Updated: Oct 11

Traditional Native lands of the Northeast, including the Wabanaki Confederacy. Wabanaki likely comes from the Passamaquoddy word ckuwaponahkiyik, meaning, the people of the land of the coming of the light.(Image from the Musée des Abénaki, by cartographer Luc Normandin.)

[This is the third of a series of articles I've written this fall on studying Wabanaki folklore. The first was about a new translation of Gluskabe tales, In Search of the Dawnland, and the second, Teaching Gluskabe, about my experiences teaching some of the Gluskabe tales in my high school American literature class.]

Earnest researchers will run into various hurdles to researching the folk tales of the Indigenous peoples of New England, but the most challenging for me is that Native people don’t necessarily want non-Natives to do that. The most demoralizing response I’ve gotten from a year of trying to learn more about tales of the Wabanaki peoples of northern New England was from a Penobscot man who told me that Non-Wabanaki people shouldn’t teach or share Gluskabe stories. He complained that writers like Joseph Bruchac had “sold out” their heritage by sharing the tales and other people had pretended to be Native to collect the stories. I thanked him for his response and apologized for disturbing him. It’s hard to know where the line is between celebrating a people’s culture and offending them: I’d gotten his contact information from a museum website where he displayed his skill as a Native artisan.

I felt ashamed and foolish, as if I’d trodden into a sacred space. And I obviously had. I felt defensive. I wanted to tell this man that the Penobscot Gluskabe stories had been in the public domain for at least a hundred years, shared by Newell Lion to the white anthropologist Frank Speck; that a white man’s work had helped preserve the tales; that I was reviewing a new translation of Speck’s transcripts just published by a Penobscot woman for the purpose of sharing and reviving the Penobscot language. But that seemed to add insult to injury. So I simply apologized.

I had already begun laying out plans to teach Gluskabe tales to my high school students and I questioned whether I should. I decided the benefits outweighed the harm, if indeed, there was any harm. If land acknowledgements help us white people think about the Indigenous lands we live on, Indigenous stories can only add to our respect for the Indigenous people who still live here, who still strive for greater control over the lands of their ancestors. My students enjoyed and learned much from the Gluskabe stories. Perhaps some of them will be in positions to support Indigenous peoples one day.

There must be money and status to be gained by posing as Native peoples and selling their culture. I thought that Senator Elizabeth Warren’s apology for claiming Native heritage was an overblown kerfuffle, but a scholar like Lisa Brooks (or the Bruchacs) does advertise her Native heritage and people like me see that as a sign of authenticity and are more likely to buy their books. I specified the heritage of Carol A. Dana as Penobscot when I wrote about the new text of Penobscot transformer tales, “Still They Remember Me”. It clearly mattered to me that she was one of the authors, even though the two other co-authors were scholars employed at universities.

There is also anger and skepticism directed at those who would claim Native heritage. I found one man online who has made it a mission to prove, through genealogical research, that the Bruchacs and others who claimed to be Abenaki, are not. I’m not a genealogist and I’ve taken authors at their word that they are who they claim to be. At the Abbe Museum in Maine, I learned that native peoples need to petition the U.S. government for federal recognition and that this is an involved process that doesn’t always end in success. For instance, the federal government doesn’t currently recognize the Abenaki people. I can only assume that like any group of people organizing such a challenging effort, there are internal politics. That is only human.

Speakers of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People read my first article about Wabanaki folklore (written in November, 2020) and suggested that while the tales I reviewed may have been written by Indigenous peoples, they were not necessarily as ancient as the authors had suggested, and that Old World elements may have crept into them. Anthropologist Frank Speck said as much in his introduction to the Penobscot Transformer Tales recounted by Newell Lion. Having studied the Gluskabe tales, there are striking similarities to Indo European tales, such as the hero needing to make his canoe three times before getting it just right. I could be wrong, but repetitions of numbers like three and seven, common in European tales and Biblical tales, seem a notable coincidence from an ancient tale that had never been affected by “western” storytelling motifs. But what of it? We know what we know of much of the Pre-Christian European folklore from Christian monks. The Irish and Welsh tales, the Anglo-Saxon tales, the tales of the Norse gods, were all filtered through Christian tellers and recorders. It would be lovely to have tales in their rawest, most genuine form, but then, aren’t tales, like languages themselves, ever evolving to meet the needs of the audience?

Of Pucks and Pukwudgies and Pukedji’nskwesu

Variant spellings of Wabanaki languages are likely to thwart nonlinguists. The early attestations of Abenaki-Penobscot dialects by European settlers has led to a multitude of spellings of words in languages that have few living speakers and little cause for people outside of the culture to learn them. According to Native Languages, there are no longer any remaining native speakers of the eastern, Penobscot language, and only a handful of Canadian Abenakis speak the western Abenaki branch. Enter an amateur linguist like me and problems may ensue. For instance, it was hard for me to find the words pukwudgie and the wild and witchy “Squatty Lady” Pukedji’nskwesu, who lives in the forest (like the imp-like pukwudgie) while I was also directing a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and not wonder how these words could look so much like the English hobgoblin, Puck, and also carry such a related meaning. At times like those it was good to have access to a linguist who has studied the languages. Laura Reddish of explained it better than I could so I include her response (with her permission):

“Unfortunately, as is often the case, the apparent similarities between two words are actually the fault of the people who are writing them down not knowing the languages very well. The root of ‘Pukwudgie’ is the Ojibwe/Algonquin word for ‘wild,’ i.e. they are wild people. In Ojibwe that is spelled Bagwaji and pronounced buh-gwuh-jee. ‘Pukadji’nskwesu’ actually comes from the Abenaki/Wabanaki word for a jug or pitcher plant, and the root of that is the word for ‘short,’ Pokwi (pronounced poke-wee.) So, though both of them may sound like Puck to an English speaker, especially a folklorist with a fondness for Shakespeare, they actually come from two different sources. If you say an animal is Bagwaji you mean it is a wild animal of the forest, but if you say an animal is Pokwi you mean it is a short and small creature.”

It is worth noting that English is not a phonetic language, so English speakers are not used to representing the actual sounds of language when we spell. Names in particular were spelled in a variety of ways in the 17th Century, meaning that two brothers may have spelled their family name differently, leading modern genealogists to discover a branch of the family seemingly with a different name. The Abenaki languages were attested by English and French speakers, who would have heard and represented sounds differently. Jesuit missionaries even introduced the number eight (8) to represent the nasal, unrounded ‘o’, for instance in the original name for the Abenaki language Aln8bak (Alnôbak), for which Native Languages presents fifteen spellings ranging from spellings that sound like Alnobak to spellings that look like Abenaki. Most of the Abenaki names in this article have fifteen different spellings attested on Native Languages. The different dialects of the tribes also contributed to the spelling variety as they pronounced words differently. Some of the tribes pronounced the first syllable of the figure Gluskabe’s name as we say the word glue, others as we say clue, with other variables.

Of Ice Cannibals and Thunder Birds

Of the tales of the monstrous that I wrote about last year, those of the ice cannibal chenoo and the giant winged Pamu’le are stories I have not yet found attested beyond the tales written by fairly contemporary indigenous writers. However, I believe it is more likely that I simply haven’t come across them yet because Speck recorded evidence of the Penobscot passing on knowledge of these figures through an ancient musical instrument and a children’s game. Speck recorded Penobscot children playing a game about a man-eating ogre called Kiwa’kwe. In the game one child would play Kiwa’kwe, another the protector against Kiwa’kwe. The child playing Kiwa’kwe would growl and chase the other children, pretending to eat anyone they caught, which sounds delightful. This name, spelled Giwakwa on Native Languages, corresponds to the better known wendigo, a creature associated with starvation and freezing. Arnold Neptune’s “The Chenoo’s Icy Heart,” a tale that gave me goosebumps, uses the Micmac word for the creature. I don’t know if the tale itself has ancient roots or is based on some traditional telling, but it seems like this creature’s memory has been preserved by more tribes, so the Abenaki must have had stories about it at some point. The great bird-like creature that could make storms was preserved in the instrument name 'Pamu’le’s paddle,' which was an ancient instrument known in English as the bullroarer. The bullroarer is a slat of wood, about six inches long, attached to a cord. They are unassuming to look at, but they produce an impressive sound. Wikipedia’s demonstration video is of British luthier and musician, Corwen Broch, who works with ancient European instruments.

Happy Indigenous People’s Day!

I suspect that after three articles about Wabanaki folk tales, I will move on to other topics, but if I find cause to revisit or revise this article for accuracy, I will gladly do so. I will continue to look for new resources for Wabanaki folktales and expect that this year I will want to start to look into the tales of the Native peoples of Massachusetts. If you are a Native person, I would love to speak to you to make my reporting better. To Indigenous peoples of New England and beyond, Happy Indigenous People’s Day.

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Updated: Sep 23

Gluskabe turning man into a cedar tree. Scraping on birchbark by Tomah Joseph 1884. (Image from Wikipedia).

I never read a piece of Native American literature in school. I think I can say that of university as well. This continued until I found myself at the age of 45, writing about folk literature and mythology and realizing I knew much, much more about the mythology and folk stories of far flung lands than I did about those tales of my native land of New England, which is to say, zero. This seemed a terrible deficit and it has led me to put in the work to find tales to share with others. I've done that through this blog with two previous pieces and I decided it was time to share some of those tales with my high school American literature students. The relatively tiny number of tales my students have studied (compared to the amount of white texts they will read this year in my class) has produced fascinating discussions with my students about American culture and our values as a people. I can't think of a better outcome.

This September I taught the first five stories from Still They Remember Me, Penobscot tales of the Wabanaki culture hero Gluskabe. These tales are a time of great transition for Gluskabe, who begins as a character who acts selfishly. Under the tutelage of his grandmother, he corrects his behavior and by the end of the fifth tale Gluskabe not only acts in the interest of his descendants, he corrects the behavior of others who are selfish. I wrote about the text in my last post and I describe some of the tales in more detail in that piece. The tales were collected from a Penobscot storyteller by anthropologist Frank Speck and published in 1918. Still They Remember Me is a newly published treatment of the tales by a Penobscot language expert and two Maine professors, in bilingual format to help reclaim the Penobscot language.

“Still They Remember Me,” with a photograph of Penobscot tale-teller Newell Lyon, from University of Massachusetts Press.

I taught the five tales, none longer than a page long, over the course of two classes. Within those classes the students read and responded to the tales, and showed an understanding of the themes. The stories are simple enough for a child to understand, but the cultural differences of them are enough to challenge the teenage students I teach. The closing exercise to the tales asked students to imagine what the U.S. would be if the Wabanaki values from the tales were our values. The results were exciting. Students thought we would have a cleaner environment and that global warming might not be the problem it is. Animals would not be farmed in factories, or pushed into tight confines as they are in two of the early Gluskabe stories. We would have more respect for the creatures around us.

The topic of money raised interesting conversations. Students envisioned a distinctly socialist system where no one took more than they needed and everyone had as much as they needed. An exciting exchange came as we discussed the value Grandmother Woodchuck puts on the hunting prowess Gluskabe displays as a child. “Of course, we are not a hunting society,” I said. “We don’t rely on hunting to survive.” The most memorable student comment came from a young man who became an Eagle Scout last summer. He said: “We hunt money.” I asked, “Do we only hunt for as much money as we need? Do we give back the money we don’t need?” A titter of laughter broke out and a sea of faces shook their heads no. I should add that most (but not all) of my students are white and that most (but not all) of their families are financially secure.

My assertion in my last piece on these tales, that Wabanaki values are the values of our family lives, rang true in student understandings of the tales. We teach our children to share and to be kind to others with their things. I saw that in an exchange between a mother and little boy at a Labor Day cookout over sharing a toy helicopter with another child. My students, in applying Wabanaki values, introduced the idea of distributing wealth more fairly and none were shocked by that notion. They also realized that this would be a great shift in American culture, that it would disrupt the American goal of (a student’s description) “taking as much as you can get.” I found that a win for comprehension and critical thinking. I knew that such discussions could also get me targeted by Fox News personalities.

Natives, Colonists and the Creation of an American Literature

Lisa Brooks’s Our Beloved Kin, a real historian’s history, but it touches on the role Wampanoag people of Massachusetts played in some of the earliest publishing on this continent and features a Greek myth written by a Native scholar filtered through Puritan sensibilities. This text informed my approach to the Wabanaki tales and the Colonial Puritan era

I used the tales as a counterpoint for many of the American texts to come in my American Literature class. The course has long been a series of texts by dead white men though we have made some shifts in recent years. It is difficult to identify elements of the culture one lives in without the perspective of another culture. Because it is an American Literature class, that culture should really derive from an American text and the Wabanaki tales, short and easy as they are for students, provided that counterpoint. I followed the Gluskabe tales with the Puritan poem “Day of Doom” after the suggestion of Lisa Brooks’s Our Beloved Kin, a history of warfare between New England colonists and Natives. Brooks also inspired me to use 1650s Harvard graduate Caleb Cheeshateaumuk’s letter thanking his benefactors for helping him spread Christianity to his people. Caleb recounts a version of the Greek myth Orpheus and Eurydice. Let me add that one student (unprompted) thought that Caleb, a Wampanoag native, displayed Wabanaki values in his concern for his descendants, even if that concern was for the safety of their souls. I plan to follow with another Brooks suggestion, Dakota-writer Susan Power’s “First Fruits,” a modern short story in which a Dakota girl goes to Harvard and encounters Caleb’s spirit as she tries to find herself in the new cultural context.

I think that opening an American Literature course with these Native folktales is a great choice. They help disrupt what will otherwise be a very white experience. They provide context and help students recognize and articulate their culture. They are short and allow everyone to engage in a discussion and focus on high level thinking. So many other texts I will teach will require outside reading and some ability to navigate difficult texts. I will rarely have an entire class of students starting a discussion with as similar a level of preparation without much more teaching from me.

I still believe that the Gluskabe tales are wonderful for younger readers and even for students who need to be read to. Children will not have the trouble some of my teens had in accepting that Gluskabe’s grandmother is a woodchuck, but he is a person. (High school English teachers everywhere are nodding their heads—did these kids never see a Muppet movie or a Disney cartoon!?) That kind of cognitive dissonance must be learned. The values of sharing and not being selfish, of acting in the interest of others rather than oneself are values many parents will embrace for their children and the children will embrace them for themselves.

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Updated: Sep 7

Just before dawn, Rockport, Maine August 26 (photo by author). The Native tribes of New England formed the Wabanaki Confederacy. According to resources from the Abbe Museum of Bar Harbor, ME, the word Wabanaki likely comes from the Passamaquoddy word ckuwaponahkiyik, meaning, the people of the land of the coming of the light. Wabanaki territories then are often referred to as the Dawnland in English.

Native New England folk tales have an eerie way of addressing the problems that plague the country today. From the Gluskabe tales we learn that it is wrong to hoard resources, to overhunt or overfish. From the tale of the Corn Mother, we learn that we should sacrifice our needs for the good of the community. From another Gluskabe misadventure, we even get a warning that we shouldn’t mess with the climate because it will destroy the environment. We seem to need these tales now, tales that encourage a different kind of behavior, and with the publication of a new text by partners from academia and the Penobscot community, we have the best curated book of Native New England tales that I have found.

“Still They Remember Me”

“Still They Remember Me,” with a photograph of Penobscot tale-teller Newell Lyon, from University of Massachusetts Press.

“Still They Remember Me” is a collection of tales of the Wabanaki culture hero Gluskabe in a bilingual edition, collected by anthropologist Frank Speck from Penobscot storyteller Newell Lyon in the early years of the 20th Century. The new text was a collaboration between Penobscot language master Carol A. Dana, University of Maine English professor Margo Lukens and University of Southern Maine linguist Conor M. Quinn. It presents thirteen tales of Gluskabe, many of which read to me like the solution to the environmental and economic messes created by a culture that encourages taking and hoarding as much as we can from the planet and not worrying about long term consequences.

The opening tales of Gluskabe’s youth and education present him solving problems in ways that are convenient for him, but bad for everyone else who would follow. The dual-language layout of the text reads almost phrase-by-phrase, allowing the reader to digest Gluskabe’s every thought and action. It is sometimes difficult for him to find game while hunting, so he tricks all of the animals in the world to get into a bag so he can reach in whenever he wants and have one. It is sometimes difficult for his grandmother to catch a fish, so he gathers all of the fish in the world into a small enclosure. The text also gives us the full weight of Gluskabe’s grandmother’s responses to these projects: “My grandchild, you did not do a good thing at will our descendants live in the future since we have as many fish as we want?” And Gluskabe undoes what would be good for him and his grandmother for the good of the people who come after them, a quaint notion. These tales see Gluskabe grow from a young person who is self-centered and self-motivated, into a figure who works to make the world better for his descendants.

Natives, Colonists and the Creation of an American Literature

I will write another piece on some interesting anecdotes from Lisa Brooks’s Our Beloved Kin, a real historian’s history, but it touches on the role Wampanoag people of Massachusetts played in some of the earliest publishing on this continent and features a Greek myth written by a Native scholar filtered through Puritan sensibilities. Brooks is Abenaki and encouraged the writers of “Still They Remember Me” to publish with University of Massachusetts Press. Brooks is also an editor of the series Native Americans of the Northeast, which the volume is a part of.

Another prescient tale I read this summer, a tale referred to in Speck’s Penobscot Man, but not “Still They Remember Me”, is from an historical anecdote in Lisa Brooks’s Our Beloved Kin. Brooks’s text interprets a tale from a land deed signed by a Native female leader in the 1600s who hoped to share the value of sharing with the English colonists who wanted to settle in the lands of her people. Brooks writes that Warrabitta, in a 17th Century agreement with English settlers in Caskoak, Casco Bay on the Maine coast, near Portland, referred to the tale of the Corn Mother, who told the people to break up and plant her body. In the story, her flesh turned to corn and her bone tobacco. The agreement required the English settlers to give a bushel of corn back to the community, an expectation of all Native families to ensure the survival of the community. Warrabitta referred to the Corn Mother to reinforce the value of all goods being shared equally, her attempt, writes Brooks, to integrate the colonists into her society and the economic system that best ensured the survival of her people, to “divide among you the flesh and bone of the first mother...and let all shares be alike.”

I went to a cookout on Labor Day and saw parents encourage their little boy to share a toy helicopter with another. It was an anthropological moment. He had just told the other little boy that he was using it and the other child began to cry. The parents of the boy with the helicopter coached him to try telling the other child that he could have it in five minutes. They wanted him to share, to learn the value of sharing. My parents encouraged me to share and I think most American parents have tried to do the same. This tells me that sharing really is a practice that Americans value, at least in their homes and within their families and circles of friends. It seems incongruent to me that we would teach our children to be kind and welcoming to others with their belongings, but then tolerate our corporations and the wealthiest among us to hoard resources while fellow citizens live in squalor. We could live the way Warrabitta suggested, the way Gluskabe’s grandmother taught him and the way our mothers and fathers and grandparents taught us.

I came upon these texts and tales in an attempt to find the earliest attested Native tales of New England. I read and reviewed three texts by indigenous authors a year ago and was only able to find local Native people to consult with on the tales months after it was published. They warned me that just because a tale was published by indigenous people did not make it necessarily an ancient tale, that folk tales from the Old World may have colonized oral traditions here. The tales from “Still They Remember Me” were taken from the published text and field notes of Frank Speck, who published the tales in 1918 as Penobscot Transformer Tales. Speck also produced the thorough and useful ethnology Penobscot Man, in which he also connects certain tales to tribal names and practices. While the tales themselves have been available and free to read online, “Still They Remember Me” includes updated research on the Penobscot language and is much easier to read than the old Speck pdf. Having read the first five tales to my wife during our trip back from Penobscot Bay, I can report that in the phrase-by-phrase format, the tales sound very much like ones you would read to a very small child, which endeared them more to me than when I first encountered them. My one caveat is that the purpose of teaching the Penobscot language is the controlling factor in the layout of the text and this may not be everyone’s cup of tea. For a language nerd like me, it’s delightful, but I’ve already reformatted this translation of the tales to share with my American literature class. Most of them would navigate between the lines without much trouble, but for kids with reading difficulties or trouble adapting to new visual layouts, what is a hiccup for most people could make the process more difficult than I’d like. Then again, it could be a worthwhile challenge for us, but I’ll take the easier path with new material.

A Bilingual Edition

Screen shots of the actual layout of “Still They Remember Me” as the pages appear in the text, with Penobscot phrases broken into their constituent parts on the left and the English translations on the right. It would be even more interesting to me if Penobscot were related to any of the languages I’ve studied, but it is a fascinating and valuable text nonetheless.

The Penobscot people of Maine belong to a group of tribes referred to as the Wabanaki Confederacy, comprised of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Micmac and Abenaki tribes, which speak distinct, but related languages of the Algonquian language family. Authors Dana, Lukens and Quinn also recently presented a map of traditional Penobscot lands in Maine with Penobscot place names, several of which, in the Penobscot Bay area, refer to a tale of Gluskabe’s moose hunt, a tale told in “Still They Remember Me.” In the story, Gluskabe must put an end to a supernaturally large moose that is terrorizing a village. He chases the moose to Penobscot Bay and leaps across the water, leaving the impression of his snowshoe on a set of rocks in Castine. He kills the moose and part of it can be seen in nearby Cape Roshier, a piece of land referred to as the rump of the moose in Penobscot. Gluskabe throws the moose’s entrails to his dog between two small islands in the bay, an old canoe portage where the rocks are streaked with white, likely the quartzite veins I found at the snowshoe landmark, thought to look like the strings of Gluskabe’s giant snowshoe. I found these locations using the murky details from an old essay by anthropologist Bill Haviland and only discovered the map and “Still They Remember Me” by phoning Castine’s historical society and getting the tip to look for a webinar that had occurred a few months earlier. I have not found copies of the map online.

A Storied Bay

A screenshot of a webinar presenting a map of the landmarks in Penobscot Bay of the place names associated with Gluskabe’s moose hunt from “Still They Remember Me. The names on this map (labeled in black) are English translations of the Penobscot names. The green text helps relate the locations to the story.

My Wild Moose Chase

A photo-journal of my trek to Dyce Head with my wife and dog to find Gluskabe’s footprint: Dyce Head Lighthouse (now a private residence); Beatrice on the publicly accessible footpath, narrow and very rocky in places; the dauntingly steep set of stairs to the rocks; my foot on Gluskabe’s snowshoe imprint; the quartzite veins that are meant to represent the netting of the snowshoe; Beatrice on the hunt for Gluskabe or perhaps his dog!

A (More) Normal School Year?

I spent my summer studying and trying to learn more about Wabanaki tales and have accumulated more material than makes sense to squeeze in here. I would also like to write about how my high school readers respond to the tales from “Still They Remember Me” and come to a better understanding of a version of the Orpheus myth that a Wampanoag Harvard scholar wrote in 1663. A synergy between work and blog could allow more writing this fall. As a public high school teacher, I was able to maintain a robust blog during the COVID 2019-2020 school year largely because our schedule slowed my district down to about half pace. After my summer off from publishing, I will have to take this school year a step at a time while I see what kind of a pace I am able to research and publish articles. At the moment, I’m still on a journey of discovery with Native New England folklore and expect more pieces on this topic.

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