How Did a Self-Taught Linguist Come to Own an Indigenous Language?

By Alice Gregory is at work on a book about the artist Robert Indiana.

Siebert died on January 23, 1998, at the age of eighty-five. His funeral, held three days later, in Philadelphia, was attended by a dozen members of Siebert’s extended family and three other people: Bishop; Clarence Wolf, the Philadelphia-based bookseller who had thought Siebert was homeless; and an elderly man nobody knew, who said that he remembered Siebert from the Cub Scouts. Recalling that day, Wolf sounded as though he were reciting a fairy tale: “These two young women . . . of very modest means . . . suddenly came into a great sum of money.” Then he got hold of himself. “The whole thing was just so odd.”

Siebert’s collection was auctioned off the following year, in a two-part sale at Sotheby’s. It comprised more than fifteen hundred items: books, manuscripts, maps, prints, newspapers, pamphlets, and photographs. Bishop, in an introductory essay for the sale’s catalogue, described Siebert as “the most knowledgeable Americanist of his time,” whose library was “probably the last great collection of Americana to chronicle and follow the frontier across our continent.” Selby Kiffer, a senior vice-president in Sotheby’s Books & Manuscripts department, called the auction “monumental,” saying, “Fifty years from now people will still be talking about it.” The collection, he added, “electrified the Americana book-collecting community.” The sale brought in more than $12.5 million. As stipulated in Siebert’s will, his daughters split the sum. Each bought a house for herself, and together they bought one for Marion. No provision was made for the Penobscot people.

Siebert bequeathed his dictionary and his field-work materials to the American Philosophical Society, a nonprofit scholarly organization, founded by Benjamin Franklin, in 1743, which is housed in a stately brick mansion in Philadelphia, a nine-hour drive from Indian Island. The A.P.S. encompasses a museum and a library with one of the country’s largest collections for the study of indigenous languages. It houses much of Frank Speck’s archive, and also the journals of Lewis and Clark, some of Charles Darwin’s correspondence, and materials from the Eugenics Record Office. The items in Siebert’s collection, whose legal copyright is held by the A.P.S., take up forty-one linear feet of shelving. Visitation rules are restrictive: guests must register in advance, make an appointment, and bring two forms of identification; only one box of manuscripts can be accessed at a time.

U.S. intellectual-property law, established as an economic incentive for inventors, privileges people who can write. In copying down the grammar, the stories, and the vocabulary of the Penobscot, Siebert made them his. In dying, he made them the American Philosophical Society’s.

In the twenty-odd years since Siebert’s death, a small group of people on and off Indian Island have been forced to reckon with his legacy. Carol Dana, armed with his word lists, has studied language-immersion and second-language acquisition. She has led games in Penobscot at the island’s day-care center and given weekly lessons at the elementary school, where students, when they need to use the bathroom, ask for permission to go to the wíkəwαmsis (“little house”). Dana has also trained other instructors, and she helped the Penobscot Theatre Company stage a production of Gluskabe stories starring local children. She likes teaching “while doing things—tanning hides, making baskets, weaving, anything you can put language to.” She often consults with Conor Quinn, Siebert’s former assistant, who has devoted himself to the pedagogy of indigenous-language repatriation. He has led summer language intensives on the island for local teen-agers and has been working with Pauleena MacDougall on revising the Penobscot dictionary. (Almost forty years after its preliminary version, the final volume will soon be co-published by the Penobscot Nation and the University of Maine Press.)

In 2002, Dana was given her formal title of language master, a position created by the Penobscot Nation’s recently founded Cultural and Historic Preservation Department. The department is led by the Penobscot tribal historian James Francis, who describes himself as a “second-generation nonspeaker.” Its aim, he says, is to “open the language gates that, out of shame, were closed so many years ago.” Francis, who is in his early fifties, grew up on Indian Island in an era of burgeoning indigenous activism. He feels that the key to saving Penobscot culture is not just studying the language but using it. “Take the strawberry preserves off the shelf and spread it on a piece of toast” is how he put it to me.

In 2012, Francis, faced with a grant deadline, called on Jane Anderson, the legal scholar at N.Y.U., whom he had met a year earlier, when he attended one of her intellectual-property workshops. Since then, she has worked closely with the tribe. Unlike many legal experts, Anderson is capable of viewing the law as the whimsical metaphysician it can be, transforming corporations into people and lakes into litigants. She is particularly interested in the ways in which American law “makes certain things into property that shouldn’t be seen as property,” and during the past few years she has focussed on the somewhat surreal legal status of the Penobscot language. “People say, ‘Hey, you can’t own a language!’ ” she told me recently. “And it’s, like, ‘Well, yeah, actually you can, through the misadventures of I.P. and copyright.’ ”

Anderson sees Siebert’s approach as archetypal of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century anthropological research, which tended to cast indigenous people not as participants but as objects of study, and rarely aspired to benefit them. Siebert’s work had been crucial, she told me, but he also engendered significant community shame. Anderson often speaks more like a psychologist than like a lawyer. “Because he failed at being a parent,” she told me, of Siebert, “he compensated by paternalizing his relationship to the Penobscot, whom he treated like children and tried to raise properly, in his eyes.”

Anderson, whose work frequently grapples with the problem of whether instruments of colonial dispossession can be used to fix problems of their own making, wants the Penobscot people to retain cultural authority over their language, even if they cannot technically hold its copyright. To that end, she has collaborated with tribe members on a few extralegal initiatives, including a project that is being implemented jointly with the A.P.S.: attaching digital labels to the documents in the Siebert collection, to indicate cultural sensitivity, discourage commercial use, and request that the information be attributed to the Penobscot community moving forward. Indigenous rules around how knowledge is disseminated are often incompatible with copyright law. Some of the oral narratives in the A.P.S. archive, for example, are meant to be shared only by women, or only in winter, or only by elders. Behind the modest-sounding scope of the labels, Anderson told me, is a “radical proposition”: an explicit acknowledgment that “there’s something really serious here that the law can’t necessarily contain.”

The ceremony at the University of Maine where I met Dana, in May, 2018, was hosted by Kirk Francis, the chief of the Penobscot Nation, and Susan Hunter, the president of the university. Surrounded by glass vitrines displaying sweetgrass baskets and deerskin moccasins, in front of a small audience and a local news team, they signed an agreement, drafted by Anderson, which stipulated ways in which the university would integrate the tribe’s perspective into future research processes: a Penobscot representative would hold a permanent seat on the museum’s advisory board, the new system of labelling the A.P.S. collection would be instituted, and campus signage would begin to include Penobscot translations.

When I spoke with James Francis, who was in attendance, he explained that, ideally, the tribe would have approval over the content and the expression of any piece of writing that relies on Siebert’s research. But implementing such a system would be onerous, he admitted. He wondered about the feasibility of asking tribe members to read hundreds of pages of graduate students’ unedited dissertations. “I mean, even Carol really shouldn’t be talking to you without tribal approval, but we’re still trying to figure all that out,” he said. “It’s prickly.” I wondered what my editor would say if I told her that every sentence of this article required approval from the Penobscot Nation. When I raised the subject with Darren Ranco, from the University of Maine, he acknowledged that the idea of such a system—which is at odds not only with the spirit of the First Amendment but also with journalistic ethical standards, which prohibit reporters from sharing drafts with sources—strikes many people as illiberal. Still, he said, “if colonization had never happened, and we had never been forced to unlearn our language, we wouldn’t have to have this sort of precious relationship with it.”

Dana has spent the past few years working to collate and edit the Gluskabe stories that Frank Speck began gathering more than a century ago. The collection, “Still They Remember Me: Penobscot Transformer Tales, Volume 1,” edited by Dana, Quinn, and Margo Lukens, an English professor at the University of Maine, will be published by the University of Massachusetts Press this summer. It will be the first commercial book to use Siebert’s writing system, with each story printed in Penobscot on the left page and in English on the right, and featuring illustrations by Penobscot artists. The publishing contract notes that all royalties will go to the Penobscot Nation, as will decisions regarding film or television rights. Every Penobscot household that wants a copy of the volume, priced at $24.95, will receive one for free. As a teaching tool, the stories are far superior to Siebert’s dictionary. Dana hopes that the new book can make the language accessible to future generations. If Siebert’s legacy was writing down the language, Dana’s is letting it be read, and its stories be told.

Before bed each night, Dana asks her ancestors to visit her, and sometimes she does indeed dream in Penobscot. Her role as tribal language master, she admitted, has been something of a burden, and often she wakes up feeling as if she no longer cares about Penobscot, and is tempted to give up. But she is constantly aware of how much more she could be doing to prevent her language from being lost, and finds herself drawn back to the idea of passing on whatever she can. “Who else is capable?” she once asked me.

“Carol is very intense sometimes,” Maria Girouard, a Penobscot organizer, activist, and historian, said. “She has a little bit of angst, which, you know, is understandable. Our language knowledge should not rest on the backs of a few people who have devoted their entire careers to it.” Maulian Dana, a distant relative of Carol Dana’s and a tribal ambassador in her mid-thirties, who studied Penobscot with Quinn when she was a teen-ager, told me that, today, there’s not a lot of talk about Siebert: “If you asked someone on the street, ‘Hey, who is the champion of the Penobscot language,’ they wouldn’t say Frank. They’d say Carol.”

On March 25th of last year, the Penobscot Nation, in an effort to insulate itself from COVID-19, erected a checkpoint on the bridge from Indian Island to the mainland. Only essential workers and tribal members were allowed to cross it. During quarantine, Dana, who lives alone in a two-story house near the tribal cemetery, has spoken less Penobscot than she has in decades. She never did buy a parrot; she got a dog instead, and named him Jejahk, a shortened form of the word nəčə̀čahkom, which means “my soul.” As Dana told me about him over the phone, he leaped into her lap. She murmured to him in Penobscot for a moment. “He knows I’m talking about him,” she said.

Once a week, Dana gives a seminar over Zoom. Gabe Paul, a language instructor in his thirties, attends Dana’s classes, and tries to speak Penobscot to his son, who is almost two. To truly learn a language, one must speak it spontaneously with other people—currently an impossibility for anyone wishing to master Penobscot. “I don’t need this language to, you know, buy groceries or get money out of the bank,” Paul told me. “It’s not going to be what it was, at least not right away. It’s going to take many, many generations.”

Another of Dana’s students, Jennifer Neptune, a basket-maker and the director of the Penobscot Nation Museum, who is married to James Francis, told me that, like everyone on Indian Island, she is troubled that the language’s survival is in the hands of so few people. “It’s terrifying,” she said, adding that the possibility of Dana falling sick had been her “very first thought” on learning about COVID-19. (In January, the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma made fluent speakers eligible for early doses of the coronavirus vaccine, along with medical workers and first responders.)

When I spoke to Dana at the beginning of this year, she talked about her belated realization that a traditional song in which a man walks sleepily toward the narrator is actually a depiction of someone who might be at risk of starvation. “He’s sleepy because he’s hungry!” she said. “He needs muskrat meat!” She told me about another song, in which a clever rabbit plays a series of increasingly elaborate pranks on a wildcat. I wondered aloud whether indigenous storytelling traditions weren’t perhaps the source material for Bugs Bunny cartoons, and then regretted it. “I don’t think so,” Dana said. “I don’t think too many people know our stories.” Occasionally, Dana overhears stray Penobscot words in casual conversation on Indian Island. She was thrilled when, not long ago, one of her sons, who is in his forties, took a photograph of a beaver with his iPhone and, in telling her about it, casually used the Penobscot word for the animal.

On a recent Thursday, Dana, addressing a class of five students, suggested drawing family trees to help remember the words for various relatives, and learning the vocabulary for kitchen utensils while laying the table. She talked about the efficacy of pantomime, narrating as she pretended to get dressed, using the Penobscot words for “shirt” and “pants” and “boots.” She held up pieces of construction paper with various words written on them—using, as she always does, Siebert’s orthography—and admitted to having the word for “stove” taped up in her kitchen, to remind her to turn it off when she leaves the house. She sang a song about body parts to the tune of “Ten Little Indians.” She ended the lesson with a common greeting, which translates as “How are you surviving today?” And then she provided the customary response: “It’s hard for those of us yet living.” ♦