University of Maine team translates traditional Penobscot language tales into bilingual book

Penobscot language at risk of being extinguished is revitalized with modern-day translations in story-telling

The stories passed down from one generation to the next are vital sources of shared culture, age-old wisdom and the ability to reconnect with a precious heritage. When people no longer share these stories in their own language, they surrender one more link to their cultural inheritance, and face the danger that their language will be permanently extinguished.

A collaborative effort between UMaine researcher Margo Lukens, professor of English, and Carol Dana of the Penobscot Nation hopes to rekindle the Penobscot language and continue the tradition of passing on some important Penobscot stories.

Lukens says this publication will be the first set in modern Penobscot notation, aside from the forthcoming Penobscot Dictionary. They are creating a modern-day bilingual book showcasing tales of Gluskabe, the Penobscot tribe’s culture hero.

Gluskabe’s adventures are lessons in sustainable practices for the earth, teach the origin of creatures, landmarks and the way people live in the Dawnland, and honor the wisdom that comes from the teachings of his grandmother. Grandmothers, nohkəməssisαk, were the heads of Penobscot families and also functioned powerfully in tribal decision making; they even held veto power over the chiefs about whether to go to war. All of these themes remain relevant today – and are enjoyable for all ages and cultural backgrounds.

A century-old publication holds the clues for modern-day translations

Previous attempts have been made to formally document these precious tales. Penobscot storyteller, Newell Lyon, learned the stories from his elders before the turn of the 20th century. In 1918, a University of Pennsylvania professor, Frank Speck, attempted to put them in a written form of his own invention, writing the words as he heard them spoken by Lyon. The result was a text that leaves doubt in the correct translation and original intent of the storyteller.

Now, 100 years later, Lukens and her team are transliterating these stories into the modern Penobscot writing system and updating the English translations for 21st-century readers. In this work Lukens and Dana, Penobscot language-keeper, collaborate with Conor Quinn, the world’s only linguist specializing in Penobscot language. It is not a small task; Speck’s text must be analyzed and the official adaptation debated word for word.

Every Tuesday morning, Lukens and Dana meet at a local restaurant to work on the book project. “They Remember Me Still” will feature 13 Gluskabe stories Lyon told to Speck over a century ago. Each tale will include English versions of text, modern Penobscot transliterations, images and cultural explanations.



Tales connect communities

The catalyst for this innovative work was a recent collaboration between Dana and Lukens to create a theatre production based on these stories, called “Transformer Tales.” The success of the play and the enthusiasm from the community convinced them to continue further with transforming these tales into book form.

“These stories can help people reconnect with their traditional language,” said Dana. “They really give an insight into who Penobscot people are.”

But it’s not only the Penobscot people who will benefit from this innovative work. Dana and Lukens believe the stories provide a window into the culture that arises from the place they live.

“The connection between the people and this place is important for all Mainers to understand,” said Lukens. “More knowledge and understanding of this living community will help all citizens make more humane and just decisions.”

Language rekindled – community impacted

The future of these stories is bright with the work being done on this project. Dana and Lukens hope to construct an online learning aid to accompany the book. Readers will also have access to audio versions of these stories read aloud by Penobscot speakers.

There are plans for an additional volume of Lyon’s Penobscot stories in the near future. With the passionate work done by this team of researchers, the Penobscot language is not as perilously close as it once was to being extinguished.

“These traditional stories published in modern notation will have great impact,” said Lukens. “Increased access to these materials will make Penobscot culture, history and contemporary presence visible to the world.”


This project was one of six projects awarded by the Vice President for Research and Dean of the Graduate School’s Summer Faculty Research Funds.