A Passionate Pursuit: Profile on Watie Akins

This is the final profile in a series focused on the 2013 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award recipients. In the past five issues of e-Spirit, you have met the six men and women who are being honored in communities across the country this year.

Roadblocks.

Challenges to overcome.

Mountains to climb.

Whatever you want to call them, Watie Akins has found the strength to face a number of obstacles in his quest to restore his Tribe’s Native traditions and song.

Akins, a member of the Abenaki Tribe, has focused much of his life’s work on restoring and passing along the Penobscot Nation’s traditional songs through research, recordings, apprenticeship programs and work with local school students. The music, he said, is in danger of disappearing completely.

Image by Ronnie Farley.

Image by Ronnie Farley.

It is for his passionate pursuit to rediscover that music that he has been named a recipient of the 2013 Jennifer Easton Community Spirit Award from First Peoples Fund. His work hasn’t been without heartache, he said.

“It is hard,” he said, particularly because the younger generations don’t have a collective memory of the beauty or the depth of the Native culture or traditions, particularly the music.

Akins said he didn’t either—until he took the time and energy to research his ancestors. In 2003, he was awarded a one-month Rockefeller Fellowship Grant at the Newberry Library in Chicago to further research Abenaki-Penobscot archived language and music materials.

When his fellowship was finished, he continued his research—at the Canadian Museum, the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, the University of Pennsylvania at Philadelphia, the Maine Historical Society, and with old cassette tapes recorded by his parents and other tribal members from the 1930s to the mid-1970s.

His determination will benefit generations to come, said Gretchen Faulkner, director of the Hudson Museum at the University of Maine.

“Watie’s dedication to documenting the material is vital to maintaining the traditions and passing it on to future generations,” she said.

Maine Folklife Center Director Pauleena MacDougall agreed.

“He has shown an unflagging interest in accurately preserving Penobscot traditions not only for his own people but as a way of educating others as well,” she added.

The remedy to keeping the traditions alive now, Akins says, is to go right to the people who will make that happen in the future—the kids. In 2007, Akins began compiling more than 120 traditional songs to be learned and recorded by others and then taught in schools. The mission was urgent, he said, because the Maine legislature had passed a law requiring the teaching of the Native culture in public schools. Before that, Akins said, Native people were described in history books as extinct, and Maine maps lacked recognition of the four Abenaki reservations.

“I felt compelled to present to the people of Maine as well as our own people a musical history of our culture,” Akins said.

Time in the classroom is the perfect opportunity to light a fire under the younger generation, he said.

“I hope the students get the idea that they want to learn and participate in this type of music, rather than what is on the TV or radio,” he said. “I am hoping it will rub off on at least a few minds.”

Akins has continued his work despite several life-threatening medical issues. In 2006, at the age of 72, he suffered a stroke. After physical therapy, he was able to resume his music, using the hand drum and shaker. In 2011, he suffered another stroke, this time severe and requiring him to use a walker to move around. The music project has been a strong motivator to recover. He hopes to eventually write his own songs, using the traditional elements used by his ancestors.

“Knowing the rudiments of what our ancestors did for our music, I will use those to create songs,” he said.

He is not entirely alone in his work. Akins is mentoring a young man who loves the history of the music and can speak the Native language.

“He is absolutely the right person to help me pass it along,” Akins said.

The award from First Peoples Fund is also encouraging, he added.

“This is a good thing, to have this recognition. It means a lot to me.” he said. “It has energized me. It has refreshed me.”