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Contemporary Life and Change [archive]

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Contemporary Life and Change

Importance of Language:

It's always been difficult for me to explain why learning Passamaquoddy is important, because some of it I can't put into words. First of all, there's a real value universally in learning more than one language. Everybody agrees on that. Unfortunately, most Americans don't get to have that experience. I guess the value for me is that there are things that can be expressed and things that can be thought, and there's a certain continuity in who I am which is expressed in the language. There are lots of experiences that I take with me that people who are now gone, meaning dead, gave me, and they didn't give them to me in English. And that for me is the real value. It may be they couldn't have given them to me in English. A lot of legends we talked about really lose a lot in English translation. English cannot accommodate that special quality. I'm very hesitant to translate a legend, because I know from speaking both English and Passamaquoddy what the loss is from one to the other. I haven't experimented too much with working with English legends and translating them back into Passamaquoddy, but I would imagine the same thing would happen, although I don't know. Unless you know the language, I really can't tell you what it is to hear Gluskap legends in the native tongue. What seems, for example, violent in English, is not violent within the context of the rules of the Passamaquoddy, or Abenaki way of telling it. In the few legends that do get translated, the ground rules are different from the original source.

Land Owned Communally:

One of the things that I notice, we still very much act as a tribe. In spite of all that the press especially tries to emphasize, we are still fairly united in a common cause. We're lucky here in Indian Township and Pleasant Point because we get to still express ownership of land from a communal sense. And there are lots of unwritten rules about that. We know what they are, we don't need a lawyer to explain them. Lately, for example, I've seen fences sprout up, but there have never been any legal challenges. People, if they feel strongly about a particular issue or a particular piece of land, will raise hell about it. Very rarely it will be adjudicated by the council, that's the final authority. In the last twenty years I've seen two serious situations, which isn't bad for such confusing times. If someone has a reason that people can understand, they say, "Well, yeah, you might be right." "You know I want to fence off this half an acre because I don't want people tramping all over my garden." That's reasonable; everybody goes along with that. And I think that everybody has their own space; on the other hand, it's our space as a family. And I think that that's individualism at work, but yet, everybody is committed to the idea of working together. Now, I think that was one of the first things noticed during the, if you will, the settling of the West. The government policy was to slice up the reservations because people wouldn't tend to work together as much Somehow they missed us, I don't know why. They didn't miss the Penobscots, but they did miss us.

Sense of Community:

I think owning the land communally is the very basis of community. It's the old "village green" concept. You know, you have some small traces of that in some towns in New England. Here, it happens to be in our case 150,000 acres, or it will be, and all of the other properties that we're acquiring. You know, you really feel a sense of ownership. For example, I've always wanted to own a radio station; well it never dawned on me that I would own it with 2200 other people. But that's okay. Part of the dream came true. With us the sense of community goes right down to an extended family. What you do is governed by your neighbors. Issues are common, you can't isolate your neighbor. So, when we achieve or when we succeed, we succeed as a community. When we get sick, we get sick as a community. If we adopt a value, or drop a value, or do away with the value, we do it as a community. It just works out that way. These days we say well, it's because we're a small community. Not necessarily so. We're a fairly diverse community because some of us are in Connecticut, some of us are in Massachusetts. But we still seem to function as a unit. And I don't know why. It's just a real strong thing. What somebody else's family is doing in Massachusetts, I'm really curious about. Some people I haven't seen for twenty years, I still wonder. They come back after a twenty-year absence, and it's like they've never been gone. It's something above and beyond the usual. I think that we have something that has bonded us together through a real tough survival period, especially in the last 150 years.

Weddings and Wakes:

As I said, we get sick together, we achieve together, we grieve together, we eat together, we celebrate together. For example, in weddings, up until recently, nobody ever sent a printed invitation. It was always passed out orally, somebody's getting married. Of course, it was understood that you were invited. If you weren't coming is when you were really in trouble. That was less tolerated than you showing up, no matter how festive you were. Funerals is another example. There's a whole elaborate set of rules regarding a death in the community. The specifics are different in the different villages in Maine, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, with the Micmacs, Passamaquoddies, Maliseets, and Penobscots. Customs varied, but I think everywhere there's a commitment to holding these things more as a community. When we wake somebody, it's a watch period. There's a historic reason for it, here and other places.

Changing Customs:

I remember, especially in my childhood, somebody would move into -- not a new house because there was no such thing -- but somebody different would be moving into a certain structure, and people would all bring presents. "House warming" is what you call it. There would be dancing, lots of celebrating. Or, if somebody was going to have a baby, we would have a shower. Today, it's sort of all lost in the traditions of showers anywhere, it's like any other showers anywhere, and that's the point that I wanted to get to. Some of these things we have given up actively. A lot of them have been absorbed into the advertising version of the way we do thing -- like showers, as an example, or birthday parties, that kind of things. We just take Madison Avenue and adopt that as the way of doing things

Traditional Values and Modern Technology:

I think the general public comes into Indian communities and what they observe on the surface doesn't seem to match up. And their conclusion is, "How can there be Indian culture and television sets?" Or, "How can there be these inside feelings and beliefs, and you immerse yourselves into the technology? I think we're all like that, the white people are like that. They have an inner conflict, too. Way down deep inside I think in all of us we would like to have an ideal environment, for example, ideal social order. That's when we all daydream. I think that we have something that we saw, at least I did, or I see it today even, and the point I wanted to make is in today's world, it's getting harder to see it. In the Passamaquoddy world, we are as much of a victim to the Madison Avenue version of living as anybody else. First, it's not our fault. Secondly, I think that we are much more aware of it, especially now, when things are becoming a little bit more organized for us. We have more sense of control today. But a lot of things have happened, there's been a lot of decline in communalism for example -- those things I talked about, funerals, marriages, common partaking and sharing is declining. And I really think that's a sad sign because when you lose that sense of community, you have two choices: either chaos, or the other one, you start compartmentalizing your life as you would in surburbia, for example.

Preserving Sense of Community, Language, and Customs:

One of my friends lives in the suburbs of Nashville, and it is just like being in a container, which is subdivided into a hundred square little blocks and everybody is in their own little block. My friends didn't seem to know too many neighbors around them. That's not the case here. But if we continue heading that way without that sense of community and tribalism, I'm sure we'll end up that way. I think that we are about as realistic and concerned as anybody about that. If non-Indians observe that of us, we already know it. And we have a much greater price to pay; it's more painful for us. When we see the language disappearing, for example, that's a lot more painful for us than for those people who never spoke our language. When we see some good customs dying -- and for these customs, it wasn't just a matter of doing a particular activity, it's the reason for doing it and how we did it -- those are the things that are really important.

I think we still have a real chance. I think the community's beginning to talk about it as a basis of concern, which is really good. When I was young, there was no need to talk about it because there was so much there that we didn't even know it was there. There's been a real change in the last 25 years. We have had to undergo the tremendous pressures of that 25 years, and we had a period here for a while when we didn't know which direction we were going in. Now, the aspiration is, "How do we make these communities into real communities?" One of the immediate aspirations is to clarify where we all fit into this new role. Prior to the settlement of the land claims, I think that there was always this fear that somebody was going to take it away from us. I think that fear is still there, but it's certainly much more subdued now, because there is some federal legislation to protect us.

Sense of Hope:

Another priority is to see where and how the Passamaquoddy way of life is going to survive. People are concerned about the language, about how we can continue to work together, and I think those awarenesses will take shape into action. Some of them already have. It's a turnaround. It's now a hopeful community, as opposed to hopelessness just a very short time ago.

Reviving Traditions:

We're trying to encourage more community participation; for example, when someone dies, you know that was a real strong time for the community, it really tied together even people who never got along too well who would put away those things temporarily. It was sort of an enjoyable time in one sense, because you saw people working together that didn't work together normally. There was always something special in these various events. When a governor got inaugurated, even after the politics of the election, people would bind together. There's a custom that is still carried on. It's really a beautiful custom, and we're trying to revive it among the young. At the beginning of each new year, you go to those who are closest to you and sort of erase the board for last year and start out all over again. There's a special set of words that you say. And they all return it back of course. It's basically a sort of forgiveness for all those things you've done in the past year to offend them. I really think that that probably existed prior to Christianity, and I think it wasn't necessarily done at New Year's. I think the Church did some things to refine it. They always refine things. But it's still there, and I think people ought to do it because it takes away, if you really mean it, years and years of needless resentment that you could walk around with, and it's really kind of neat.


At inaugurations, for example, the outgoing chief, who sometimes was a candidate that was defeated, will dance towards the new chief, and turn his power symbolically over to the new chief with the passing of the medallion to the new chief. Now, this is something, from what we can find, that's fairly traditional. But it wasn't always that way in recent years. In the last few years, the community has begun insisting that [this ceremony] in fact take place to show people the transition of power. The chief is a fairly highly regarded person, and I really think that the community has not thrown away its standards of what it expects of the chief, even though the community has become much more critical. I think more of the positiveness is emerging, as we become more secure again, more stable. We tend to go back to the finer values and we tend to do away with those other ones because they just don't fit. I think that this symbolic transference of power is really good and it's good that it's got reinstated again. The more of the old ceremonies that are instituted again, the more that you have a chance of raising values. It wasn't just a matter of doing things for the sake of doing things, They always had a meaning behind them, like unifying the community. It doesn't mean that things will always be that way. I think the community is very realistic about that, it has no illusions. "Okay, let's enjoy it for tonight because we know that there's going to be some things that come up."


The community also tries to rule by consensus, I really think it still does. I know I talk to people every day and hear things that reinforce that the values are still very much alive. I think you have to live here, you have to listen to people to pick up these things; what they say when not asked is when the most information can be gotten. I think values are things that you don't define. Values are things that just come out automatically. But there are so many apparent contradictions sometimes. What I try to do in my own lifestyle is become aware of those contradictions, try to emphasize as much as I can those things that lead me to some sense of peace. That's really the most sensible thing, and that's not always easy, but it's worth it.

Drugs and Alcohol:

One of the things which came with changes in the communities in the last 25 and years is a misuse of what I call mind-altering chemicals -- drugs, alcohol, whatever it is -- the need to take these things to fit in or whatever; it's become a real serious epidemic in our communities, and I think we ought to treat it in some way that we don't hide it, because one of the symptoms of substance abuse is denial. It used to be that if you talked about it, especially non-Indians, the way to deny it was, "Well, they don't like Indians anyway and they're prejudiced." Now, at least it's in the talking stages and most of the communities do have or are setting up programs to begin to deal with it. It is real serious. It is something that will not take just a little old program; it's something that has to be a community approach.

We have undertaken in the last few years to study a lot about this disease, and I think we should, because when tuberculosis was here in the '50s, we did a lot and eventually, working with other groups, we got rid of it. Now, why can't we do the same for this? I think that we are and we will. It's not a moral disease of the community, it's a physical and spiritual robber, I call it. That's what it is; we're not a bunch of sinners, we're people that got afflicted by something. People from the outside who don't want to offend us will try to deny it by saying, "Well, this isn't any different than other communities." I don't think we're offended at all. I think we would rather face it square on. It is painful, but I think it's the only route; there is no other choice. The sooner that we instill that in our own young by teaching good awareness and prevention in their early years of education, the better that they're going to approach it.

-Reproduced from the book Wabanakis of Maine and the Mariitimes with kind permission from "The Wabanaki Program of the American Friends Service Commission."

This book is available from:
AFSC Literature Resources
1501 Cherry St.
Philadelphia, PA 19102-1479

It is also available online.

Additional Reading

 Native Cultural Traditions
 The Passamaquoddy
 Passamaquoddy First Nation
 Native American Tribes of Maine

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