Editor’s Note: The transcription of Penobscot used in the body of this story is not the formal system used for the language. An example of written Penobscot drafted by the students accompanies the story.
INDIAN ISLAND – The four teen-agers and their 23-year-old teacher went out for a walk, leaving their notebooks behind in the Penobscot Nation’s community building.
Not far up the road, a fire hydrant was being flushed, the water spilling onto the road and running toward a drain.
As they walked through the rippling water on the blacktop, the teacher, Conor Quinn, said, “Kwsahgajowan nabee” in Penobscot language, which translates to “The water flows across it.”
When they reached the home of one of the students, two plopped down onto a bench swing, one asking, “How do you say swing?”
“Ahlobegee-ahzodee,” Quinn replied, saying the word incorporated the ideas of a swinging rope, quickly, and a device.
The four teen-agers – Maulian Dana, Amanda Francis, Gabe Paul, and Jessica Attean – are studying their tribe’s native tongue this summer with Quinn, a post-graduate linguistics student from Harvard University. It is part of an effort to revive the Penobscot language. Also in the class is Carol Dana, who teaches Penobscot at the grades K-8 Indian Island School.
Amanda, a 15-year-old who goes to Orono High School, said she wants to learn her language fluently to show other people that “I’m proud of it.”
Gabe, a 16-year-old who also attends Orono High School, said he wants to become fluent in Penobscot to be able to speak to his grandmother and other elders in order “to keep it real.”
His grandmother told him she was “always whipped by the nuns” in school for speaking Penobscot when she was growing up on the reservation, Gabe said. Because of that, she didn’t pass the language down to his mother.
“The only ones who can bring it back now are the kids,” he declared.
Usually when grandparents and parents speak Penobscot, it is “real broken up, just expressions,” said Maulian, 16, who attends John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor.
Barry Dana, chief of the Penobscots and Maulian’s father, is banking on the four teen-agers to become fluent so they can teach others who in turn can teach even more Penobscots so the language will be passed down through the generations.
He said there are still “threads” of the language running through the tribe but it needs “strong cords.”
“I’m looking at a 20-year cycle,” he said, “so someone born today can speak fluent Penobscot to their children. Hopefully my grandkids can be teaching me. …”
In all, there are about 2,000 members of the Penobscot Nation, according to Dana, with about half living either on or within 25 miles of Indian Island.
He reckons that just 2 percent to 5 percent of the tribe still speak the language to some degree.
To fund this summer’s class, the nation has received a $50,000, one-year planning grant from the Administration for Native Americans, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Chief Dana said the money is to be used to develop a long-term program. If all goes as planned, the tribe will apply for a subsequent three-year grant worth $375,000 to implement the program.
Carol Dana said she is taking this summer’s course with Quinn “to brush up on my grammar.”
A class such as Quinn’s, she said, is not a panacea, but added, “we have to try everything and anything.”
She would like to create immersion programs so the young have “a real context” in which to use the language. “Children will remember it better,” she said.
For now, the four teen-agers are learning vocabulary and drilling grammar.
In explaining the language’s grammar, the four teen-agers said that Penobscot cannot be compared to English.
“The most important information comes first in a sentence,” said Jessica, a 16-year-old who attends John Bapst.
The lynchpin is the verb.
One builds on the verb to the point where the verb can end up incorporating many different things, as a whole sentence in English does, Jessica explained.
The verb itself can contain the one doing the action, the person or thing being acted upon, the time element of the action, as well as the action itself.
Penobscot is not as easy to learn as Spanish, Maulian said, but “I love it more.”
Because they care about their native language they have been rapid learners, according to Quinn. “I’m amazed at how quickly they’re picking it up. When I tried to slow the pace down, they gave me grumpy looks.”
Quinn also is learning.
“You don’t realize how much you don’t know until you try to explain something to someone,” he said. “Even speaking to someone else [in Penobscot] is new to me.”
Until this summer, most of his work on Penobscot had been reading and typing it.
For three summers in the 1990s, Quinn worked with the late Dr. Frank T. Siebert, an eccentric and crotchety but brilliant and nationally recognized expert on Native American languages who developed a transcription system for Penobscot and compiled a dictionary of the language.
A friend of Quinn’s family, Richard Garrett, who was working on a computerized Penobscot primer, put Quinn in contact with Siebert, who needed someone comfortable typing in a language he didn’t understand to type up the Penobscot legends he had gathered.
By typing the legends and reading Siebert’s notebooks, Quinn began to learn Penobscot.
Quinn grew up in Portland and became interested in languages as a teen-ager. A formative experience was spending 1994 as a Rotary exchange student in Indonesia, an archipelago nation, he noted, “with thousands of islands and hundreds of languages.”
He graduated from Cornell University in 1999 with a degree in linguistics. This spring he finished the first year of a doctoral-track program in linguistics at Harvard. So far in his life, he has learned Bahasa Indonesia, Sudanese, Irish Gaelic, Mandarin Chinese, White Hmong, Somali, and Penobscot.
An underlying reason that he is working with the tribe is that, “I think the idea that minority and marginalized languages are useless is a bad idea,” Quinn said. “I don’t like the idea that a society can get away with destroying another language and society.”
He pointed out that the language of his ancestors, Irish Gaelic, is “teetering on the edge of extinction.”
Because Quinn is not a Penobscot there is some tension over his teaching the language.
Amanda said that at first she didn’t want to learn Penobscot from someone who wasn’t of the tribe but “because the language is very slim and few people speak it, I looked past that.”
Maulian asked, “Are all the people who sit around and complain going to come down and teach us? He’s willing to give [our language] back to us.”
Chief Dana said the nation has been and always will be apprehensive of outsiders coming to them offering help: “People have promised us the world and have given us much less.”
But he said he has unequivocal faith in the altruism of Quinn’s motives.
According to Quinn himself, he has perceived “amazingly little” resentment.
As a teacher of Penobscot herself, Carol Dana doesn’t always agree with Quinn, and doesn’t see him as the savior of the language. Rather, “it’s up to the people here,” she said.
For all Quinn’s expertise, he said it will be the four teen-agers and Carol Dana who are going to have to be the “actors, teachers, and writers” who pass Penobscot down to subsequent generations.
“All I can bring to this is my experience learning languages [and] useful ways to approach learning Penobscot,” he said. “The sooner I do my job here, and work my way out of a job, the better.”