Passamaquoddy culture bearers in Library of Congress concerts

WASHINGTON – Two Passamaquoddy culture bearers will bring their nation’s traditional music to the American capital.

Wayne Newell and Blanch Sockabasin will travel to Washington from their homes in Indian Township, Maine, to perform hour-long concerts on Wednesday, Sept. 16 at noon in the Jefferson Building at the American Folklife Center, and at 6 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage.

The concerts are part of a series called “Homegrown: The Music of America presented by the Library of Congress.”

The duo is famous throughout the Wabanaki community in Maine and beyond – individually and as a musical team.

They have performed in various venues including several music and storytelling performances at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine. The museum is dedicated to the history, art and culture of the Wabanaki people – the People of the First Light – who have lived in the coastal areas of the northeast for thousands of years. Newell is the voice on the museum’s introductory video about the Wabanaki.

Newell has had a monumental impact on politics, education, economic development and language revitalization among the Passamaquoddy over the last four decades. A storyteller and singer of Passamaquoddy and other Native music, he serves as master of ceremonies during the nation’s annual celebration that is held during the second week in August at Sipayik (Pleasant Point) in eastern Maine.

Newell earned a Master of Arts in Education from Harvard University. He is a fluent speaker of Passamaquoddy and has been central in efforts to retain, restore and preserve the language his coastal ancestors developed and spoke thousands of years ago.

As director of Native Language and Cultural Services at Indian Township School in Princeton, Maine, Newell introduced the first bilingual/bicultural education program for the Passamaquoddy Tribe in 1971. The program introduced a writing system for the Passamaquoddy language into the curriculum and trained Passamaquoddy community members to participate actively in educating their children in the use of Passamaquoddy values and life philosophies. He authored and co-authored more than 40 reading books written in the Passamaquoddy/Maliseet language.

Last year, Newell’s work in language preservation was foundational to the publication of the “Passamaquoddy-Maliseet Dictionary/Peskotomuhkati Wolastoqewi Latuwewakon,” a volume published by the University of Maine Press that is more than 1,200 pages long and includes 18,000 entries.

In addition to his cultural work in music and language, Newell has been central in the continuing struggles for justice for Native peoples. He has served on his nation’s tribal council, as tribal representative to the state legislature, as a member of the Maine Human Rights Commission, and on the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission. He was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on the National Indian Education Advisory Committee and is a former member of the Native American Rights Fund.

Sockabasin teaches Native music, drumming, singing and dancing at the Indian Township School. She also makes Native baskets and leather crafts. Her first love is teaching all that she can about Passamaquoddy culture and language. She was recently honored by the Maine state legislature for her efforts in preserving the Passamaquoddy way of life. She is deeply committed to passing on the rich Passamaquoddy culture to the children of her tribal nation.

Elizabeth Koopman, who is helping arrange Newell and Sockabasin’s visit to Washington, had high praise for her friends.

“I’ve known Wayne and Blanch for 20 years and worked with them both at Indian Township School, a BIA reservation school in northern Maine. They have enriched my personal, professional and spiritual lives in innumerable ways. Wayne is the first Indian member of the University of Maine Board of Trustees, a leader in indigenous language preservation groups nationally and internationally, and known as a traditional elder of great wisdom and the capacity to walk effectively and respectfully in both Native and non-Native cultures.”

Koopman, a Quaker, is hosting the duo during their four-day trip to the capital Sept. 15 – 19 and plans “to have friends joining together to welcome them.”

The American Folklife Center’s “Homegrown: The Music of America” series began in 2002 and presents traditional music and dance from communities across the United States.

Newell and Sockabasin’s performance at the center will be the first appearance in the series by citizens of a Wabanaki nation.