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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

The Challenges of Researching Native Tales

Updated: Oct 11, 2021

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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