Article Passamaquoddy Song

Image: Wayne Newell and Blanch Sockabasin
Wayne Newell and Blanch Sockabasin at the Library of Congress, 2009. American Folklife Center photo.

By Kathleen Mundell

This essay was orginally written for the event flyer for the concert by Wayne Newell and Blanch Sockabasin at the Library of Congress in 2009.

The Wabanaki, meaning "People of the Dawn," are the indigenous people of Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia.The Passamaquoddy are part of the Wabanaki Confederacy, which also includes the Maliseet, Micmac, and Penobscot tribes. Numbering close to 3,000 members, the Passamaquoddy live in some of the most easterly and beautiful places in Maine: Pleasant Point (Sipayik) and Princeton (Mohtuhkomikuk). "Passamaquoddy" means the "place where Pollock are plentiful" a reference to the waters of Passamaquoddy Bay and the significance of the fish to native culture. For more than 3,000 years, these lands and waters have been the Passamaquoddy's ancestral home.

Deeply rooted in place and history, members of the community continue such traditions as dancing, ash and sweet-grass basket making, and birch-bark canoe making, as well as speaking and singing in the Passamaquoddy language. These practices strengthen family and tribal ties while helping to communicate cultural values to the next generation.

Song and dance also play a significant role in Passamaquoddy political, religious and social life. Rarely performed for their own sake, traditional songs help celebrate the coming together of the entire community, whether it be the inauguration of the tribal council or a community supper or reunion. Jesse Walter Fewkes, who is credited with making the first wax cylinder recording of Passamaquoddy music in 1890, described a song sung on the night when the governor's election was celebrated: "This song was sung by proxy, and contains compliments to the feast, thanks to the people for election and words of praise to the retiring chief." (J. Walter Fewkes, p.3)

Dating back centuries, the Wabanaki Confederacy, which included the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac, Maliseet and Abenaki tribes, established ceremonial protocols that required presentations of specific songs and dances (Ann Morrison Spinney, p.84).
Traditional songs and dances continue to play a central role at Indian Day at Sipayik (an annual public celebration), as well as at such intertribal gatherings as the opening ceremony of the annual Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance, which occurs every July in Bar Harbor.
Passed on through oral tradition, many songs consist of a single, melodic line. Traditional songs are performed with a percussion accompaniment, usually a hand-held frame drum with a single beater, sometimes a horn filled with pebbles or a shaker that is struck on the ground.
In this presentation Wayne Newell and Blanche Sockabasin perform songs and stories from Passamaquoddy culture, a recording of a concert at the Library of Congress, September 16, 2009, sponsored by the American Folklife Center.

In Passamaquoddy culture, traditional song and language are inextricably linked. Although many adult tribal members born before 1960 grew up speaking Passamaquoddy as their first language, they became concerned that, over time, their language would fade into obscurity. Growing up at Sipayik, singer Wayne Newell became part of a dedicated group of Passamaquoddy speakers working together to develop ways to revitalize their language. 2009 marked the publication of A Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary by David A. Francis and Robert M. Leavitt with Margaret Apt. A result of more than thirty years of collaboration among native speakers, linguists and educators, Wayne Newell helped initiate this important undertaking: "For nearly half a century many individuals, including myself, have been committed to making sure that the next generation has the tools and methodology essential to their own creativity in future endeavors. This dictionary stands as the centerpiece of our commitment," he writes in the dictionary's introduction.

Wayne Newell is also a respected educator who helped start the tribe's first bilingual and bicultural education program at Indian Township in Princeton. The program has gained much recognition for its innovative language program and for the use of song and dance in the curriculum. Every summer, Newell can be heard performing at the annual Indian Day celebration at Sipayik, his voice blending with that of talented singer, dancer, and basket maker Blanch Sockabasin of Princeton. A revered elder, Blanch Sockabasin is the mother of five, grandmother of eleven, and great-grandmother of nine. She was recently honored by the Maine Legislature for her lifetime efforts in language and cultural preservation.

Both Wayne Newell and Blanch Sockabasin are passionate about helping new generations stay connected to their history and culture. According to Newell, "These songs are about who we are, that we should be proud, and about our obligations to our children."


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Passamaquoddy Song
Subject Headings
-  Traditional and Ethnic Songs and Music
-  Songs and Music
-  Articles
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