Published in The New Yorker, April 19, 2021
This article came out RIGHT after I read Dickon Among the Lenapes! It centers on Carol Dana, who was born on Indian Island, Maine, in 1952 and now holds the office of “Language Master” for the Penobscot Nation. I Googled the term “Language Master”, and found it to mean either a recent software offering or a very archaic term for a male language teacher. So the Penobscot use of the term is new and possibly unique. Why is it needed?
The “self-taught linguist” of the article’s title is Frank Siebert (1912 – 1988), self-taught anthropologist, ethnographer, bibliophile and cranky eccentric, who documented and analyzed the Penobscot language for decades. He was so certain of his scholarship that he once corrected a tribal elder on a point of grammar. (This was neither forgotten or forgiven.)
This article had an additional subtitle: “How to save -or steal- a language”. In what sense did Siebert “own” the Penobscot language? His books (he collected avidly) and papers, auctioned off after his death, generated twelve million dollars which went to his two daughters. Siebert’s Penobscot collaborators and hosts received nothing.
The Penobscot language was declared “dead” before 2000, meaning there were no more speakers for whom it had been a first language. Many Penobscot had been educated in the infamous Indian boarding schools, where only English was permitted. Carol Dana understood the spoken language because she remembered hearing her grandfather tell stories. She and the tribal leaders are committed to bringing back the spoken language and publishing the legends. It’s a complex, long term project.
A language is so much more than grammar and vocabulary. In Penobscot culture, certain stories belonged to certain families, who could grant or withhold the right to share them. Certain stories were restricted by gender. Some were only told during a certain season. Who regulates such uses? What happens when the situation is subject to intellectual property law?
Appointing a “Language Master” is only one of many steps (some controversial) taken by the Penobscot leadership to revive and protect their language. A University of Maine scholar commented
“if…we had never been forced to unlearn our language, we wouldn’t have to this sort of precious relationship with it.”
American law and culture have some catching up to do. I hope Alice Gregory (who has covered a variety of interesting topics in The New Yorker) will continue to write about this in the future.