Updated: Sep 23, 2021
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.