Passamaquoddy Language Thrives with Educators’ Support

By Lura Jackson


Barely more than a generation ago, the Passamaquoddy language was threatened with extinction as a result of restrictive policies that forbade its usage. That fact stands in sharp contrast with the support and energy surrounding today’s efforts to promote and preserve the language, something in full evidence at an educator’s workshop held at the Wabanaki Cultural Center in Calais last week. 

Approximately fifteen people attended the workshop, most of whom were educators directly involved with teaching the Passamaquoddy language to students of all ages. The focus of the workshop was, in part, to plan for how a children’s immersion project begun by a three-year grant from the Administration for Native Americans could continue after the grant expires later this year. “We have been looking for new ways to keep the program going,” said tribal historian Donald Soctomah. The program has been very successful in teaching young children the language.

A second focus of the workshop was to share ideas on teaching methods. At present, Passamaquoddy is being taught at several places in Eastern Washington County, shared Lynn Mitchell, who teaches the language at Calais High School. “Right from the day care level, all the way up to grade 12, and adults, too – there’s teaching on all levels.”

Mitchell explained that each teacher has developed their own curriculum and style to convey the language, and the workshop enabled them to “get everyone’s mind all working the same way. Everyone comes with different ideas.”

For Mitchell, being able to teach Passamaquoddy is significant and rewarding. Mitchell’s mother and father were both fluent in Passamaquoddy and spoke it regularly at home, but from a young age they were punished for speaking it in public schools. Growing up in their household, Mitchell could understand the language but did not speak it much herself, in part because she felt the pressure to “fit in” with her classmates in the Bangor area. “I didn’t want to be different,” Mitchell recalls. “It was when I got older that I realized: It’s our identity. Our language is part of our identity.” She gradually learned how to speak it through the help of others and self-studying. “Me being able to bring it to the kids is my way of giving back.”

In Mitchell’s class, she frequently uses games to engage her students. An example is “Lynnie Itom”, a take on “Simon Says” that Mitchell introduced on the first day of class three years ago. Mitchell taught the students different commands, like “be quiet”, “sit down”, or “stand up”, and then they played the game, trying to match their movements with her commands – but only when prompted by that critical phrase, “Lynnie Itom…” The game was a hit with the students. “That first day I left Calais High School that morning, I left thinking, ‘Oh, my goodness, high school students were playing Simon Says and they were having so much fun!’ It’s really rewarding.”

Other ideas discussed at the workshop included illustrated translations of stories like Rainbow Fish or The Hundred Dresses, or a play featuring puppets, or a collection of songs. The variety of ideas and the passion behind them prompted Richard Auletta, a retired linguistics professor that was invited to attend the workshop to describe it as “an historically-charged moment, a point in time which may have been decisive in the life of a living and evolving language, a moment of promise and hope, of dedication and determination, as hard-working teachers and elders vowed to save and promote their sacred heritage language, the Passamaquoddy language.”

The tribe is embracing technology as a means to reach their youth. One of the major recent developments for the tribe has been a language app for Apple devices. The highly engaging app enables users to browse for Passamaquoddy words by category, hear the pronunciation of words and phrases, record their own pronunciations for comparative practice, play a variety of games with varying difficult levels, and to hear songs recorded by elders. At present, the app is only distributable to tribe members, but Mitchell reports that it has been very well received. 

 In Mitchell’s classes, she utilizes a platform called Kahoot! to hold interactive quizzes with the entire classroom simultaneously with the class’s participation visible on a screen at the front of the room. “They love the technology part,” Mitchell said.

Online, the public has access to one of the more long-standing digital resources of the Passamaquoddy language: the Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Language Portal, viewable at The 19,000-entry dictionary includes links to videos and audio recordings of tribal members. The project was developed through the efforts of the Language Keepers team, which was a collaboration between cultures and communities that began in 2006. It took the translating work of David Francis – compiled over his lifetime – and endeavored to make them available to everyone via the internet and in book form.

Reaching the youth is a fundamental part of encouraging the Passamaquoddy language to survive, something that must be maintained from generation to generation. For Mitchell, the opportunity goes beyond that. “I tell my students, ‘Someday, you might be the Mayor of Calais, or the [Chief of Indian Township], but now you guys have this connection. Nobody can take it away from us. I try to always keep us together, to work for that.”

Mitchell is pleased with the collaboration between the language teachers. “It’s like everyone’s trying to do what they can to keep it going.” She feels their efforts are working, but she has been encouraging the schools managed by the tribe to take it a step further by keeping the language active throughout the school day, including using it on the intercom for regular greetings. 

“They’re so open to it, the community as a whole. It’s coming around. We’ve just got to keep it going, keep it going,” Mitchell said.