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  • Ben Hellman

Discovering the Dawnland

Updated: May 1


The Abenaki's Promethean Gluscabe, outside the Millbrook Heritage Centre in Nova Scotia, Canada, part of the ancient lands stretching as far south as Massachusetts, known as Wabanaki, or the Dawnland.


[Edit, 5/1/21: In recent days I've shared this post with the speakers of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook-Abenaki People. While all of the stories I share in this piece were told or shared by indigenous people of parts of modern New England and lands stretching into Canada, the tales themselves do not have a clear provenance stretching into the distant past as I have represented in the article. They may be reconstructions made in the 20th Century and may also contain elements of old world folk belief. I will continue to research the matter and write again on the topic when I have a better understanding.]


The native peoples of New England remember a time when monsters and giants roamed the land I was born in. While I lay in bed as a child reading about the man-eating cyclops of the Greek isles and the dragons of Europe, the trolls and ice giants of Scandinavia, the land all around me had stories I knew nothing of, and have only begun to learn. I can report to you already, that these stories are just as thrilling as the ones we have inherited and carried from other lands, but they have the benefit of speaking of the places we live now: A primal creature that created much of the landscape of the northeast and then came to rest in Lake Champlain; an intelligent chimera that haunts Mount Katahdin; creatures scarier than White Walkers; children with magic and animals that speak. These are details from a few of my favorite tales of the people of the Dawnland!

That is what the Abenaki people called New England and a part of Canada stretching to Nova Scotia. The individual tribes, described by Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac as cousins, include: the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot, but they belonged to a larger group that spoke related languages and lived in the Wabanaki, the Dawnland, a more elegant and beautiful name (and concept) than New England, I think. The people here were in the far east, the place on this continent where the sun rose first, and I’ve been searching out and reading as many of their legends as I could find.


Map of Wabanaki Land

Map of traditional Wabanaki territory, reprinted in Joseph Bruchac's The Faithful Hunter.


Of the three volumes I’ve read, my favorite was Giants of The Dawnland, collected by Alice Mead and Arnold Neptune. Mead has a collection of young adult literature and Neptune was a member of the Penobscot Nation. The stories in the collection are attributed to storytellers who are identified by name, tribal affiliation and (for about half) the date the story was recorded. Some of the stories are dated as far back as 1882, though Mead explains that these stories were passed down orally and may date back many thousands of years.


My favorite story from Mead and Neptune’s collection was “The Chenoo’s Icy Heart,” about a wife and husband who face one of the terrible monsters of the north. A chenoo is a giant, magical being and a cannibal, capable of changing size and killing a man with its scream. “His lips looked like they had been chewed upon in a frenzy of hunger.” Without giving away too much of the story, the wife and husband must use their wits to survive, but the storytellers retain the tension between the dangerous creature and the couple. The chenoo sounds very much like the wendigo, thought to be a symbol of starving in the winter months. The chenoo may have been more human once, an element not lost in the story, which makes the story more interesting.


“The Chenoo’s Icy Heart” and the two other tales I most enjoyed in this collection explored the elements of human relationships: one of a mother and father and the other, about a spurned orphan. “The Magic Giants” reminded me a bit of a Thor story, with a mother and father finding themselves lost in the fog in the ocean and saved by giants who take them in and give them supper but say that the couple must repay the favor. The mother and father had been poor providers, but are given powers by the giants to better support their children. “The Orphan and the Mikumwess” is not the only story to show how sometimes the village is run by mean or unfair people, but it is the only story to examine the relationship between a human and an elf, or “little person.” The orphan has solid Cinderella street cred, but when his guardian Mikumwess endows him with special powers, his outcome is so much more satisfying than Cinderella’s.


I have also read two collections by Abenaki writer Joseph Bruchac, The Faithful Hunter and The Wind Eagle. The three Abenaki collections I've read each had two-page stories that would be great to read to a child: stories about the origins of animals, and animal tricksters like Azam the Racoon and Gluscabe’s uncle, the turtle person. However, my favorites of Bruchac, as with Mead and Neptune, were the longer, more developed tales with danger and interesting mythological creatures and beliefs. “The Deer Wife,” is a sort of selkie or mermaid tale with a twist. The Faithful Hunter’s title comes from an eerie tale about a husband who cannot be stopped from providing for his family. Surviving the northern climate and providing for family were two themes common to most of the Abenaki stories I’ve read. Even animal tales, some of which take on the air of fables by Aesop, are about the sorts of behaviors that make one a valuable member of a community. Laziness is looked on with judgement and those who are simply bad at hunting and providing are pitiable figures with a problem they must solve.


The mythological dimension of the tales includes a creator god, who is not very present in the stories, but a Promethean figure who is. Gluscabe is mercurial, sometimes portrayed heroically, sometimes as a trickster, never all-knowing or powerful, but generally a well-intentioned and helpful figure. It must say something that the Abenaki saw Gluscabe, in such human terms. The story of "The Wind Eagle," portrays him as well-intentioned, but adolescently naive and misguided. His quest is to end the powerful winds that make the Dawnland cold, but in doing so he upsets the balance and must go back to right it. A similar story has Gluscabe facing off against Winter himself, and again, it takes a couple of tries to make the climate of the Dawnland as livable as it is today. Bruchac, Mead and Neptune all stress that the Abenaki settled in New England at the end of the last ice age and these stories, like that of the violent, hungering ice giant, the Chenoo, may represent that.


Gluscabe usually seems to be an agent of positive change, of changing the Dawnland in a way that makes it what it is today, a region friendlier to human settlement. There are a number of stories that also have him making animals smaller, and less menacing than they once were. Defeating selfish characters is a theme, particularly when they hoard things the creator meant all people to have, like water, or in one of my favorite stories, "How Gluscabe Stole Tobacco." In a true hero's journey tale, Gluscabe must seek out knowledge (from his usual mentor, Grandmother Woodchuck) develop his unusual stone canoe and seek out the wizard who has hoarded the tobacco. The wizard figure, like the monster in "Gluscabe and the Water Monster," is a delightful surprise. Some stories say Gluscabe left when the white people came, but “Dusk” from the Mead and Neptune collection, says that Gluscabe left when the people stopped following his teaching. And when Gluscabe paddles away to the east, his magic leaves the Dawnland, confounding the languages of the humans and animals. The world is lesser for his passing.


Rock Dunder, or Odzioso


A few of the local Abenaki landmarks that a New Englander might visit are Rock Dunder in Lake Champlain of Vermont and Mount Katahdin of Maine. Rock Dunder is said to have been the only creature that created itself, named Odziozo, a name that means, "he who created himself." Odioso dragged himself around the northeast, creating the landscape with his movement. He created Tuxis Island in Long Island Sound and came to rest in Lake Champlain, where, satisfied with his work, he settled down and did not move again. Maine’s Mount Katahdin, the easternmost part of North America and first place the rising sun strikes, was sacred and off-limits. It was thought to be home of the winged creature, the Pomola, who is depicted as an eagle-like creature, sometimes with the horns of a stag or moose. According to “The Thunders and the Mosquito Person,” a Mi'kmaq tale, Katahdin was also home of the winged thunders, creatures like humans that could change their size and bear wings to create storms. Pamola seems to be a thunder creature himself in some sources. I hope and expect I will find more local landmarks that bear interesting native stories. One does not have to travel to Iceland to find rocks that were once magical creatures.


Rosy-Sloped Mount Katahdin

Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp, by Frederic Edwin Church, 1895.


An element all of the Abenaki folktale collections sought to communicate was the age of the tales. Each of the texts claims that the Abenaki people lived in this area from the time of the last Ice Age, when glaciers and now-extinct megafauna roamed the landscape. Mead and Neptune’s collection says the Abenaki people were here as many as 12,000 years ago. Bruchac makes similar claims. The stories’ fixation with the dangers of winter and ice monsters may reflect the struggle to survive in an age when prehistoric animals, real giants, roamed the landscape.


To a student of folklore, ancient tales, and oral tradition, such claims of longevity of tales, of stories handed down for so long, fascinated me and challenged my credulity, but in my limited research, it seems that they could be possible. According to Patrick D. Nunn, geographer and anthropologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia who has studied the Aboriginal peoples of Australia, orally transmitted tales can be passed down for 10,000 years when conditions are right. Those conditions, he says, include having specialized story tellers, and being relatively isolated. By these conditions, the Tjapwurung, a people in current day southern Australia have kept alive stories of hunting a prehistoric and deadly seven-foot tall bird, mihirung paringmal, 5,000-10,000 years ago. The Klamath people of Oregon have likewise retained memory of an ancient event, the collapse of the volcano that formed Crater Lake, some 7,600 years ago.


Such ancient times are apt to dwarf the Western imagination. They certainly do mine! I can think of nothing we have that is that old. The language I am writing in has changed so much in the last thousand years alone, one requires special training to read texts before the year 1000 CE. Two thousand years ago: the Roman Empire. Five thousand years ago on the Russian steppes: the peoples whose language would give birth to ancient versions of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, the Celtic, Germanic and Slavik languages, people for whom the domestication of horses and the invention of the chariot were game-changing technologies. The great pyramid of Giza (2560 BCE) had not been built. The Bible had not been written.


Accessibility of New England Native Folklore

I decided to research and write this piece after seeing that there was a chatbot that would tell me what native groups once lived in the zip code I live in. I found the chatbot on Columbus Day on social media. It says something already that an educated person with an interest in folklore made it to his forties without knowing the first thing about native American folklore or the peoples who once had the free roam of the lands I was born in and have lived in for most of my life. Upon getting a list of tribes that lived, and in some part still live, where I live, I became curious about what they believed in, cared about, what stories they told. I did not know where to start because there are no go-to names in the native folklore of New England, no Grimms or Andersen, Ferdowsi or Lönnrot, no programs of study that (again) are obvious and easy to find. When I ordered the books I’ve written about here, they were not as easy to get as many of the hundreds of books I’ve purchased online (most of them folklore and mythology-related.) Of the five texts I bought, one (not one I’ve written about here) was out of print and obtainable only as a used copy. Another was not available on the biggest online retailer in the U.S. Another was priced in such a way as to make me think it was published as a very limited run. All of the Abenaki folklore texts I’ve gotten my hands on were published by very small publishers or self-published.


The point I’m trying to make is that we in the U.S. do not place a great value on the cultures of native peoples, and that may be putting it lightly. I probably own ten complete editions of the Brothers Grimm, and I could buy ten more new editions, each by a different publisher, and have them by tomorrow. I can say the same about Greek mythology. It was easier for me to identify and receive important texts about the cherished tales of the people from India. I have always felt that Americans lacked a certain something in the way of folklore. We have an embarrassment of wealth if we count the stories of the cultures of our melting pot, but we are cut off from the stories of the lands around us, perhaps because to us, the history of these lands began in the 1600s. Before that it was another people's history, a people we don't seem to feel particularly comfortable thinking about. I think that it is a shame to be cut off from the stories of the land, particularly when there are such very good stories. It is a shame not to value native folklore as highly as the folklore of places we may never step foot in. I hope in time I will be able to research and review more of this valuable yet underrepresented folklore to perhaps make it easier for others to find and enjoy the oldest stories of the land they were born in.


But what do you think? Are you familiar with the folklore native to your area? Would Americans benefit from a more formal study of the stories and cultures of its original native peoples? Do you have a favorite native tale to share? Do so in the comments.

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