Friday, December 19, 2008

Chief Lehman, Onondaga, Ontario, 1998

Stephen’s stories, told over the years, were congruent with Iona’s and those of her chief who she introduced to me simply as Chief Lehman who is Mohawk. He and I had long discussion about the native life prior to the occupation and subjugation of native cultures by the Europeans. Stephen who died a few years ago was a scholar as is Chief Lehman. Both have spent a great deal of time studying the “old ways”, the time before time, the time that has passed since the last glacier melted. They have compared the native culture here in eastern North America to cultures in other parts of the world that have been in continuous existence for thousands of years and point out that the natives of northeastern America have had a relatively stable existence over a long period of time. There have been classic, long-ranging conflicts between bands in every section of the country, as in the northeast between the Abenakis and the Iroquois, who have fought and waged wars over land and hunting rights, particularly where they bump up against each other in western Vermont. A lot of the fighting occurred after Europeans arrived and was politically motivated. For the most part, though, the two bands have had a remarkably long history of peaceful co-existence and both developed rich, complex cultures.

Their technology and science were direct adaptations to the local environment. They were brilliantly astute, practical and versatile. Their bows were unique in the world. The Abenaki bows were short so they could be maneuvered in thick forests and brush. The Abenaki had other machines in addition to the bow. They had drills, saws, levers, ropes that they used effectively like block and tackle to increase efficiency of work. Near Putney, VT, there is a prehistoric stone structure, an enclosure with a large stone slab roof, which is assumed to have had multiple functions over time, including a calender of sorts and a refuge, but, like other native stone works, it is apparent that the natives were good engineers and had the means to lift an enormous amount of weight.

In science, in addition to medicine, including some knowledge of internal human anatomy, and their vast knowledge of plants, they understood weather, animal behavior, the stars, navigation, etc. Their craftsmanship was sometimes astounding both in practical applications and the development of aesthetic ‘lines’. Take, for instance, the birch bark canoe. A well made birch bark canoe is an astonishing bit of craftsmanship and engineering as well as a work of art. Stone carvings, decorated birch bark baskets and boxes, carved drums and earthenware pottery, achieve a high level of art that is sought by museums. I have seen wampum belts, made from small, intricate beads carved from sea shells that are stunningly beautiful. I've seen full regalia hand sewn from white deerskin, elaborate pieces of clothing and moccasins, decorated with beads and dyed porcupine quills that are also stunningly beautiful, as are some of elaborately carved drums and smoking pipes. It’s true that the best carving came with the introduction of steel knives after European contact but it does not detract from the fact that natives achieved a well defined, original artistry.


That leads me to what will appear as a huge generalization and idealization of native life but it is also consistent with my experience living and interacting with native peoples in North and South America, Kenya, and Nepal. It's this: my perceptions of the native people who lived here over all that time, those millennia since the glacier melted, came to me through Stephen, Manuel, their wives and children, the Abenaki, the Iroquois, Iona, Chief Lehman, the Cree and the Innu, and all the glimpses they afforded me of their way of life including their wonderful sense of humor, their knowledge and wisdom and from the breath of that experience what tells me the most about them is the way they treated me. When I was in the woods with Stephen, or picking blueberries on top of a mountain with the Abenaki women on those august afternoons beneath the towering thunderheads listening to them gossip I was accepted without conditions. In a long house ceremony given for me at Onondaga I was also accepted without conditions, in other words, with enormous respect. I didn’t have to charm anyone, cut off parts of myself to fit in, or believe anything I didn’t want to. I was accepted for who I was, another human being, and I realized in the long house that I had yearned for that feeling all my life. Any culture that has that self-respect, that sense of congruence and the capacity to create that ‘space’ among it’s people has a lot to lose, and it is sad, it’s a real tragedy in this aspect of the “Commons”, in that their culture still has so much to offer.

I'm adding this quote from Henry Thoreau's book The Maine Woods on 1/17/09 because I just read it again for the first time in decades and, along with the passage I quoted above, I was struck by this one as well: “Pointing southeasterly over the lake and distant forest, he observed, ‘Me go Oldtown in three days.’ I asked how he would get over the swamps and fallen trees. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘in winter all covered, go anywhere on snowshoes, right across lakes.’ When I asked how he went he said, ‘First I go Ktaadn (Mt. Katadin), west side, then I go Millinocket, then Pamadumcook, then Nicletow, then Lincoln, then Oldtown,’ or else he went a shorter way by the Piscataquis. What a wilderness walk for a man to take alone! None of your half-mile swamps, none of your mile-wide woods merely, as on the skirts of our towns, without hotels, only a dark mountain or a lake for guide board and station, over ground much of it impossible in summer.”

That was in 1857 when Maine was quite different than today and the distance from where Joe Polis, Thoreau's Penobscot guide, was standing it was about 130 miles as the crow flies to Old Town, Maine. In that country that is a long way to go in three days! So the guide's reflections were the result of experience, he had definitely made that trip before, and he was not simply bragging. He was offering Thoreau insight and Thoreau was as delighted with this kind of insight as I have been and continue to be.

There is something really, really precious in all of this. I think that is why I go on and on like this about the native peoples of this part of North America. Represented by Iona, the Cree poet and friend of mine, Margaret Sam Cromarty, and Stephen Laurent, there is someting enormously important about these people in the way that they lived here and preserved this land. When you think of Joe Polis walking around the clock in mid-winter from the wilds of western Maine to the coast one also thinks of people moving through, over, and around the White Mountains in a constant stream for those millenia, going from St. Francis to the coast through Crawford Notch, or Zealand Notch, snowshoeing across the Pemigewasset, following the Israel and Androscoggin Rivers, stopping to make arrow points on Mt. Jasper, fishing in the Saco, hunting deer on the Intervale, all that activity, those lives, these mountains, this land, a half million sunsets and sunrises. It's quite striking and lovely at the same time. There is profound beauty here on so many levels, that's the way I see it.

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