Dwayne Tomah sits at his kitchen table in Perry, Maine, and pulls up an audio file on his computer. When he hits play, the speakers emit a cracked, slightly garbled recording. Through the white noise, Tomah scratches out the words he hears, rewinding every few seconds.
Word by word, Tomah is attempting to transcribe and interpret dozens of recordings of Passamaquoddy tribal members, some of which are only recently being heard and publicly shared for the first time in more than a century.
“I really, I wept. Hearing their voices. Knowing that I’m probably one of the last fluent speakers on the reservation,” Tomah says. “And that we’re still continuing this process, to be able to revitalize our language and bring it back to life again, so to speak. And give it some attention that it really deserves.”
The story behind these recordings goes back to 1890, when an anthropologist named Walter Jesse Fewkes took a research trip to Calais, Maine. He borrowed an early audio recording device: a phonograph from Thomas Edison that recorded sounds on large, wax cylinders — about two-and-a-half to three minutes each.
“So this was the first time they took this big piece of equipment and modernized it so he could use it outside,” says Donald Soctomah, the Passmaquoddy Tribal Historic Preservation Officer.
In March of that year, Fewkes visited Calais, phonograph in hand, and met with three Passamaquoddy representatives.
“The three spokesmen for the tribe sang songs. Told stories. And did basic things like pronunciation of words and numbers and days,” Soctomah says.
In total, Fewkes recorded on to more than 30 cylinders. But for decades, the recordings were largely forgotten. Historians say Fewkes’ family likely held on to them for a time, and they eventually ended up at Boston’s Peabody Museum.
Tribal members didn’t hear the recordings again until the 1970s and 1980s, when the Library of Congress reached out to them as part of an effort to catalog thousands of the wax cylinders and share them with tribes. A Passamaquoddy tribal elder received a cassette of the 1890 recordings, but at that point, they were scratchy and difficult to understand.
Then, about a decade ago, a similar effort was attempted using digital technology. Guha Shankar, a folklife specialist at the Library’s American Folklife Center, says the 1890 Passamaquoddy recordings were some of the first that the library wanted to restore…
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