To Pray (language)

Andre Cramblit andrekar at NCIDC.ORG
Mon Nov 17 18:43:50 UTC 2003

One Man's Goal: For a Tribe to Pray in Its Own Language


ANGOR, 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

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

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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