Richard Garrett isn’t the sort you’d expect to find mixed up in the language business. After all, what is it that he says about the written word? “I abhor it. I’m a dyslexic photographer, you know. I mean, don’t bother me with that crap.”

Nevertheless, this Wellington resident and erstwhile maple syrup harvester was, with his wife Martha, who is also dyslexic, the driving force behind something called the Penobscot Primer. You’ll find the Primer upstairs at the Hudson Museum on the campus of the University of Maine. It’s an interactive exhibit on the Penobscot language, once spoken widely in the Maine woods, and it features native speaker Madeline Shay Tomer filtering the world through her exotic tongue and her own knife-edged personality.

The routine went like this: Garrett gives Tomer a photo, Tomer describes it in Penobscot. For instance, when presented with a bucolic scene of a woman paddling a birch bark canoe, the elderly Tomer quips that she paddled like a white woman.

“When I showed Madeline a picture of the outfall from the Lincoln Pulp and Paper Mill—and make no mistake, this is an insult to the Penobscot people, the crap that it pukes into the river,” Garrett remembers, “I figured, Oh well. She’s not going to know what this is. But that wasn’t the case at all.”

Here, Garrett quotes Tomer in Penobscot, words that translate to “That’s the white man’s bad medicine.”

It’s fair to say that Garrett and Tomer were an unlikely couple in the history of linguistic preservation, but it’s a history that depends on such couples. While many linguists would be content to be left alone with their syntaxes safely under a microscope, the fact is that language must travel between speakers in order to survive.

Garrett says Tomer giggled a lot. “She was a wonderful person, a superb craftsperson and basket maker, an artist.” His voice catches, though, when he recalls her 1993 death. “I’ve held my dead brother in my arms and my mother, too. And of course I loved my brother and mother, and I felt deep grief when they died. But I did not feel the same profound, utter despair at witnessing the end of a language. I still remember driving home from Bangor that day. It was like a 90-degree day and my face was cold from the tracks of my tears.”

You see, according to Garrett, Madeline Shay Tomer wasn’t just a native Penobscot speaker. She was the last native speaker.



Mention Richard Garrett’s name to Carol Dana, who teaches Penobscot at the Indian Island school, and her face wrinkles up. “Oh, don’t even go there,” she said during a recent interview in her classroom. According to Dana, Madeline Shay Tomer was not the last native speaker at all, and to portray her as such is little more than publicity-mongering.

“Everybody’s out to make a name for themselves,” she said, noting that there are at least “a couple” native speakers left.

So what’s to be gained by arguing that the language is dead? “It’s like The Last of the Mohicans,” she said. “People buy into this whole idea of ‘last of,’ even some of our elders, as if our language and culture were something that has been passed by.”

Here’s a rule of thumb, then. When you’re talking about language loss, and all of the cultural and political upheaval that attends it, there are no simple statements. Madeline Shay Tomer was the last native speaker? The Penobscot language is dead? These are statements that demand question marks and provoke fierce debate.

This is no academic debate, either. The Penobscot Indian Nation on Indian Island is working hard to revitalize its language—it’s an effort many in the tribe link to their survival as a distinct culture—and such debates have a way of tripping up the process. For instance, how do you improve the health of the language when no one can seem to agree on a diagnosis?

For a blunt assessment, consult Dr. Ives Goddard, curator of the Department of Anthropology at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. “The Penobscot language is extinct,” he said by phone from his Washington, D.C., office. “There are no native speakers. A lot of Native American groups face this juncture in their history and they don’t want to hear that their language is extinct.”

Goddard is an expert on indigenous languages. He reports that 50 percent of the languages spoken today—and that’s a conservative estimate, he says—will be extinct in 100 years. Meanwhile, the number of surviving native languages in North America is 175 and dropping fast. Among those still hanging on is Passamaquoddy, spoken by the Maine tribe of the same name.

According to Goddard, Native Americans want to redefine what the term “extinct” means. “As a scientist I have to be objective. You can stand in front of a classroom and teach kids a few words and say that your language is not extinct, but that would be delusional.”

Most other assessments on the health of Penobscot are more diplomatic. For instance, they all decline to use the E-word. There is this from Dr. Maureen Smith, an Ojibwe Indian from Wisconsin who is director of the University of Maine’s fledgling Native American Studies program: “I’ve heard that the Penobscot language is dead, but there are people out there who speak it.” Or this from John Bear Mitchell, a native Penobscot who teaches at the tribal school on Indian Island: “Language in this tribe is very, very, very, very low. Scary low.” Says Carol Dana: “The elders say it’s dead, while the younger ones say it’s only dormant.”

Finally, there is this from Carol Dana’s cousin Barry Dana, the Penobscot Nation’s governor and the one who introduced Richard Garrett to Madeline Shay Tomer: “Basically, we have the language. We just don’t have people speaking it.”

Governor Dana doesn’t like to dwell on such apparent contradictions, however. Instead, he has formed a committee on Indian Island to spearhead what he hopes will be a community-wide effort to revitalize the language. The tribe has just applied for a federal grant that would fund the effort for four years to the tune of a half-million dollars. And, to work as a consultant on the project, it has hired a non-native linguist fluent in Penobscot, Conor Quinn of Portland.



Quinn, 22, who is now a graduate student at Harvard, was only 17 when he hooked up with Garrett and his Primer. “Garrett flopped the dictionary in front of Conor and said, ‘I want this memorized by morning,” Dana related. “In other words, ‘Conor, we don’t have a lot of time this summer to work with the language. So the more you can get done by the time September rolls around, the better off we’ll be for funding for next summer.’”

Quinn, according to Dana, was happy to take the challenge literally. “Conor came into breakfast the next morning and threw the dictionary back in Richard’s face and said, ‘I could only get to page 783,’” Dana said. Within 24 hours, the full 1,200 pages were completely memorized.

Quinn denies that anything like this ever happened.(1)

Of course, common sense tells us that you can’t learn a language just by reading a dictionary—especially a dictionary printed in an only recently invented alphabet, a dictionary whose pages are faded Xeroxes of dot-matrix printing, with corrections and addenda scribbled all through the margins. But if Quinn didn’t learn Penobscot from the dictionary, neither did he learn it from the dyslexic Garrett (“Working in language,” he says, “is like confronting my demons.”). No, Quinn learned from the late Dr. Frank T. Siebert Jr., a pathologist by trade and an eccentric—some prefer disturbed—recluse by nature.

Siebert is the one who invented that alphabet and who compiled that dictionary. Garrett had introduced himself to the amateur but legendary linguist at the insistence of Madeline Shay Tomer, who suggested that Garrett might find him controversial but interesting. “She thought I could get through his gruffness,” Garrett recalls. “A lot of Native Americans I know call him a curmudgeon.” Quinn had found Garrett because he was a family friend. His first summer on Indian Island, in 1995, was spent working with Garrett at transferring much of Siebert’s material from rough notes onto computer files.

Since the sixth grade, when he taught himself Irish-Gaelic, Quinn had been a voracious devourer of languages, and over the next few years he earned the respect of the curmudgeonly Siebert. And it was this partnership, said Governor Dana, that “probably saved the Penobscot language. . . . Frank basically downloaded the language into Conor’s head.”

So what does it mean that so much of the ailing Penobscot language is invested in two white men? What does it mean that most tribe members cannot understand their legends as told in Penobscot, let alone read them? What does it mean for Governor Dana to acknowledge that Conor Quinn alone “can tell us what our legends are”?

To answer that requires a much closer look at Frank Siebert.



Almost universally Siebert has been declared a genius by a section of academia that is notoriously insular and specialized. Ives Goddard at the Smithsonian will go so far as to say that Siebert “learned more about Penobscot than anyone ever will.”

The child of old Philadelphia money, Frank Siebert first encountered the Penobscots in 1932. He was 19 and returning with his parents from a vacation in Québec. After convincing them to detour through Indian Island, he met the first of what would become a long line of “informants,” or native speakers, who would teach him Penobscot language, history and stories, all of which had been fostered and preserved inside the tribe’s oral tradition.

While studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania—apparently at his father’s insistence—Siebert fell into orbit around Frank G. Speck. Speck was the author of a seminal work of anthropology called Penobscot Man (1940), and he kept office hours in a converted Gothic chapel he decorated with live snakes and turtles, even a white fox that hid behind a leaking radiator. There were Indian crossbows that he tested against the door, a whole collection of native artifacts, and a floor-to-ceiling library along three walls. Here Siebert began to apply himself to the study of the Penobscots. While tribe members joked that “Speck” was short for “speculation,” Siebert strove for an approach that was even more rigorous than his teacher’s, and less sentimental.

He attended Indian language meetings in New York City and got away with inviting himself to the prestigious summer institute sponsored by the Linguistic Society of America. There he boldly corrected one of the field’s leading scholars and proceeded to write a groundbreaking paper about his theory.

Siebert went on to lead an academic double life—pathologist by day and linguist by night. He married in 1942 and was bitterly divorced in 1964, refusing to maintain contact with his wife or two daughters. By that time, he had spent many years off the reservation, discouraged by Indians who were suspicious of working with a white man. It was a suspicion that would nag him and his work even after his death. Finally, convinced that his life had been a failure, he returned to work with his main informant, Andrew Dana, Governor Dana’s great-uncle.

In an essay for Maine History magazine, Goddard described first meeting Siebert while on a field trip with Harvard professor Karl Teeter:

The scene that greeted us was unforgettable. Andrew was in a wheelchair, having had a leg amputated as a consequence of diabetes. (He was later to lose the other one.) Frank was sitting opposite him checking Penobscot vocabulary from a file. Our arrival disrupted the work, and soon Frank, Karl and I were launched into a discussion of linguistic topics. Andrew appeared to doze off. Then, suddenly, as Frank was holding forth about the meaning of something in Penobscot, Andrew perked up and interjected: “Frank, your schwa is a little low in that word.”

The encounter suggests a remarkably rich and rewarding collaboration between Siebert and Dana, who had only a sixth-grade education. (2)

Siebert went on to win several important research grants, including a Guggenheim in 1969–70, but following Dana’s death his relationship with the tribe and with the outside world began to deteriorate. In December 1987, while he was hospitalized for a broken hip, Siebert’s Indian Island office was burglarized and ransacked. In a fit of paranoia, he withdrew from people and even deeper into his continuing work on a Penobscot dictionary and collection of legends. In 1996 he grumbled to a Portland newspaper reporter: “I’d like to be free. Free from shopping. Free from eating. Free from cooking. Free from nuisances and people calling you on the phone.”

When speaking of Siebert, who died in January 1998 at the age of 85, most of his acquaintances resort to euphemism. For instance, Conor Quinn described him as “grumpy.” Siebert assistant Dr. Pauleena MacDougall, a linguist fluent in Penobscot who is now associate director of the Maine Folklife Center, called him “mean, rude, obnoxious and abusive.” Some have reported that Siebert rarely bathed or changed clothes. But James Neptune, curator of the Penobscot Tribal Museum, maintains that he was only “unkempt.”

“He didn’t care,” Neptune explained. “He says, ‘I am who I am.’ ”

“Frank was an old-school German,” Garrett observed cryptically. When asked to elaborate, he added: “Let’s just say that a favorite quote of his was, ‘Poor old Hitler. He wasn’t all bad.’”

“Everybody thanks Dr. Siebert, though, for what he did,” Governor Dana insisted. “It’s just that he himself was a hard man to get along with. He had very little tolerance for people. He loved my great-uncle, Andrew Dana. They were a package deal. It’s kinda funny because I almost see Conor and I as being the return of the dynamic duo that’s going to preserve the language. It was Frank Siebert and Andrew Dana, and now it’s me and Conor Quinn.”



A character like Frank Siebert can easily distract a tribe from such important business, however, even years after his death.

For instance, before his body was even cold, a battle raged between Richard Garrett and Siebert’s two estranged daughters over his estate. Garrett initiated the lawsuit, claiming that when Siebert excised Garrett’s name from his will shortly before he died, it was invalid because the old man suffered from dementia. Some inside and outside the tribe privately contend that Garrett’s name was only added to the will in the first place through his unfair manipulation of Siebert. In any event, Garrett lost the suit, and Siebert’s collection of rare books, letters, maps and treaties—which had been strewn all over his small, cluttered and impossibly dirty home—was auctioned in 1999 at Sotheby’s Auction House in New York City for a whopping $12.6 million.

Meanwhile, much of Siebert’s academic work, including his dictionary and his two-volume compilation of Penobscot legends written both in English and a phonemic alphabet of his own invention, were donated to the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia. Publication of this very important material has been stalled, though, in part due to concern over proprietorship. Although the APS is a nonprofit organization, the Penobscot Nation is skeptical about granting rights to material that was partially completed using grant money awarded the tribe back in the 1980s. In addition, there is concern about even the idea of another party copyrighting the Penobscot language.

“Our tribal council is pretty adamant about that,” Governor Dana said. “The language is ours. The stories are ours.”

James Neptune at the Penobscot museum has a photocopy of Siebert’s dictionary and doesn’t plan on handing it over to some outside institution. His response to the APS: “bullcrap.”

“No one has a copyright on my people’s language,” he said.

Richard Garrett argues that the hang-up is all over a misunderstanding. The APS doesn’t want to copyright the stories per se, he says, only the phonemic device that Siebert used to put them on paper. Carol Dana insists that that’s not the point. In Penobscot oral tradition, ownership of stories has always been respected. “If you wanted to hear my family’s stories,” she explained, “you would ask my permission first, and then I would tell them to you.”



So can any of this be worked out? Penobscot tribal attorney Mark Chavaree says the council is looking into it. The APS editor in charge of the Siebert texts, Carole LeFaivre-Rochester, responded via e-mail with a terse “no comment.”

Bad feelings abound. Historically, the Penobscots, much more than their more isolated neighbors the Passamaquoddies, have been forced into close proximity with white Mainers. While their grip on the language has weakened as a result—a fact that is deeply shameful to many Indians—their distrust of outsiders has grown. For years, it was a hallmark of federal Indian policy to eradicate native languages. Meanwhile, native-speaking Penobscots who attended school in nearby Old Town have reported facing intolerance and pressure to assimilate.

These circumstances are partly responsible for controversies that might otherwise puzzle outsiders: Why can’t they agree on whether there are any native speakers left? Or, why would the publications of their legends be anything but a good thing?

“My wife says we have a chip on our shoulder,” Governor Dana, whose wife is white, said. “Well, we do, because that chip is a memory bank in which are stored all the past bad dealings between us and non-Indians.”

Dana admits that the burden of that attitude has fallen on Harvard linguist Conor Quinn. “So when you see Conor, you see the non-Indian,” he said, describing what he figures to be a prevalent attitude among Penobscots. “Uh-oh. What’s he here for? What’s he really after? And what are we going to get? He’s going to get rich and famous and we’re going to get nothing.”

“All I can offer the Penobscots is Penobscot as analyzed by me,” Quinn said. “But the Penobscots eventually would like Penobscot as presented by themselves and to give their own take on it, not filtered through this linguist or that linguist.”

Even so, the tribe has instituted a new policy through which they hope to better control their contact with outsiders. The governor said that now any non-Indian who wishes access to Penobscot language, culture, stories or songs for the purpose of writing about them must go before the tribal council’s Preservation Committee and present a statement of purpose. If the committee were to approve the project, there would probably be contracts to sign, Dana said.

No such requirement was made in the preparation of this article, however. And Neptune said he is not interested in such a regulation as it might affect him. “This committee is not going to tell me how I can talk to people,” he said, “because it’s all history anyway.”

What seems clear is that Barry Dana has his work cut out for him when it comes to revitalizing Penobscot on Indian Island. He described how the language meetings have been going.

“We have, or at least I’ve decided to accept, this constant initial part of the process, which is, ‘I need to vent,’” he said. “‘So I’m going to come to this language session, but I need to tell you that so-and-so beat my grandfather 50 years ago because he spoke Penobscot.’ So we have to still live through all that oppression. And it’s usually the first 10 to 20 minutes of the session before we get on to the future discussion.”

Maine Times, May 2001



1  I e-mailed Quinn, asking whether it was true that he memorized the entire Penobscot dictionary in 48 hours. This was his reply (the salutation and closing are Irish-Gaelic, by the way).

Dia dhuit, a chara!

Good God, no! There is nothing in that anecdote which has even the slightest connection to reality. One, you’re right: The dictionary has only a bit over 500 pages—495 of actual entries, 35 of introduction and preface. Secondly, Garrett never flopped the dictionary in front of me—I don’t think we got Frank’s copy copied over for each of us until at least the second summer (1996) at the earliest. Though I can’t say for certain. And one way or another, I certainly didn’t have the whole thing memorized in 24 hours. I still don’t have it memorized. But it is a cool-sounding story.

One thing I will say, though. If you skimmed through the dictionary and quizzed me on anything in there, chances are, I would know it. This is not due to having memorized it all, or even due to my having spent more than five years reading through it constantly. It has to do with the language itself.

Penobscot, like many languages of this continent, has its grammar set up a bit differently from most European languages. Most European languages string together words to form sentences; so does Penobscot. But along with that, it can and more often than not does string together word-parts to form single (and often rather long) words, words that contain as much information as a whole sentence in a language like English. These kinds of “words” are what fill a large part of Siebert’s dictionary. The key point to realize is that these are not words in the sense that you have to memorize each new one separately, any more than you would have to memorize every possible sentence of English to know English. Instead, you just have to know the word-parts and how they combine to form sentence-words. And the number of these word-parts is far more manageable than the infinite number of sentence-words they can combine to create.

There’s nothing really mysterious here: It’s almost as if Penobscot just runs certain types of strings of words together to form single words. I’d give you a more concrete example, but while the basic patterns are simple, in actual use they tend to pile up into a rather complex reality, which might confuse the issue further. People tend to look at the giant words of the languages of this area and think, “How can anyone memorize all those huge words?” when in fact you don’t, since those words are often (very roughly speaking) just sentence-like creatures that happen to be pronounced like single words.

So, for example, this is why so many place-names in Maine are single words yet carry such complex meanings as “beyond the gravel bar” or “where the red beach goes along”—these are all just sentence-words, of a sort. I am oversimplifying all of this to a degree, but this is basically true.

And while there are certainly sentence-words with unpredictable meanings and uses, just like idiomatic English sentences like “the cat’s out of the bag,” the vast majority of the words in the Siebert dictionary can be understood by anyone who has a good grasp of their constituent word-parts and the patterns by which they form new words.

This is one of my favorite things about the language: On the one hand, the basic pattern is very simple—not to imply that we fully understand it, mind you—but this basically simple pattern allows you to express rather complex concepts in a single word and often combine them together in ways that you just can’t (or at best in only a roundabout way) do in English.

So yes, the page numbers and the events are a bit exaggerated—but their exaggeration can and often does lead you to still more interesting facts about reality. Namely, that the quiet subtlety of Penobscot grammar is far more impressive than any supposed feat of memorization attributed to one young linguist that everyone seems to insist on mythologizing as a genius. Welcome, then, to the wild world of oral literature!

Anyhow, that’s my side of the story on this matter; feel free to drop me further lines whenever you like. Till later, keep safe and sane.

Slán, do chara

2  This is a Penobscot legend told by Andrew Dana to Frank Siebert, who translated it into English. The Fallfish, or white chub, month is the ninth month of the Penobscot calendar. It corresponds approximately to the period from mid-August to early September.

Long ago, when it was summertime,
we would paddle our canoes
downstream to the islands, in order to
fish and hunt seals.

Fallfish Month was when it was very
good for hunting seals. These little
seals were so fat; then they all would
continue to float around as we shot

Then too when it was summer, right
here on the island, we could make
baskets. We also used sweet grasses.
We sold various kinds of baskets at
the villages around the bay.

Then as the years passed, hardly any
of us at all were able to make baskets.
At present, canoes are few. Our
Indian people have abandoned these
ocean islands.