One man's goal: for a tribe to pray in its own language

By KATIE ZEZIMA, 15 November 2003, The New York Times

BANGOR, Me. -- The automated voice is flat and monotonous, but Allen Sockabasin says he hears the words and prayers of his ancestors through the speakers of the Macintosh computer on his desk.

Mr. Sockabasin, a member of the Passamaquoddy Indian tribe, has spent more than a decade trying to save its language. Though the tribe has been Roman Catholic since Jesuit missionaries from France arrived in northern Maine 400 years ago, few of its members today know how to pray in their native language.

In fact, fewer than 600 people in the Passamaquoddys' indigenous land -- eastern Maine and the adjacent region of Canada -- now speak Passamaquoddy or Maliseet, a dialect. And of those who do, fewer still can pray in the language, in part because most prayers were taught their ancestors in either Latin or English, by the Jesuits and the Anglicans who followed.

The 58-year-old Mr. Sockabasin is trying to change all that. Having previously recorded his translations of songs and poems from English to Passamaquoddy (pronounced pass-eh-meh-KWAD-ee), he is now translating the rosary and recording it on compact discs that he plans to distribute to schools and churches in eastern Maine and the adjoining Canadian province, New Brunswick. The project is the first in which the prayers have been translated into the native language, professionally recorded (in a local studio) and distributed.

"It's really sad when a young person tells you he doesn't know how to pray," Mr. Sockabasin, the H.I.V. coordinator for an Indian health clinic, said in an interview at his office here. "It's sad when a native speaker feels like he doesn't know how to pray. In Indian country, its all made up as you go along."

Most of those who still speak Passamaquoddy at all are aging, now over 50. Some tribal members say the language is dying out because many parents simply want their children to learn English so that they can pursue education and better jobs, and so leave rural Maine.

Tribal elders tried to preserve Passamaquoddy orally through the years, but English often seeped in, tainting it. Linguists have studied the language since the 1970's, but members of the tribe say they have not benefited from the research, which has for the most part been scholarly and, they say, not focused on helping Indian communities.

So they have started their own programs, at schools and community centers. The prayer project, however, is the most moving, they say.

One tribal member, Brenda Commander, who for three years has run a language program in the Indian community of Houlton, Me., said she first heard a prayer in Passamaquoddy last year, at a funeral. The words took on a different meaning. "I just can't even describe it," Ms. Commander said. "I felt inspired. It made me really emotional."

Mr. Sockabasin lives in another Indian community, Pleasant Point, on the Bay of Fundy about 25 miles from the Canadian border. The Rev. Frank Morin, the pastor of St. Ann's parish there, hopes parents will use Mr. Sockabasin's disc to teach children both culture and religion. Father Morin says the Passamaquoddy prayers are audible reminders of parents and grandparents who spoke the language.

Francis Nicholas, 75, a deacon at St. Ann's, says parishioners want to worship in Passamaquoddy.

"Everybody wants to be baptized," Mr. Nicholas said. "Everybody wants to be taken to the church when they die and be buried by a priest. One should be able to pray in their own language, I think, and you've got to pass that on to the younger generation."

Mr. Sockabasin, who grew up speaking Passamaquoddy, decided in the late 1980's to translate songs and poems, and record the results. He has now recorded seven discs of translated poems, prayers and songs, including "Amazing Grace." He says he pays for his projects with donations and grants; the discs are free.

Mr. Sockabasin works with the aid of a computer program that reads back written text. He types letters that he believes will translate orally to Passamaquoddy. Then, when the computer speaks them back to him, he tinkers with those that sound awry to his ear, and tries again. Once a rough translation is complete, he takes the printed word, reads it aloud and adds correct inflections. Once an accurate translation is complete, he records it.

He also teaches the language to anyone who is interested in learning it. "If I can teach a computer how to sound out a Passamaquoddy word," he said, "I certainly can teach native children how to sound the words."

Still, translating Passamaquoddy is complicated, because unlike English, it groups sets of ideas into single words. Dr. Robert Leavitt, professor of education at the University of New Brunswick and director of its Mi'kmaq-Maliseet Institute, tells of the difficulty encountered by a group of linguists who tried to translate "thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory" into Passamaquoddy. The word they first used, Dr. Leavitt said, made it "sound like God had been working out at the gym," conveying a vision of physical strength rather than authoritative power.

But Mr. Sockabasin knows the hurdles well: it was still the mid-1990's when he started work on the rosary.

His hope is that through his work, young people will find more meaning in the prayers they say each week in church.

"I know when I say `my creator' in my language, there is no other definition," Mr. Sockabasin said. "It's who made me."

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