When Gluskabe, the legendary culture hero of the Penobscot tribe at the center of countless stories handed down through generations, hears that people today are still telling his tale, he laughs, overjoyed that “still, they remember me,” as the story goes.
It only made sense, that Penobscot language master Carol Dana, along with collaborators Margo Lukens, a University of Maine English professor, and Conor Quinn, a University of Southern Maine linguistics professor, would name their new book — a collection of some of the powerful, imaginative and often very funny Gluskabe stories, in both English and in Penobscot — after the hero’s delight at being remembered.
“Still They Remember Me: Penobscot Transformer Tales, Vol. 1,” published last month by the University of Massachusetts Press, is the first of Dana and company’s planned two volumes of stories in Penobscot and English.
Its primary purpose is as a teaching tool for Penobscot people who wish to relearn their language, though it has immense scholarly value as well.
“This is a way to help young Penobscot people who are growing up Anglophone to find their way back to Penobscot, and hopefully understand it and internalize it a little more easily,” Lukens said. “Beyond that, I know there will be lots of people who use it for Native American literature classes, and there will be academics that will want to read it. In that sense, it’s for anybody who wants to know more about Penobscot stories and culture and identity.”
Dana’s decades of work with the Penobscot language began in 1982, when she was a young scholar studying with Frank Siebert, an eccentric and often deeply problematic self-taught linguist who had spent most of his life studying the Penobscot language.
Though his relationship with the Penobscot people could be adversarial and paternalistic, Siebert did develop the writing system for Penobscot that was officially adopted by the tribe — an invaluable tool for language preservation. The last fluent Penobscot speaker, Madeline Shay, died in the 1990s, but people like Dana and others are keeping it alive through scholarly work and through classes and workshops held on Indian Island.
Among Dana’s many projects was, in 2015, a collaboration with Lukens and theater artist Amy Roeder that adapted some of the Transformer Tales — as told by tribal elder Newell Lyon to anthropologist Frank Speck in 1918 — into short plays. Those plays ended up being performed in 2016 by the Penobscot Theatre Company’s Dramatic Academy, in both Bangor and at Acadia National Park, as part of its centennial celebrations.
The plan for “Still They Remember Me” came directly out of the experience of seeing onstage the stories of Gluskabe, his grandmother Monimkwe’su and the clever, wise and sometimes mischievous animals. Dana said that, initially, she and some fellow speakers of Penobscot and of Maliseet, another Wabanaki language that is very similar to Penobscot, would just get together to talk and listen and make sure they had everything correct.
“We’d gather, we’d have a meal, and we would tell the stories. We were doing winter storytelling, which is how it was always done,” Dana said. “It was like a way of celebrating. This is our culture. This is how these stories were transmitted.”
Once all the stories were in order, Dana and Lukens enlisted the help of Conor Quinn, who works with Siebert’s writing system and who is working with other colleagues on an updated full dictionary of known words in the Penobscot language, which they hope to see published sometime in 2022. Quinn had actually already translated a few of Lyon and Speck’s stories utilizing Siebert’s writing system, just for fun.
“As a teaching tool, these stories are a lot easier to read and make a lot more sense than a dictionary, if you’re reading Penobscot for the first time,” Quinn said. “When the dictionary comes out, I think it will be much more interesting to people now that there’s a text they can reference.”
For this first volume, these tales are about Gluskabe when he was younger, and the next volume will showcase stories from when he’s older. They tell of Gluskabe stalking a great moose, attempting to control the wind and how he learned to make canoes and navigate the river successfully. Land — mountains, ocean, forest and especially the sacred Penobscot River — is as much a character in the story as people are.
The book is printed in a landscape format, to accommodate the long, descriptive Penobscot words that would otherwise be cut off if printed in a portrait format. Quinn said it has the added benefit of allowing those who are studying the language to draw pictures and take notes in the blank spaces. The book is free to members of the Penobscot Nation, and $24.95 for everyone else.
The phrase “transformer tales” — a name given by early 20th century anthropologists to many types of different indigenous stories across North America — has resonance far beyond its academic meaning. Gluskabe literally transforms everything, from the landscape to the conditions under which the people that follow him — the Penobscot — will have to live and survive and thrive.
Dana hopes that, countless centuries after such tales were told by Penobscot people over a meal on long winter nights, they continue to have the power to transform.
“I hope this will transform how people see us,” Dana said. “I read somewhere a long time ago that if you want to get to know a people, you study their folktales. These are our folktales. If you get to know our stories and what our values are, you will understand us.”