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Teachers Hope to Save Penobscot Language with New Book

The Penobscot Nationís natural resources have been important to the Penobscot people for millennia, including in their stories. (Penobscot Nation)
The Penobscot Nationís natural resources have been important to the Penobscot people for millennia, including in their stories. (Penobscot Nation)
December 27, 2018

INDIAN ISLAND, Maine – A member of the Penobscot Nation in Maine is trying to save the tribe's native language before it's too late.

Carol Dana is publishing a bilingual book with University of Maine Professor Margo Lukens to help preserve the Penobscot language.

In the new year, they'll release "They Remember Me Still," which includes 13 traditional tales about the tribe's cultural hero, Gluskabe, both in Penobscot and English.

Dana explains the Penobscot Nation in Maine no longer has any fluent native speakers of its language.

"The native speakers that had it from birth are gone,” she explains. “They were gone 10, 12 years ago. I've just been on this journey of trying to save Penobscot language. It's been quite a road. Fifty years."

Dana says she heard the language from her grandmother and tribal elders, although her parents didn't speak it at home.

She studied how to teach Penobscot in college, and now does so on the reservation.

The University of Massachusetts Press will publish the book, along with online audio recordings from Dana and other Penobscot speakers.

Lukens says the Penobscot language is at risk of extinction today because of strong attempts to kill it in previous decades.

"There have been a couple of generations of people whose use of the language has been interrupted by such things as the boarding school experience, and the experience of Maine public schools really not being tolerant of any language except English," she relates.

For Dana, it's important that the book is used by Penobscot people, young and old, and particularly in primary school.

Beyond saving the language, she also finds the stories inspiring.

"A lot has happened to us throughout colonial history, but our stories speak of great power,” she states. “And that's why else I do it – because we internalize this oppression.
We take it on. We've got high suicide rates. We need to stand strong, and this is our stuff."

Dana and Lukens have modernized the stories, which are centuries old.

Conor Quinn, the only linguist specializing in Penobscot language, also helped them with translation of the original collection of tales, published in 1918.

Laura Rosbrow-Telem, Public News Service - ME