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 TatĂ© 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.

What does an elder do?

I am writing on the New Moon day, while in Congress our representatives are debating the impeachment of President Trump. On the New Moon, I always read my journal from the day of the last New Moon, and I note recurring themes in my days. One recurring theme for me this moon has been feeling empty and lost–I asked in my journal several times, “What is my purpose in this time of my life?” I am an elder now, and because of chronic illness, my energy is limited. What does it mean to be an elder in these times?

One of my images for the Divine Mystery is the River–the flow, the great unfolding of all things, the mysterious energy that holds us in its flowing. So one day, I prayed: I do not know my purpose–I open to your flowing oh River, I open to your flowing, and thank you.

I went outside after that, and there were tiny bits of hail on the dry ground. I started on a walk down the street and around the corner and directly toward the Capisic Brook near my house. Part-way there, I slid on a small patch of ice hidden under the scattered hail and landed on my back and elbow. I was bruised but okay, and even continued on to the brook and back, though I felt shaky about it into the next day, and have been sore since then.

The tiny hail on the ground in our back yard that day.

So reading my journal, I couldn’t help but notice that this fall came directly after my prayer to the River about my purpose, my surrender to the flowing. I wondered, “What’s that about, Spirit? What kind of answer to prayer is that?” I remembered a story about St. Teresa of Avila, who after a bad day had a fall of her own into the mud. She challenged God then, “Why?” and God said, “That is how I treat my friends.” She replied, “That is why you have so few!” (These were the Catholic stories I grew up on.)

I do know that the Spirit has a sense of humor, but might this fall mean something more subtle, like “Now is not the time to move forward or worry about having a purpose?” “Or, what?” And so today I sat quietly with Spirit, and with Billie kitty on my arm, seeking help to understand. Here is what came to me.

Don’t worry. The answer is to live into the answer by a hundred small intuitions. Joy. Love. As an elder, to let go of fixing, to be rooted in joy and love. You learn to end a day, or a life, by living into each day, each life. Feel the feelings. I didn’t knock you over, but it is in the nature of life to fall and to get up, to be wounded and to heal, to encounter hidden dangers without warning, to take time for recovery and to build resilience, to be broken and to be one with the whole.

As an eldest child, you felt responsible for everything. As an elder, you can learn that you are not responsible for everything. And yes, that is frightening. But you can feel the fear and rest in my love. You can lead as you have been leading, by sharing the skills and sharing the responsibility with each other, caring and connecting, just as you are.

And so here I am, in this hermitage life, trying to listen to the flow of the Spirit, learning a new way of being, an elder way of being, not responsible for everything. Even in this hermitage, the storms of the outside world rage into our lives through internet and television, and our power to act is so small. I hope and pray that those who can act, will do the right thing, do the brave thing, will hold fast to the good and resist greed and racism and violence and fascism. I hope and pray for a world in which all people care for each other and care for the earth. It is a frightening time. So I feel those feelings, and remember the next part–to rest in the love of Spirit.

Capisic Brook, the little stream that reminds me of the deep River.