The Passamaquoddy Reclaim Their Culture Through Digital Repatriation 1/30/2019

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The Passamaquoddy Reclaim Their Culture Through Digital Repatriation

In late September, I travelled to Indian Township, Maine, the largest of three Passamaquoddy reservations, for the tribe’s annual ceremonial-days festival. That far northeast, the state is all water-edged hills and long stretches of humanless, single-lane roads, and it was in full autumnal splendor. Outside the reservation’s tribal office, in a field that was steps away from a shimmering lake, a few hundred Passamaquoddy people gathered to celebrate in pan-Indian powwow style. Donald Soctomah, the tribe’s soft-spoken historic-preservation officer, whom I’d been in touch with by phone, welcomed me to Indian Township. I knew him as the tireless steward of all things Passamaquoddy: he’s a photographer, archivist, museum curator, writer of books, designer of curricula, birch-bark-canoe builder, and former (non-voting) tribal representative to the state legislature. When I met him in person, after hearing his surname mentioned throughout the reservation, I learned that he’s also a father of thirteen. “I’m doing my part to keep the tribe going,” he said, with a rare chuckle.

The one thing that Soctomah doesn’t do is dance, so we stood at a remove from the drum circle, he in a windbreaker and baseball cap, as other festivalgoers moved clockwise around the yard. They danced in the subtle manner of Passamaquoddys: rod-straight backs; short, light steps; offbeat lifts of the abdomen. There was a solemn moment, too, as the names of those who’d died of illness, addiction, and old age in the previous year were called. In the afternoon, the yard was cleared for the traditional Passamaquoddy hunter’s dance. The fifty-three-year-old Dwayne Tomah, who was wearing a fringed nubuck tunic and a tall feather hat and carrying a small tomahawk, walked to the middle of the field. A hand drum, amplified from the sidelines, projected a gentle beat. Tomah squatted, knees low to the ground, as if he were stalking prey. Then, as the music crescendoed, he leaped, suddenly, into the air.

Passamaquoddy music and rituals have been studied by academics for more than a century, but the tribe, whose name means “people who spear pollock,” has had little say over the use of its cultural property. In 1890, just months before the murder of some hundred and fifty Lakota Indians at Wounded Knee, a mustachioed anthropologist named Jesse Walter Fewkes dragged a state-of-the-art Edison phonograph to Passamaquoddy country. This was during the height of “salvage anthropology,” an attempt to document the many tribes that were being massacred into extinction, and Fewkes had received funding to study the Hopi and Zuni people, in the American Southwest. Before journeying there, he decided to practice recording on the “remnants of the Passamaquoddy.” The wife of the local Indian agent, who served as a liaison with the U.S. government, recruited members of the tribe to sing and speak at Fewkes’s request. For several days, they projected their voices into the giant metal cone of what Fewkes called Mister Phonograph. They told folk stories and performed songs and chants. They watched as a crank-powered needle inscribed thirty-six brown wax cylinders with the sounds.

The recordings were historic: the first sounds ever captured in the field. But, for the next century, they were held by Harvard’s Peabody Museum, and lost to the tribe. At least one wax cylinder included portions of a funeral ceremony that was intended to be heard only within the community but was made available to the public. Others registered facts about Passamaquoddy commerce and geography that might have been helpful to the tribal government. All of the wax cylinders contained precious audio of people’s grandmothers and grandfathers, in a language that was becoming more endangered with each passing year. In 1980, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, which had obtained custody of Fewkes’s catalogue, sent cassette-tape transfers of the recordings to the tribe. These tapes arrived at a fateful time. For decades, tribal members had suffered extreme poverty, seen their language banned by the Catholic priests and nuns who oversaw the reservations, and lost their kids to the child-welfare system. But the Passamaquoddy and a sister nation, the Penobscot, propelled by the radicalism of the American Indian Movement, had just won federal recognition and litigated an unprecedented case against the State of Maine for its seizure of Native territory; the settlement included tens of millions of dollars to purchase a hundred and fifty thousand acres of land. Far-flung members of the tribe were drawn back to the reservations, where their children could learn Passamaquoddy in school and sing traditional songs. The wax-cylinder copies were staticky and difficult to make out, but a few elders recognized sounds from their childhood.

Today, a renewed spirit of indigenous activism, exemplified by the Standing Rock protests, in 2016, coincides with yet another homecoming for the Passamaquoddy wax cylinders. Audio engineers at the Library of Congress are using new technologies to convert all thirty-one surviving recordings into a much cleaner digital format, and, in a Native-first approach to archival work, the library is giving the tribe curatorial control. Soctomah is part of a team that is translating the audio and deciding which songs and stories the Library of Congress should make available to the public; whatever is sacred or private will be kept out of view. Tribal members, on the other hand, will have full online access, thanks to a content-management system designed for the community. According to the Library of Congress, this is the federal government’s most ambitious attempt at a practice known as digital repatriation.

Audio: Peter Selmore, a member of the Passamaquoddy, sings “Esunomawotultine” (which translates to “let’s trade”), more commonly referred to as “Trading Song,” for the anthropologist Jesse Walter Fewkes, 1890, Calais, Maine. This is a digital copy of the original wax-cylinder recording, restored in 2016 by the Library of Congress. (Uploaded with the permission of the Passamaquoddy nation, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, and the Library of Congress.)

The day after Tomah performed the hunter’s dance, I visited him at his secluded barn-style house, in the town of Perry. He lives with his wife, Erica, whom he got to know while working at a clothing factory that was once co-owned by the tribe, and their eight-year-old daughter, Lilliana. Tomah, who’s among the youngest people fluent in Passamaquoddy, described himself as “one of the last language speakers, fighting against time.” In the past year, he has joined Soctomah in the task of transcribing the wax-cylinder recordings. Their process is to listen to one digital file at a time, second by second, mining it for phrases, musical elements, and cultural context. Each file is just two or three minutes long but can demand weeks, even months, of attention.

A handful of the recordings have been analyzed to date; the most musically striking of these is what used to be generically known as “Trading Song.” Today, at both the Library of Congress and on the tribe’s new Web site,, it’s called “Esunomawotultine” (“Let’s Trade”) and…….