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Passamaquoddy Aboriginal Folklore

The study of aboriginal folk-lore cannot reach its highest scientific value until some method is adopted by means of which an accurate record of the stories can be obtained and preserved. In observations on the traditions of the Indian tribes, the tendency of the listener to add his own thoughts or interpretations is very great. Moreover, no two Indians tell the same story alike. These are sources of error which cannot be eliminated, but by giving the exact words of the speaker it is possible to do away with the errors of the translator.

I believe that the memory of Indians for the details of a story is often better than that of white men. There may be a reason for this, in their custom of memorizing their rituals, stories, and legends. The Kaklan, a Zuñi ritual, for instance, which is recited by the priest once in four years, takes several hours to repeat. What white man can repeat from memory a history of equal length after so long an interval Phonetic methods of recording Indian languages are not wholly satisfactory. It is very unlikely that two persons will adopt the same spelling of a word never heard before. Many inflections, accents, and gutturals of Indian languages are difficult to reduce to writing. Conventional signs and additional letters have been employed for this purpose, the use of which is open to objections. There is need of some accurate method by which observations can be recorded. The difficulties besetting the path of the linguist can be in a measure obviated by the employment of the phonograph, by the aid of which the languages of our aborigines can be permanently perpetuated. As a means of preserving the songs and tales of races which are fast becoming extinct, it is, I believe, destined to play an important part in future researches.

In order to make experiments, with a view of employing this means of record among the less civilized Indians of New Mexico,1 I visited, in the month of April, the Passamaquoddies, the purest blooded race of Indians now living in New England. The results obtained fully satisfied my expectations. For whatever success I have had, I must express my obligation to Mrs. W. Wallace Brown, of Calais, Me., whose influence over the Indians is equalled by her love for the study of their traditions.

The songs and stories were taken from the Indians themselves, on the wax cylinders of the phonograph. In most cases a single cylinder sufficed, although in others one story occupied several cylinders. None of the songs required more than one cylinder.

I was particularly anxious to secure the songs. The Passamaquoddies agree in the statement that their stories were formerly sung, and resembled poems. Many tales still contain songs, and some possess at this day a rhythmical character. I am not aware that any one has tried to set the songs to music, and have had nothing to guide me on that head.

In sacred observances it is probable that the music of the songs preserves its character even after other parts have been greatly modified, while the song retains its peculiarity as long as it continues to be sung. The paraphernalia of the sacred dance may be modified, as in the case of many New Mexican pueblos, into church festivals, but the songs must remain unchanged until superseded. It is noteworthy in this connection that in many of the songs archaic words occur.

The following list indicates the variety of records which were made:

It appears to me that the selections above given convey an idea of some of the more important linguistic features of the Passamaquoddy language, but it is needless to reiterate that these results and observations are merely experimental. In another place I hope to reproduce the stories in the original, by phonetic methods. I have here given English versions of some of the stories recorded, as translated for me by the narrator, or by Mrs. Brown, and added some explanations which may be of assistance to a person listening when songs or stories are being rendered on the phonograph.

The majority of the remnants of the Passamaquoddy tribe are found in three settlements in the State of Maine,-one at Pleasant Point, near Eastport; another at Peter Dana’s Point, near Princeton; and a third at a small settlement called The Camps, on the border of the city of Calais.

The manners and customs of this people are fast dying out. The old pointed caps, ornamented with beads, and the silver disks, which they once wore, are now rarely seen except in collections of curiosities. The old games, dances, and songs are fast becoming extinct, and the Passamaquoddy has lost almost everything which characterized his fathers.

There still remain among the Passamaquoddies certain nicknames borne by persons of the tribe. These nicknames are sometimes the names of animals, and in older times were more numerous than at present. Possibly these names are the survivals of the gentile or clan name once universal among them as among other Indian tribes.

I spent several days at Calais, while collecting traditions with the phonograph, and also visited Pleasant Point, where I made the acquaintance of some of the most prominent Indians, including the governor. Most of them speak English very well, and are ready to grant their assistance in preserving their old stories and customs. The younger members of the tribe are able to read and write, and are acquainted with the ordinary branches of knowledge as taught in our common schools. I should judge from my own observations that the language is rapidly dying out. The white women who have married into the tribe have generally acquired the language more or less perfectly. In their intercourse with each other, Indians make use of their own language.

In taking these records with the phonograph I had an interesting experience. The first time I met Noel Josephs, I greeted him after the Zuñi fashion. I raised my hand to his mouth, and inhaled from it. He followed in identically the same manner in which a Zuñi Indian would respond. I asked him what it meant. He said that it was a way of showing friendship. He remembered that, when he was a boy, a similar mode of greeting was common among Indians.3 Mrs. Brown recalled having seen a similar ceremony after she was received into the tribe. The meaning of this similarity I leave to others to conjecture. In a legend mentioned by Mrs. Brown concerning a game of “All-tes-teg-enuk,” played by a youth against an old man, the latter, who has magic power, has several times regained his youth by inhaling the breath of his young opponent.4


  1. This work was undertaken as a preparation for similar observation in connection with the Hemenway Archæological Expedition. I am indebted to Mrs. Mary Hemenway, of Boston, for opportunities to make these observations. 

  2. I have given below English versions of these, or the Indian stories told in English. 

  3. My surprise at this coincidence was very great, but I confess that I was also interested to hear from the lips of my Indian friend, at parting, the familiar Italian word, “Addio.” 

  4. Some Indoor and Outdoor Games of the Wabanaki Indians, Trans. Roy. Soc. Canada, Section II. 1889.