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Rejuvenating the Pride of the Passamaquoddy [archive]

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Rejuvenating the Pride of the Passamaquoddy

In a tidy little office overlooking his "Indian Basket" shop, Joseph Nicholas gazes out the through the rain towards the village where he grew up. "It looked a lot different than it does today," he mused. "It was very small." It is Mr. Nicholas' obvious devotion to this village now called Pleasant Point Reservation, that has inspired, driven him to make known the courage and pride of the Passamaquoddy throughout history. "This has been my life's work," he said, "and there is much left to be done. Maybe that's why I have retired five times." Mr. Nicholas' blithe spirit shines through frequently during our conversation.

In the early 1900's the village was very isolated, and Joseph did not learn English until he went to grammar school. He left high school before graduating, due to economic reasons, and joined the Navy. Eventually, Mr. Nicholas returned to school under the GI Bill of Rights. He graduated in 1951, the same year his daughter started grammar school. Also in 1951, he was elected as the Indian Representative to the Maine Legislature and served six non-consecutive terms for a total of 12 years between 1951 and 1989. In 1974 Mr. Nicholas successfully lobbied to restore the seating privileges that the Native Americans had lost a few years prior. As of 1997, the Passamaquoddy and the Penobscot are the only tribes that have representation in their state government in the entire United States.

In 1989, Mr. Nicholas received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of Maine at Machias, for his historical work and an Honorary Law Degree from St. Joseph's College, for his involvement in state government. "So you see," he quips, " I am a doctor, a lawyer, but not an Indian Chief!"

The "life's work" , for which Mr. Nicholas and other village Elders have labored so intensely, is to preserve the culture by passing that culture on to their children. But most importantly to Mr. Nicholas is that the children accept the culture with pride and dignity. "Very little is written about the Passamaquoddy in a positive light," he concedes. "Very few know of the bravery and loyalty of the native people during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, as well as World War I and II. " He learned from his grandparents the story of a Passamaquoddy Indian Chief, Frances Joseph Neptune, who was instrumental in the turning point of the Revolutionary War. According to the story, the excellent marksmanship of this Chief, brought down a British officer from the bridge of his ship, during the Battle of Machias. Additionally, there was high volunteerism among the Passamaquoddy during the Civil War and both World Wars. "We were not even considered citizens during WW I, but there wasn't any complaint from them, they felt that they were doing the right thing to help."

None of this was ever printed, because the Passamaquoddy language was only a spoken language until 1970 when Professors of Linguistics from Harvard along with others from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, began work on a written interpretation of the language. With the help of David Frances, another elder from Pleasant Point and Mr. Nicholas' long-time partner in this mission, the professors were able to develop 17 letters for the Passamaquoddy alphabet to represents the sounds of the language.

In 1965 he and Mary Moore, also of Pleasant Point, resurrected the Indian Ceremonial Day, which recently had its 32nd rebirth. Mr. Nicholas narrated and organized the dance group for twenty-five years, but then felt it was time to "hand it on" to a younger person, in order to ensure that the tradition continues through the generations. "It was difficult at first," Mr. Nicholas remembers. "We performed in many areas, but we were not really understood, and sometimes laughed at." Over time, however, this tradition of story-telling through dance has become a very important element in preserving and conveying the culture and traditions of Native Americans.

In 1987, Mr. Nicholas, along with Mr. Frances, opened the Waponahki Museum and Resource Center, which is located on Rte 190 at Pleasant Point, in an effort to enlighten the young people about the true Passamaquoddy history and culture. He is already seeing the effects of his and his colleagues' work. Children from the village school and other schools come and tour the museum and see, for instance the art of basketry. "For a number of years, the Indian women who make baskets have been stereotyped, as a lady who sits in the corner and weaves a basket, as if there were nothing to it," acknowledges Mr. Nicholas. "But once [the children] found out what is totally involved in the whole process, then they realized that they are artists." It is this type of neoteric awareness, that deeply satisfies Mr. Nicholas. He sees the result in his own offspring, as well. "My son continues to perform in the annual celebration and has done so since the inception, and now my great-grandson is performing. I see more and more people performing, and proudly," he says with conviction.

As we talked, several visitors stopped to view the treasures in the "Indian Basket" store, undaunted by the steady rain. When visitors step in, they are met by the earthy fragrance of the sweet grass from which many of the baskets are made. The dream catchers dance in the gentle wind. After our meeting, I can only begin to understand and appreciate the many, many years of Native American heritage that would wither and die like the bad dreams snatched from the breezes by the dream catchers, if not for the work of people like Joseph Nicholas. But, like the good dreams, the culture and traditions of the Passamaquoddy people have been allowed to pass through the barrier of indifference and remain alive.

--written by Andrea Barstow

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