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Passamaquoddy Place Names and Stories in the Downeast Lakes

February 24, 2014

On Feb. 20th, Downeast Lakes Land Trust was delighted to welcome Donald Soctomah, author and Director of the Passamaquoddy Tribal Historic Preservation Office, for an evening that explored the roots of human history in the Downeast region. A passionate protector of Passamquoddy culture, Mr. Soctomah has secured the preservation of key archaeological sites, Native graves, and other cultural resources. 

Mr. Soctomah explained his interest in place names began after noting “The Old Friar,” a rock formation located on the edge of Campobello Island, was called “The Boy” in Passamaquoddy and had a Romeo and Juliet style story attached to it. Mr. Soctomah said he began searching out rock formations with English names that implied religious significance.  He soon discovered others, including one called “Bishop’s Rock” which in Passamaquoddy is called, “Whale Hunter” and stands near a sandbar where whales occasionally become beached.

Over three years, Mr. Soctomah explained, he collected place names across the Passamaquoddy’s traditional lands in both Maine and New Brunswick.  Working with the tribe’s linguist, Mr. Soctomah put together an interactive CD which links traditional and current place names with customs, stories and archaeological records.

Mr. Soctomah led the attendees on a virtual journey through the lakes of the West Branch of the St. Croix River starting at Pleasant Lake at the top of the system which in Passamaquoddy is named, “As far as you can go” down through Scraggly and Junior Lakes.  Virtually exploring the upper watershed, Mr. Soctomah explained that “Pocumcus” is a near approximation of  Passamaquoddy for “fine sand” and refers to the sandbar at the top of the lake where West Grand Lake meets it. Sysladobsis, meanwhile reflects Passamaquoddy for “shark fins” and refers to the jagged emergent rocks near Horseshoe Cove.

Sandy beach at the Pocumcus Thoroughfare

Sandy beach at the Pocumcus Thoroughfare

From the grassy easy portage at Dobsis Dam, back through Pocumcus and out into West Grand Lake (called by the Passamaquoddy, “Easy Going”), Mr. Soctomah told stories of Mohawk raids, and how Caribou Rock got its name (resembling the pale side of a caribou, with waves splashing against it as if it were moving through the water).

Caribou Rock, West Grand Lake

Caribou Rock, West Grand Lake

Down into Grand Lake Stream (Quick Water) past petroglyphs, the more recent history of the Passamaquoddy people was told. Mr. Soctomah described caching sites, pickerel fishing hot spots, and favored swimming holes.  Areas of great historical and spiritual significance were also featured on his map of names. Mr. Soctomah recounted the tribe’s struggle, and ultimate success in regaining Gordon Island.  “This where our ancestors are, and our history,” said Mr. Soctomah as he followed the new flowage over Grand Falls and down the St. Croix to the sea. “Through all the wars, sicknesses and politics, we could have moved, but this is home, all these place names show it,” Mr. Soctomah reflected.

“The scientists generally say we have been here 10,000 years, but  carbon dating is now pushing that back as far as 13,000 years,” he explained as he passed around stone spear points, fleshing knives, net needles, and arrows. Mr. Soctomah concluded with a more recent story about the POW camp located in Princeton during World War II, and his efforts to better understand not only ancient history, but also the more recent past.

“I thought I knew everything there was to know about this place,” said one enthusiastic attendee, born and bred in Grand Lake Stream. “Some of the stories, I knew, but I swam in this river and guided all my life, and there are things I didn’t know about it until tonight”

The Downeast Lakes Land Trust regularly hosts speakers, sponsors workshops, and leads outdoor adventures that highlight the natural and cultural history of the Maine woods.  These programs support the DLLT’s commitment to protecting both the environmental and economic health of the Downeast Lakes region. Visit our website to discover what is happening next.