By Nadine Biss
At the Eastport Arts Center on Sunday, March 10, more than 30 attendees were welcomed by
Dwayne Tomah to develop their understanding of Passamaquoddy language and culture.
Tomah, who serves as the Passamaquoddy language keeper and curator of the Sipayik
Museum, brought numerous artifacts and recordings to share. He presented his talk as a way to
“Share historical truths without pointing fingers … to educate.”
Some may be familiar with Tomah’s work as he has spoken at the Arts Center in years past. If
you’ve heard of the Passamaquoddy wax cylinders of 1890, you know of his work. It was this
project, wherein he succeeded in gaining the rights to wax cylinders that documented
Passamaquoddy language, stories and songs from the Library of Congress, that he devoted
much of his talk to.

Dwayne Tomah presented for the Sunday Afternoons at the Arts Center series on March 10. Photos by Manuela Brice.

For those unfamiliar with the cylinders, a brief history: on March 15, 1890, Jesse Walter
Fewkes—using Thomas Edison’s recent invention—recorded the voices and tales of Noel
Joseph and Peter Selmore in Calais, making them the world’s first indigenous people to be
recorded. These cylinders, massively important historical documents that tell us so much about
the local language, culture and people, spent decades gathering dust on the shelves of
the Library of Congress. Not so once Tomah appeared on the scene. He transcribed and
translated the recordings and has been sharing that work with schools and other institutions
ever since. “My ancestors were working through me,” he explained.

A 1901 phonograph was used to demonstrate how the wax cylinders would have played those
recordings. “My ancestral voices need to be heard, and now their voices are off the shelf,”
proclaimed Tomah as he shared some of those traditional stories. One potential plan for
honoring those voices is to develop a permanent outdoor exhibition in Calais where the
recording actually took place.
A significant portion of Tomah’s talk covered the ways that language and culture were
systematically removed from Passamaquoddy and other indigenous people as a form of cultural
genocide. Colonization and forced assimilation resulted in policies that intentionally attempted to
destroy these 12,000-year-old traditional ties. Tomah also shared reflections written by the
late Fredda Paul, a Passamaquoddy tribal member and medicine man, about being sent to
residential schools that tried to strip him of his Native-ness.

But, as Tomah explained, there is a movement afoot to revive Native culture and reconcile
historic injustices, such as the residential schools. “We’re still here; we didn’t go anywhere,” he
proclaimed. Washington Academy, Sipayik and Indian Township are schools that now offer
Passamaquoddy language and culture classes, and there is renewed interest in regalia and
moccasin making, song and dance ceremonies and traditional sports and games.
While the Passamaquoddy language was traditionally learned orally, in the late 1960s a writing
system (composed of 17 letters of the English alphabet) was devised in an attempt to save the
language. Even if it hasn’t been solely responsible for its resurrection, written language provides
a good historical document. In this ongoing effort, the Passamaquoddy dictionary contains over
19,000 words.
Language informs the way we view the world and studying it allows us to investigate cultural
meanings and traditions that can be difficult to parse. For instance, there is no Passamaquoddy
word meaning “goodbye”—only “I’ll see you again.” The Arts Center will be lucky to see Dwayne
Tomah again and continue in the process of understanding ourselves and our neighbors.

If you are interested in learning more about Passamaquoddy language and culture, Tomah
recommends a visit to the Sipayik Museum, which is open Monday-Friday 8 am to 4:30 pm, and is
located at 59 Passamaquoddy Road in Sipayik/Pleasant Point. More information can be found
via their Facebook group.
—Nadine Biss was practically raised at Eastport Arts Center—both original Masonic hall location and current spot— as a veteran of Eastport Strings, Passamaquoddy Bay Symphony Orchestra and Stage East. In between a few stints abroad, she is currently working on civic hall preservation with Greenhorns and playing fiddle with Moose Island Contra Etc. (MICE).

Sunday Afternoons at the Arts Center programs are held in Eastport Arts Center’s cozy downstairs Washington Street Gallery, amidst rotating exhibitions. Admission is by voluntary donation; proceeds are shared equally between the presenters and EAC ongoing program The Concert Series, which offers year-round programming run by volunteers. No one is turned away for lack of funds. Find the full 2024 schedule and more posts about upcoming and past programs at eastportartscenter.org/the-concert-series.