Learning Passamaquoddy as a Non-Native

Photo: Snow covered tree at dawn.

What a beautiful dawn the other day, all the branches coated with light snowy adornment! I’ve been feeling grateful these days. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how lucky I have been to study the Passamaquoddy language with Roger Paul during the last 3 1/2 years. I recently saw an article published a few years ago, by Taté Walker, “3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Learning an Indigenous Language as a Non-Native.” It got me reflecting about the questions, some of which I had already considered when I began. #1 Why am I learning this language? #2 How will I center tribal perspectives as I learn this language? #3 How will I handle criticism from Indigenous people? Today, I also have a fourth question which I will explore.

I looked back to my earlier posts to remember my thoughts about why I was learning this language. I had asked permission from the teacher, and also from my Wabanaki friend who was going to take the class, and both had been very welcoming. Roger has talked about how his elders had decided it was time to share the language with others beyond the community. On a very practical level, it was hoped that by increasing the number of registrations, the class was more likely to be offered at USM, so more available to Wabanaki students who wanted to learn.

On a deeper level, I wrote that it was a way to begin to decolonize my mind, “I want to think differently”–Nkoti piluwitahas. I also had the thought that, ideally, any of us who came to live in Wabanaki territory should learn the original language of this land, as respectful visitors. Also, years ago, an Indigenous woman had said, “If you really want to understand our spirituality, you must learn our language.” It stayed in my mind though I can’t remember now who it was who said it. (This was during the time I was working on the issue of cultural appropriation by white people of Indigenous spiritualities.)

Today, thinking about it again, I know I had the privilege of retiring from work right at the time the class began, and there was a program for seniors to enroll in university classes for free. Everything came together so easily. My heart led me into it and the door opened. I think perhaps, too, though I didn’t realize it at the time, it was a way to connect to my own Innu ancestors.

During the process of taking these classes, I have learned so much about the perspectives and history of Wabanaki people. I have learned how few people are now fluent in the language, because of forced assimilation, and because of the terror of the boarding schools and day schools, where children were punished for speaking their language. I have learned that for me to learn the language is a privilege that many Wabanaki people do not have, if only because they are busy trying to survive in the English-speaking world. I understand that if I were to speak the language in most contexts, it might be a painful trigger for Native people who carry so much trauma about the loss of their language. So mostly, I haven’t tried to speak it except in our class contexts. And though I am beginning to understand more than I could have imagined, I am humbled too by how difficult it is for me to speak any of it, except for carefully constructed dialogues. I am truly still a beginner.

But the question closest to my heart these days is this: Since I have been granted this gift of learning the Passamaquoddy language, how can I give back? From this course, I’ve learned gratitude and the importance of reciprocity: so what is my responsibility now, as the recipient of such a gift of knowledge? Bearing in mind that I’m not training to be a professional teacher, and I have so little energy anyway because of chronic illness. I have done some activities in solidarity to Wabanaki concerns–but these are not related to language. I don’t have an answer right now. But I am holding this question closely. How can I give back? What is my responsibility in light of the gift of this knowledge? It may be that by holding the question, an answer will be revealed.

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