Aroostook Band of Micmacs keep language, culture alive through community classes

6 years ago

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Thanks to recent grant funding, the Aroostook Band of Micmacs in Presque Isle is now striving to host more weekly and monthly cultural education classes for their community in hopes of instilling a strong cultural identity to generations both young and old.

This past summer the tribe received a $20,000 grant from Native Youth and Culture Fund of the First Nations Development Institute, a nonprofit organization that provides funding for Native youth, financial, housing, health and community-based projects.

As part of the funding the Micmac community members have thus far held classes on making traditional tribe regalia, medicine bags, baskets and drums as well as dancing lessons and cooking demonstrations.

On Thursday, Nov. 15, Micmac cultural director John Dennis hosted the first Micmac language course at the Micmac wellness center as part of the grant funding, which he hopes to hold bi-weekly or weekly as more community members hear about the course. He has taught Micmac language courses since 2010 and also provides similar lessons to students in the Little Feathers Headstart Program and the Presque Isle Boys and Girls Club.

Dennis noted that the Micmac language is a complex one to learn, especially for younger tribe members, because there are three dialects that have evolved throughout the tribe’s history.

“One dialect developed among the Micmacs in Nova Scotia while another comes from New Brunswick and another from Quebec, which is similar to the New Brunswick dialect in written form,” Dennis said. “The dialects have more similarities when they’re spoken than when they’re written.”

Dennis grew up on the Eskasoni Mi’kmaw Nation in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia and learned Micmac, pronounced Mi’kmaq in Native communities, as his first language. He said he did not learn English until he attended public school, which was a common reality for many Native children for generations.

In fact there are numerous Micmac elders, Dennis noted, who ran away from Nova Scotia boarding schools as children because non-Native teachers banned them from speaking Mi’kmaq and practicing their unique Native culture. Through the years those elders taught the language to their children, who later grew up and passed down the language to their children and grandchildren.

Today, Dennis said, preserving Mi’kmaq has become even more crucial, as there is no legal requirement for school systems to teach the language. As English becomes a common language that Micmac youth use in school, work and in life, he encourages family members to take advantage of speaking Mi’kmaq at home while their children are still young and curious.

“Even if they’re not paying attention they’ll still retain the words and phrases as long as they hear you speak them,” Dennis said. “We call the language our ‘mother tongue’ because our mothers spoke the language from the time that we were babies.”

Many words that people have spoken throughout northern Maine for centuries have their roots in the languages of Maine’s Wabanaki tribes. The St. John Valley town of Madawaska gets its name from the Maliseet word “Madaweskek” that means “land of porcupines” while Aroostook is a Wabanaki word that translates to “beautiful river.”

Other words that have cultural significance for Aroostook County evolved from both Mi’kmaq and Canadian French culture including Caribou –from the Mi’kmaq “yalipu” meaning “pawer, scratcher” and Canadian French “cariboo,” meaning “American reindeer” — while “toboggan” comes from the Mi’kmaq “tobagun” and Canadian French “tobogan.”

Dennis began his Thursday night class with an introduction of basic Mi’kmaq words and phrases translated from English. He said his goal with the course was to help students gain the skills needed to practice and speak the language in their everyday lives.

“For us the Mi’kmaq language is part of our identities,” Dennis said.

The class holds special meaning for Susie Lewey, of Blaine, who wants to learn those conversational skills in order to sustain those cultural connections with her own family.

“My children are Micmac and Maliseet but my first language was Maliseet. Sometimes my grandchildren will ask me how to say certain Mi’kmaq words, so I want to become fluent,” Lewey said. “There are fewer people now who are fluent and so learning the language is what will keep it alive.”

The next Micmac language course is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 24 at the Micmac Wellness Center, located at 56 Micmac Drive in Presque Isle. All courses are free and open to the public.