaki.

In the trees behind the store are the dilapidated remains of the six cabins his father built. Plastic hangs haphazardly in the broken windows of five, and one has collapsed completely. The totem pole that used to stand out front broke in half and was thrown away. Only a birch bark wigwam he built in the 1970s still looks sturdy.

All of it - the store, the land, the rock with the plaque dedicated to his father - will be left to Laurent's nephew, who lives in Odanak but visits regularly; Laurent's wife was past 50 when they married, and they had no children.

"Oh, I loved coming here as a child," he said as he made his way slowly to the wigwam with the help of a walking stick - a mop's handle with a rubber cap at the end.

Laurent knows he assimilated and does not regret it. "Here I could earn my living. On the reservation, unless I went hunting, I couldn't earn my living," he said.

His decisions seem that unburdened by the weight of legacy. It is perhaps that unusual clarity that makes Laurent something of a mystery.

Asked if he worried that the Abenaki language could disappear with him, Laurent paused a moment and said no. For him, culture does not live only in language, but in those Anglicized and Francofied Indians who make it into something else.

"It lives with the people if they follow some of the rituals," he said. As an example, he recalled as a child how he had watched relatives of recently buried kin sneak back and forth from the cemetery for weeks carrying lanterns. The Indians believed the dead person needed help finding his or her way to heaven, a belief strongly discouraged by the Catholic missionaries at St. Francis.

Still, his greatest achievement, by his own admission, is a dictionary that translates a language he is calmly watching die.

A story he wrote helps explain why: The word Winnipesaukee has been understood by whites for more than a century to mean "the smile of the Great Spirit," a translation not even remotely connected to the Indian word (Joseph Laurent translated it as "lake region").

When Stephen Laurent looked into the erroneous etymology, he traced it back to a Penobscot named Lobal who acted as a guide for some missionaries in the 1860s. As they were paddling along the Penobscot River, the priest told a visiting missionary what Winnipesaukee meant, and looked for confirmation to Lobal, who nodded in agreement.

When upbraided by another Indian for reinforcing the nonsensical translation, Lobal "merely smiled and explained that it was such a beautiful afternoon . . . that he didn't want to spoil it all by starting an argument over something so inconsequential as the meaning of an Indian word. Lobal's viewpoint seemed to be: After all, if the white man liked to think that 'Winnipesaukee' meant 'the smile of the Great Spirit,' what harm did it do? It wouldn't make or break the world whether 'Winnipesaukee' meant that or something else more prosaic like, let us say, pork and beans."

Laurent wrote that in 1955; more than 40 years later, his sentiment echoes Lobal's. "I think we are all human beings and the culture of this and the culture of that doesn't make much of a difference, so long as we all live decently," he said, sitting in his dim kitchen as he waited for his dinner of stuffed shells to heat up.

"I think that so long as we communicate with each other, what language we use doesn't make too much difference."

--written by Sarah Koenig, Monitor staff

Additional Reading

 The Abanaki
 Abenaki creation
 Vermont Native American Indians

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