Supporting the Future by Honoring the Past at Passamaquoddy Indian Day Celebration

“Our grandchildren are watching us. They are learning.” – Wayne Newell (Photo by Lura Jackson)

By Lura Jackson

 

How can you support the future? For the Passamaquoddy people, the ever-important future depends on a strong relationship with the past. In practice, it means fostering connections between the generations and passing on ceremonial traditions that have been held for thousands of years. The tribe’s sacred concept of honoring the past and supporting the future is embodied every year at the Sipayik Indian Day celebration, held this year from August 9-13th.

Originally organized in ceremonial remembrance of the voyage traveled between Motahkomikuk (Indian Township) and Sipayik (Pleasant Point) – the tribe’s summer and winter homes, respectively – the beginning is marked by a canoe journey along the ancestral route.

“It was a special trip we all will remember,” said tribal historian Donald Soctomah, who shared that the participants this year were between the ages of 5 and 75. “The community send-off always generates energy, especially when the eagles also are there.” The canoeists were joined on their journey by eagles playing together and exhilarating but mostly enjoying favorable winds.

A day after beginning their voyage, the canoeists arrived at Split Rock to give a traditional canoe paddle wave to those waiting on the shore – those who, in turn, played drums and sang in welcome. The tribe’s wampum belt was then presented to Vice Chief Maggie Dana “as a symbol of the connection between the people of Indian Township to the people of Pleasant Point,” Soctomah explained.

The arrival of the canoeists on Friday was but a small portion of the events that followed over the next several days. This year, which was the 53rd anniversary of Indian Day Celebration, was particularly significant for the Passamaquoddy for many reasons.

The tribe has experienced a staggering number of deaths as a community in the past year, as Dana shared. “Our people have been grieving nonstop. Coming together like this is healing. Hearing that drum and singing is an act of healing. As we are grieving, when we dance together like this, we are celebrating life.”

Tribal members performed several ceremonial dances during the gathering, including a memorial dance to honor the deceased, a dance to honor veterans, the tutuwas (pine needle tuft) women’s dance and the warrior dance. In each case, participants were from across the generations, from little babes learning the steps for the first time to elders following movements known by heart.

Several individuals and their families were named as honorees of either the past, present or the future. Rick Doyle and his family were named as honorees of the past for Doyle’s long service as Deacon, council member and spiritual leader. Betty Lewey and her family are the honorees of the present for her 42 years of working with an estimated 500 children in the tribe’s Head Start program. Tobias Francis and his family are the honorees of the future on account of young Tobias’s efforts to learn the craft of his esteemed father, canoe-builder David Moses Bridges. Bernie Francis was also honored for her 38 years of service in Child Development at Sipayik.

This year’s event marked the last in which honored elder Wayne Newell will be acting as Master of Ceremony. Newell’s retirement from the role was celebrated with raucous applause and cheering.

The emphasis throughout the weekend was on the youth and the importance of passing traditions on to them. The tribe has reconnected with portions of its past recently through its active work in listening to and translating recordings that were first obtained on wax cylinders in 1890 by Jesse Walter Fewkes during a visit to Calais. “Some songs have not been heard in 128 years,” said Donald Soctomah.

Among the 31 cylinders was the Trading Song, originally written as a collaboration between the Maliseet and Passamaquoddy. It was sung during this year’s event by Dwayne Tomah and his daughter, Liliana, who is now in the process of learning it.

 

“Our culture is our survival,” Maggie Dana said, capturing the spirit of the gathering. “It has helped us through many tough years. Our power is in our relationship with one another.”

Lifting the peace pipe is Dwayne Tomah in the role of hosting chief during the welcoming ceremony. (Photo by Lura Jackson)