Interview with Joseph and Jesse Bruchac, Potsdam, NY: Monday, April 29, 2019
Joseph Bruchac, a citizen and elder of the Nulhegan Abenaki, has published well over 100 books -- novels, collections of poetry and stories, children's books, anthologies -- including Dawn Land, Songs from this Earth on Turtle's Back, The First Strawberries: Keepers of the Earth, and Sacajawea. He has travelled throughout the United States and Europe as a storyteller. It is difficult to do justice to his prolific output and the respect he has as an elder. For a complete portrait, one should read his autobiography, Bowman's Store, as well as visit https://www.josephbruchac.com/.
Jesse Bruchac, a citizen of the Nulhegan Abenaki, has worked tirelessly to preserve the Abenaki language through workshops, consultancies, and his language website: http://westernabenaki.com/. In addition, he is a musician, teacher, storyteller, and co-director of Ndakinna. He can be found: http://jbruchac.com/.
Rick: Joe, you have a lovely line in your introduction to your 1986 anthology North Country, coedited with Craig Hancock, Alice Gilborn, and Jean Rikhoff: "Much of my own writing has been as rooted in this landscape as a cedar in a fissure of granite." Do you still feel that way?
Joe: Well, yes. Especially considering that the Abenaki creation story tells how the first people were made of stone and then returned to earth because they were very brutal to the environment around them. It’s said that there are a lot of rocks in the Adirondacks that are the remains of those first people. The next people came from the trees, stepping forth from the ash trees. So I think that makes sense to see myself as rooted in the land, connected to the stones and also to the trees. Cedar, for example, is such an important tree in virtually all Native cultures. It's one of the four particularly sacred plants that are used for the incense when they are burned. Cedar. Tobacco. Sweet grass. Sage.
So many of my memories as a kid go back to the area around Indian Lake, the Cedar River Flow. Those times in my teenage years when I went up there with my dad, I was not aware of the connection that Indian Lake has to Native culture. It’s an area that is heavily Abenaki. Lake Abenakee is one visible example of that relationship. Then there are the two little towns up there, Sabattis and Sabael, which were named after two historically important Abenaki elders. I admire the way the little town museum in Indian Lake has preserved so much of the history of this region. My sister Marge has a new book that just came out about the relationship between anthropologists and Native Americans, called Savage Kin (the "savage kin" being the anthropologists). She got a lot of her information for that book from that little museum in Indian Lake. For example, there were many letters in there between Abenaki people who are largely forgotten, but might be seen as famous today, including Abenaki people who were central players in the early days of the American film industry—such as the incredibly talented actor and writer Elijah Tahamont (1855-1918), whose screen name was Dark Cloud.
The whole Adirondack area, and my relationship to the land, the way I feel rooted to that land is very much a part of my work. I know it's also affected my children. The work my sons Jim and Jesse do as writers and storytellers had been greatly affected by the Adirondack landscape.
Jesse and I were also talking on our way up here, about how many of the stories that are now seen as Iroquois stories, seem to have actually been originally Abenaki traditions from the Adirondack region.
For example, in many of the monster stories, we have the stories of flying heads. The earliest stories of the flying heads are said to have occurred around the area that is now the Sacandaga Reservoir. In fact, about four years ago I started getting a series of emails from a person who lives in the other side of the reservoir. He told me he’d been seeing flying heads and that he had photographs of them. They’re up there still, to this day. Which is kind of cool.
Another example of stories that have spread beyond our region are tall tales about logging. Paul Bunyan type stories. It seems that many of the "Paul Bunyan" stories originated in the Northeast and moved west.
Paul Bunyan is a character who has made the attributes of someone such as a Bill Greenfield. Greenfield Center supposedly named after him. Bill Greenfield was a real person. He and his father Abner were famous as storytellers and liars. In fact, I'm one of the charter members of the Adirondack Liars Club. At one point, my son Jim was the youngest member of the Adirondack Liars Club. As storytellers, what we do traces back to those native and Adirondack roots, especially the idea that, this may sound funny, we always tell the truth, even if we have to lie to do it.
That implication, that you're not trying to deceive someone with a tall tale, but you're actually reporting something which, in a way, is another truth. Maybe to amuse, or maybe to instruct. Humor is meant in Abenaki and other native traditions not just to make people laugh, but to wake people up to something. A traditional story, whether it's Native or Adirondack, often has those same kinds of basic principles; that we're telling a story, but not just as a story. But it's still useful in and of itself as a lesson.
Like the stories that we told yesterday. The way the stories come to you. The fact that we had that little boy up there, listening to us, and taking part, and sharing with us. Then, I had no idea I was going to tell the story of a little boy who was the only one able to defeat the monster bear. That story just came as a result of what was going on. I didn't even think of it consciously.
I think that, as a writer and a storyteller, my roots are in the Adirondack tradition; and that the Native tradition is very much a part of the Adirondacks—but so often ignored, unrecognized. At our Ndakinna Education Center, we just had a program a couple of weeks ago with Melissa Otis, who is a historian and just published a new book, Rural Indigenousness. It's basically about Native American culture in the Adirondack region. The idea of many people there being Native American, but not always specifically connected to a reservation, or recognized community.
Melissa herself is an Adirondack person. She was born in the Adirondack region and still lives in the Adirondack region. Myself, my sister Marge, and Melissa did a little panel after her talk.
Rick: You told animal stories yesterday. How do they help define the region?
Jesse: We mentioned last night, the name of the region, the Adirondacks. It stems from the Iroquois word for porcupine, the "barkeater," a name the Mohawks called our Abenaki people because we sometimes ate the inner bark of the white pine. There is a recorded telling of the story in Abenaki about the relationship between the Mohawk and the Abenaki people within the Adirondacks, which is very ancient. We certainly are connected with the animals in every way. Within our indigenous cultures, people are connected through a clan with an animal ancestor.
Joe: I think, too, to add something to that, that in native cultures, even though that word "animal" is often used in a pejorative sense in white culture, it is not an insult to us. Animals and people are regarded as being on the same level. We don't have that gradation of power or status or spiritual nature, or even of intellect. Animal people is how those beings are described within our cultures.
When you hear the language spoken, you recognize that within the language itself, that animals are not seen the way the Judaeo-Christian culture sees animals, but that we are connected. Of course, with the clan systems, we have stories that directly say we are descended from these creatures. We are not just relatives in a figurative sense, but relatives in the literal sense. For example, we have bears as actual ancestors, if we're members of the bear clan.
Rick: Maurice Kenny was proud of being Turtle.
Joe: Oh yeah, and Maurice was very much a turtle. We joke about that, how people with those clans sometimes really are, for example, a turtle. They have those characteristics, physically and personality-wise. Maurice was such a snapping turtle.
Jesse: So the animals inform behavior, certainly, too. You'll see in the stories that you can act like a ... the term to be a trickster is asbaniwi, which means to be raccoon-y. To be acting like a trickster, to act like a raccoon, is asbaniwi. Maurice Dennis talked all about how his family was mdawela which is little loon, and that he was from the mdawela clan, the loon clan. He was so much like a loon because of the loon is the magic bird. Midi means magic in Anishinaabe, and all eastern Algonquin languages as well. It refers to the magic or shaman-type powers this bird has, because it's the only one that can live above the land, on the land, and then go under the water, as well. It can live in all these three areas that other animals can't.
Maurice Dennis said in one of his writings that their clan, people of the loon clan, may take a long time to taxi up to speed, but once they make their decision, once they make up their mind, they can take flight or dive down faster than any creature, and go all the way from earth to air and then underwater.
Joe: The three worlds.
Jesse: Changing worlds. In the old Algonquin idea of those worlds, and the balance between them, you have the underwater beings, serpent-like creatures often fighting the sky beings, the thunder beings. There's this constant struggle for balance between the sky world and the underworld. A loon could cross that barrier. But it takes a long time for a loon to decide. You can see the loon taking a long time taxing up to speed. Maurice said that's the way his clan was. There’s often a bit of teasing about every clan. Like the turtle clan. There’s a funny story about how turtles are just always saying, "Hold on, wait. Hold on, wait. Hold on, wait."
Similar to the loon. Then bear is, again, the one who's always sleeping. Awasos is the sleepy one.
Joe: Yeah, and also, of course, mdawela is the medicine person. The shaman who dives down, who goes beneath the surface and can talk with the spirits, can communicate with them in the shaking lodge. You see those relationships there as well. The animal, the being that has a certain kind of power and can relate that power to a human being, or can give access to that power. Like a gatekeeper, exactly.
Jesse: The loon is one of Gluskonba’s two dogs. Two dogs, and one of the dogs is a wolf, and the other is a loon. The dog that is a loon, the black dog, is the one that's able to save him from the power of Pebon [Winter], and awaken him from a spell that he falls under. Magic is the call of the loon.
Joe: I remember times when I would be in Maurice Dennis' backyard in Old Forge, New York, and we'd be talking. All of a sudden, a loon would quite literally fly over and land in the river just beyond us. Maurice paid no attention to it. It's like these things just happen that way, and that happenstance is not regarded as happenstance. It's regarded as everyday experience.
I think that's deeply influenced me as a writer. I accept a lot of things as just happening, and don't feel it necessary to either explain or to mitigate those things. Like last night, we're doing a storytelling program, and this little three-year-old boy decides to get up and join us. Okay, no problem. Handed him the rattle, and he started playing the rattle with us. I know there were people in the audience who were worried about that, and the father was very worried, but it's like ... let me make another animal comparison.
Jesse often used to refer to his two kids as little animals. Just like the puppies. You need to treat them with that same kind of patience or respect. If you want a small animal to trust you, don't grab it. You don't force it to do things. You don't make loud noises around it, and you are patient. If we have a new puppy and that puppy is chewing up everything, we don't scream at it, we don't hit it. We just take it gently away, and say oh, you can’t have that.
What we recognize in child rearing, that children need that same kind of freedom, those opportunities. When Jim and Jesse were growing up, [to Jesse] you can correct me if I'm wrong, but we did not try to restrict your movements, in terms of what you would do. If you wanted to go out into the woods to spend the night when you were seven years old. We didn't say no. You just did it. At one point one of Jesse's friends said, "You don't have real parents."
Rick: Is there any reason to be talking about the Adirondack as opposed to the Northeastern Woodlands? To what extent is that all of a cloth in terms of storytelling? The landscape changes so much. The Catskills are older mountains. The Adirondacks obviously new ones. You get into the Green Mountains. Then there are the White Mountains. Are they of a cloth? You go to the Sierras, you find differences in stories, don't you?
Jesse: I think part of the influence is a place where you had a cross-cultural experience already happening between indigenous people, which probably affected the experience of people who then came into the region. When you're in the Green Mountains, and in the White Mountains to the east, you had pretty much Eastern Algonquin people as the original inhabitants. The first stories that may've been affected, or languages that may've affected later settlers would be more uniform. When we get into the Adirondacks, they were a place of cultural exchange, of intermarriage that was happening, and of shared territory.
It may've been an area that was a little easier to get into. I know people have said, as did Melissa Otis and others, that they believe it's almost like it's uninhabited, just wild land. The more you look, the more you realize there was a real presence there, but it was that real idea of a common pot, the shared land that was open, that may've helped us find it, to a certain degree.
Joe: The common pot, you just threw out another book title. The Common Pot is by another Abenaki friend of ours.
Jesse: Lisa Brooks.
Joe: Really wonderful writer. The Adirondack region, geographically, is very interesting in the way it's located, because you have a Great Lake on one side, and you have Champlain on the other. You have the Hudson River flowing out of the Adirondacks, but you also have rivers flowing north. You have north and south flow of rivers. You have tremendous access from all kinds of directions.
The influx of the Iroquoian people into the region from the west, meeting the original indigenous Algonquin people who had been there for some time, produced, as Jesse said, this cultural melting pot. Even before Europeans. Then when the Europeans came, the French, the English, and the Dutch, they were all coming in and affecting what was going on there. Moreso than, say, the Catskills. Certainly moreso than, say, the region further to the east, as Jesse was saying. I also think that there is something to say about a sense of place anywhere you are. Every place has its own sense of place. I feel different in the Adirondack region than I do when I'm in the Green Mountains. Certainly when I'm in the New Hampshire mountains or Maine, certainly when I'm in the Catskills. There is a different feeling.
I think that, for whatever reason, there are just a lot of powerful stories that come out of the Adirondack region.
Rick: This is a related question. How has place express itself through human stories? How much is place an originator or a motivator of the stories that get told?
Jesse: The appearance of the place is reflected directly in the stories that are told, within native traditions. So many geographic shapes that are explained or become big parts of stories. We see that with Camel's Hump right across Lake Champlain. The shaping of the Adirondack came from the hands of Odzihozo pressing against the land, and pressing up the mountains on either side.
Joe: Lake Champlain is the waters in between, or double waters.
Jesse: As Odzihozo shaped himself, he dragged his body along the earth, creating these rivers and lakes by pulling himself with his hands. When we see unique features, then each land has its own unique features. There's different stories about them. We go way further east to Ktahdin. That’s the home of Pomola and the mountain itself is animate, a character with its own stories. In the Adirondacks, every place has a story. Whether that story got passed on to people who came in or not, we don't know. In many cases, just parts of those stories. Like in White Hall, the idea of the Sasquatch, and Bigfoot stories are still persistent, and they're ancient stories that were told about that region. Like my dad said, the stories about the flying heads around Sacandaga. Some of these things just continue to get passed on.
There may be a certain cliff face, or a geological shape that stands out and looks like something. We have a mountain that looks like a Moose, Moose's Head Mountain. Things like that, that are referring to, because of . . .
Joe: . . . experience. You experience it, and then you see it. Our names were places, and the stories from those places come from out of that actual landscape, that geography. There is also a sense of spiritual geography. That there is a sense of feeling in something you gain from a place. I know that when I stand on the shores of certain lakes in the Adirondacks, I get a very strong feeling, for whatever reason. I don't know if it's nostalgia or imagination, or actually something speaking to you. I don't really care. I don't really care what it is that's doing it, it's doing it. The fact that it's doing it makes me inspired as a writer.
I know my old friend Gary Snyder often talks about place and the feeling of place. How often people spend too much time talking, instead of just experiencing. I remember once when I was at the Sierra Storytelling Festival, which was right near where Gary lives. I looked up from the grove where the stories were taking place, and there's Gary standing at the edge of the woods, not speaking to anyone. He didn't say a word. He just stood there for about an hour or two, watching, and then he disappeared back into the woods.
That sense of being able to absorb place is something that's an indigenous trait, and that Gary learned a lot from Zen and also from native people, including Peter Blue Cloud, who was a Mohawk Indian from up here. He lived right near Gary for years, and was very influential in Gary's life. One of the things that we are told, and I mentioned it last night, is that we have two ears and one mouth, and two eyes and one mouth. We need to spend a lot more time looking and listening than talking. That looking and listening enables us to we perceive things that others miss.
I think of my dad, he was not Native, he was Slovak, but he was deeply influenced by native culture all of his life. He would hunt and fish around the area of Indian Lake. His guides, I later discovered, were people I met, like George Osgood. I never knew it till years later, but George was Abenaki. I remember my dad saying once, "You know, you ought to talk to George Osgood. He's got some of those old-timer stories. I remember 50 years ago when he and I were doing this." I'm thinking, "Fifty years ago? You're saying 50 years ago and you're calling him an old-time?" Of course now, at the age of 76, I think that 50 years ago is no time at all.
By the way, that sense of time is important in the Adirondacks, too. There is a timeless quality to certain places. If you're in a canoe on an Adirondack pond, it could be 1700, it could be 2000 years ago. Unless you see an airplane go across the sky. I remember once, many years ago, up on Round Top Pond, which is in what was the Gooley Club near Indian Lake. I was sitting in a boat, and a loon came flying in. I could hear its wings whistling. Then another loon came. Its wings were whistling a different sound. A third loon came in, and each loon's wings sounded different. Because it was so quiet, we're up in that lake, we could hear the difference as those loons are circling around and landing.
That would be an indigenous experience. To recognize a bird not just by its sight, but by its sound. And then to recognize individuation among birds or animals. When you hunted, you wouldn't just hunt deer, you would hunt a specific deer. One you knew would be the right one to take. Maybe it would be a female deer that had no young for the last two years, so it wasn't contributing to its community. But it was there, it was large, it was strong, it would be good food. So you would take it—and you would take it with respect.
There is this —the land talks to you, and the beings of the land talk to you. I feel a different language being spoken in the Adirondacks. The unhuman language of nature.
Rick: Is there a different beauty coming through? A different aesthetic? A different kind of poetry? I do mean the word 'beauty.'
Jesse: Big part is the trees, obviously. When the native people speak about it, when you get into Abenaki country, you're entering a community where people really revere the white birch tree. The birch is said to have been marked by Gluskonba and the thunder birds. So if we make our homes with birch bark, they'll never be struck by lightning. An Indian home, it's said, will never be hit, because it's covered in the birch tree and the Thunder beings will protect us.
Of course, in the Adirondacks, as well as the Green Mountains, we get the white pine. The white pines are so important and integral among the Haudenosaunee. For them, it's the tree of peace. Then, for our Abenaki people, the white pine is in the name of many of our communities. We have the Cowasuck, a recognized tribe. And there is a pine tree traditional song which we did last night. It is sung for the children seeing them as little pines protected by the outstretched branches of the grown-up trees. Little pines who will grow up and be new generations.
That certainly affects the aesthetic, the smell, the feel, the energy. One of the most sacred ceremonies is that of finding one's personal pine fungus which was done by Odzihozo after creation, shortly after he shaped his legs. The first thing he does is find his pine fungus, and speak with it, and learn from it. I don't know or understand the full significance of that, but it's certainly about observing, and listening, and finding your way in the forest, and that that fungus somehow guides you in really important ways.
Joe: Actually, there's not much written or talked about in terms of Native traditions about funguses. My friend Keewaaydinoquay was an Ojibwa elder, who wrote Puhpohwee for the People, which is about Anishinaabe relationships to fungus: how important it was, as a medicinal plant, as a food plant, or even as a guide that had a spiritual nature to it. It could explain things to you. The Adirondacks region is full of different funguses. Bracket funguses, small funguses that are edible. Various kinds.
Our relationship to the land is often shaped by things that non-Native people don't notice. Things that are less sexy than big apex predators like the mountain lion. My clan animal's the bear. By the way, I've had so many non-Native people say, "I know a lot about Native culture because I know the symbolic meaning of all these animals, their special meanings." And I'm like yeah, the meaning of bear is that it’s a bear.
Getting back to my original point, one thing that strikes me is how much the small, unnoticed things are of significance, and how much they can teach you. That's true with the Adirondack region and certainly true for other Native people in the regions where they come from. We are shaped by the land. One thing that Tom Porter, a Mohawk elder who's a very dear friend of ours, has said is you can see the faces of our children coming up from the earth. Their faces, those not yet born, are there in the soil. They're coming up from that earth. We have been shaped by that soil and we will return to that soil. That is significant. That's something lots of people forget about.
Generations of my family grew up, lived and died in the Adirondacks and the Adirondack foothills. I feel connected to them.
Jesse: I think mountains, too, in general affect us. All mountains share one thing for any people—they force you to slow down, and move more carefully. You get to know the land better because of the terrain. It demands that you do. There's tons of reverence towards the mountains among our people. If the mountains were climbed at all, it was usually only because someone had a specific vision or reason that they needed to get to the top of those mountains. The mountains for the most part, were respected and avoided. People would use the rivers and travel in between, as best they could, the mountains. When you did get into the Adirondacks, unlike what we have here—like we just said, it's so different here in Potsdam—even though we're further north, the weather is warmer. When you enter into the mountain regions, you have to take pause. That causes you to observe more, listen more, and it has more of an effect on you as a person, once you have come through those regions. It’s more likely to have some sort of transformative effect. People seek out those places. I know we always did. We always did in summer. My father did a lot of writing in the camp we rented each summer on Paradox Lake. We would go there for weeks, sometimes months in the summer, to get that feeling of connection. The mountains there are close to you.
Joe: Yes, Paradox Lake's another example of a place we’ve spent a lot of time. I should add that there's this myth in white culture that Indians didn't climb the mountains because they were scared of the mountaintops. It wasn't a question of fear. It was a question of respect. You would have to have a good reason to go up there.
Jesse: You're using a lot of resources, a lot of energy, you're getting tired, you're risking your life. There's got to be a good reason to do it.
Joe: Yeah, you don't just do it for no reason at all. We find it amusing, indeed, when we climb in the high peaks ourselves, at the way some people approach it
People are trying to climb as many as they can in a day, or within three weeks, we're going to do all the peaks and become 49ers in the shortest amount of time. But I’m like "Why? What's the purpose?" If you're not going to do it with care and fully experience it, instead just check it off, run down the mountain and do the next one it doesn't make much sense to me. That idea of always being in a hurry may mean that nothing is present. You leave everything behind.
One of the things I admired about my grandfather, Jesse Bowman, who Jesse is named after, is he was always present in the moment. He was in that moment. That's where he was. It wasn't worrying about tomorrow or about yesterday as it was being where he was when he was there. That ability to really be present was the way he lived.
He was an "uneducated" man. He left school when he was in fourth grade because they kept calling him a dirty Indian. He jumped out the window of the one-room school house, and never came back to school again.
He would never talk much about anything being Indian, I think because he had that feeling that it was going to hold him back, or make people look at him differently. But he was very visibly Abenaki. People knew who he was, knew what he was. His practice in his life was to be extremely kind to everyone, especially children. He also was very trusting. He would loan out any tool to anybody who asked for it. He would give people credit for his little general store, people who never paid him back. Then when they came back he'd trust them again.
That is such a Native way of doing things. My dear friend Simon Ortiz, Pueblo writer from the southwest, is a wonderful, wonderful writer, one of the best and most important Native American poets. He wrote a story called "Howbah Indians," about a Pueblo man who came into a bit of money. So he opened a store, and on the side of it he wrote Howbah Indians: Welcome Indians. Everybody came to his store and got stuff, and nobody paid for it. Eventually he went out of business.
For years after, though, everyone talked about what a wonderful place it was. The Howbah Indians store. And that man was very satisfied about what happened, because he did basically that thing my grandfather always did. Trust and you're part of your community. You're not self-centered and trying to do things only for your own advancement or benefit.
Rick: If the Adirondacks are a meeting place of cultures, how do the various cultures, the various white cultures, the various Native cultures interact in North Country [1986 Anthology co-edited by Joe], Adirondack, Hudson Valley? 90% of the people in the anthology, at least, are white.
Joe: I would say that one of the things about that anthology, North Country, it was done at a time before a number of Native writers began to emerge within our region. There's certainly no lack of native writers, or people from other indigenous cultures who have been or are part of the Adirondack region.
I also think that you have to recognize that any anthology is never fully representative. Every anthology is what it is. It has weaknesses and its strengths. I was more interested in the regionality than in the ethnicity. I've never tried to judge people by their ethnic background, or by what their culture is. I very much appreciate the fact that we're aware and responsive to gender differences, to relationships in terms of power between different groups. As far as literary matters are concerned, I think we might sometimes take it too far, to the point where may make it seem that "representation" is the only thing. It's very important, but it is not the only thing. It's much wider than that.
Look at someone like Maurice Dennis, who was an Abenaki elder, who truly shared his Native culture, or at Tehanetorens/Ray Fadden who was fully adopted into the Mohawk nation, but was mostly Scots Irish. Ray influenced more than one generation of not just Native, but non-Native people. Melissa Otis, we mentioned earlier, said she was influenced by Ray Fadden as a child, and that's a major reason why she ended up writing the book she wrote. Or someone like Maurice Kenny can come along and become a beloved teacher to a couple of generations of college students—both Native and non-Native. Sharing can influence so many lives.
I think that’s deeply important. That sense of what you have is meant to be shared. I've always had the philosophy that you have to have your ears open, and not just listen to one direction, or listen in one fashion. In terms of the publishing we did with our Greenfield Review Press, we were doing multicultural publishing before the word was popular. I look back now at some of the things we did, and it's kind of amusing: we did an Asian-American poetry anthology, we did a Native American anthology, we did a prison writing anthology, and we did two anthologies of women's writing. We did an Asian-American women’s fiction anthology, and all these things we did were being done 10, 20, 25 years ago. The stuff was out there then. That's what gets me. These writers were not just appearing out of nowhere suddenly in the past ten years, but have always been there. One of the two great weaknesses of American and English literature, in general, has on the one hand been a blindness or a lack of hearing, a deafness to the voices of women. Which is very true, to the point where famous women writers had to write under male pen names like George Elliot.
The other weakness was a lack of awareness of ethnic diversity. A lack of openness to other voices. Yet, the voices, once again, have always been there. We only have to look in France, at Alexandre Dumas, who is perhaps the most famous French writers, and yet his grandfather was African. His father was known as the Black Count. He was a very important person. There are these things that people don't see and don't know. Anyway, I think that if we look at Adirondack voices, even those of white writers, they're influenced by a sense of land in place, which, in many ways, is quite indigenous. The New England farm or the Adirondack farm, in many cases, was the closest thing in its relationship with the land to what indigenous people have had. The idea is that everything comes from the earth, and you have to put things back in, in equal balance, to make sure you continue having crops. You're not throwing chemicals into the fields. You're not using huge machines. You're not using agribusiness. You're basically a closed ecosystem. An ecology that's wedded to the land.
A lot of Adirondack people who were non-Native, who may've had Native ancestry didn't talk about it. That same kind of relationship, it's there in their writing. In Mason Smith's writing certainly. I’m only mentioning, at random, as one example, but there are numerous others.
Jesse: Yet, technology is hard to fight. I don't know if I want to use the word 'fight.' I think the mountains can resist the heavy machinery in a certain way. In a certain way, because we go back to the robber barons of the 1880s. It's not like Iowa where you just pour tons of chemicals to mono-crop.
Joe: Mono-cropping. I think the Adirondacks has resisted that, too. I think it’s a place that resists that kind of approach, because of the geography, and because of the people.
Rick: For the Adirondacks, there is the tension between the Forever Wilders and those who would like 'to put a post in the ground' and who resent many regulations....
Joe: I think the one thing we have to understand is there's always going to be people who are going to be gatekeepers. I think a lot of the people working to protect the Adirondacks, including organizations like Protect the Adirondacks, are trying to be gatekeepers. There are people who are just trying to live. They may not have the leisure, or, quite frankly, the financial or the physical ability to be in that other camp.
I am very sympathetic to both sides. I think both sides exist in a balance. I think there is a balance, it's not a bad thing, but there should be extremes, as long as one extreme does not overcome the other to the point of everyone's detriment.
I know that, in our Native communities, there are certain practices. For example, hunting the whale, or hunting seals. Greenpeace and people who belong to PETA are opposed to this, are up in arms about it, still. I think that we need to be balanced. That word balance is sometimes hard for people to come by.
Jesse: The Abenaki drive for recognition emerged out of a restriction that was placed upon people in the North Country of Vermont, forbidding them to fish out of season, which they'd done for subsistence for years.
Joe: They turned what was originally Abenaki hunting, fishing, and trapping land into the huge Missisquoi wildlife refuge. There's actually places inside that refuge which are special ... I won't say specifically why ... but they're very important to Abenaki people, and they have been for generations, hundreds of years. Native people can go into those swamps that they knew better than white people do, much like the Seminole people can do in Florida. Then it suddenly became a huge federal wildlife refuge. That was one of the things that spurred the—
Jesse: Drive for state recognition
Joe: Yeah, government recognition of a community that knew it was Abenaki but did not have federal or state recognition as such. That fight went on for a generation-and-a-half. Jesse and Jim were part of the fish-ins.
Jesse: Some of them. The European American approach is not the Native approach. Native people weren't "preservationists" in any way. They were using the land and its resources fully in so many ways. These were ways that were fully sustainable, as well. Land wasn't something that was just pristine and left alone. It was something that you are one with. You are a part of it.
All over the country, we see land management that's far different from pre-contact. The lack of that, and the change of the environment when so many of millions of native people died from disease immediately upon contact affected and created this different world. Our ancient practices were abandoned, such things as seasonable burning, and maintaining beaver populations. The way the environment is treated now has really affected the entire climate of the planet. It’s made such an impact on the environment.
Joe: The little ice age was probably a result in the change in forest practices. Little ice age. Very interesting how that occurred. I mean when you consider you have this huge carbon recycling system with the forests, and that when the forests are being cut it affects everything on the planet. The idea of forever wild is a flawed idea. Nothing is truly forever wild, and human beings are part of the environment. But when human activities of constantly taking and never giving back become out of control, within that environment they become like a cancer. Within the indigenous culture, there's a continuous loop of relationships. For example, near where we live is a town called Burnt Hills.
Burnt Hills got its name because the hills were always blackened every fall from burning, A regular practice of the Native people was to burn the berry bushes every year in the fall. By burning the bushes, they were restoring a balance. The ash goes back into the land, provides fertilizer, while the eggs and the various pests that attack the plants are burned out. Then the next year the berry bushes would be very, very abundant.
Berry bushes began disappearing all over New York state when such burning was declared illegal.
Jesse: Right. Hunting, too. Hunting practices affect the populations of deer. Apex predators in the northeast have been removed for the most part, and hunting has been reduced. We have large numbers of deer now, as well as growing deer tick populations. These are problems, produced because we're not being active participants in helping to maintain that balance.
Joe: I majored in wildlife conservation at Cornell University. One of the famous cases I learned about is that of the Kaibab Plateau deer herd in the southwest. There, when they wiped out such predators as wolves and mountain, the deer herd grew to unmanageable proportions. There were so many deer that they were destroying their environment, becoming sick and undersized. More recently my son Jim has been very involved in observing this because he's a professional animal tracker and does a lot of work with Doctor James Halfpenny who works in and lives next to Yellowstone. He and Jim have written books on tracking together. Scats and Tracks of the Northeast in Falcon Guide Series, for example.
When the wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone, everything changed. Native plants began to reappear. The coyote population began to drop drastically, and the elk population began to become stronger, rather than weaker because of the presence of the wolf. That apex predator had changed things in a positive fashion, not a negative fashion. It wasn't like a wolf is going to go out there and kill everything, and murder your baby at the same time. The wolf is very much part of that environmental relationship.
What native people saw, and what I think a lot of Adirondack people see, is that we're part of this land. We have a relationship to it, and we're not necessarily destructive if we're hunting or fishing or doing something in the woods, such as cutting certain trees, or harvesting certain plants. Whereas if you say something is a forever wild forest, one that cannot be touched, eventually what it turns into is a dead forest. It gets more and more overgrown. There's not the variety, there's not the regenerative nature.
When Native people did sugaring in the spring, we called it cleaning up the woods. You were taking all the dead wood from that forest floor. You were using it to make fires to heat the stones that are dropped into the sap that had been poured into wooden vats shaped like dugout. The forest itself became clean. You can see, you can move around more easily in such a forest. If nothing like clearing away or burning dead wood is going on, it's so hard to walk through a forest. In a forest that hasn't been taken care of, everything dry builds up, and eventually it becomes a fire hazard.
That is one of the failings of a no burning policy. As I said, as Jesse said, an understanding of how a forest should be cared for is built into the language, in the words that describe forest, itself.
Rick: Is the 'wilderness' a place without people?
Jesse: We've always been there. There's a period where we weren't, though. The idea until recently was that nobody lived in the Adirondacks before Europeans settled there, that we just visited there at times to hunt. Well, many of the Algonquin people who were living in the Adirondacks either died because of disease, or moved elsewhere because they were driven out.
Joe: Then, there was a resettlement of the Adirondacks by Native people.
Jesse: There were places that were temporarily abandoned. That phenomenon of temporary movement is what caused most of the conflict throughout New England, where you hear about the "Canadian" Abenakis constantly raiding. They were actually coming down back into their homelands, where they might not have been for 50 or 100 years, but they had memory and the connection to those places. and were returning to them. In a similar way, in the Adirondacks they returned to places where there might now be a town—like Indian Lake, where Abenaki people have actually remained until the present. Sometimes they’d return to a place where, for example, our people would always come to fish and find a village here or men with guns saying you can't come back in.
Rick: Did the stories change as a result?
Joe: The stories often may reflect change. But I think the stories also remember things which existed before. Just as an ancient place name can remember something that existed before—and might exist again. I think that's very important to recognize, that stories can connect us to place. Just as some names that remain tell us about the place For example, the name Ontario comes from the Iroquois word Skanio-dai-yo. The Beautiful Lake. The names are there, remembering how it was. Within the Adirondacks, there are places like that. You hear a word like Saranac, which comes from the Abenaki word for sumac. Or the Abenaki word…..
Jesse: Deep, dark forest that's what it's from. Deep dark forest.
Joe: I think there are always new stories. There are also always the old stories as well. That's what I do as a writer. I draw on the old stories. I may create new stories. I may retell the old stories. That's what we both do. We try to incorporate the language, and to understand what the language tells us, for it often gives us a deeper meaning. One of the failings of non-indigenous writers in dealing with our stories is they don't know the language, and they don't know the history.
They may take a story in a certain direction, thinking they're telling the story properly, but they don't recognize that language, and experience, and culture are under there. Like that tip of the iceberg, you may only see part of the story, but the larger part of the story is not visible, it is deep underwater. There in the underwater world.
Jesse: I don't even know, and that's the thing you don't know as a storyteller. I don't know the language, really. I have a linguist I work with, Conner Quinn, I teach the language with him and, I mean he's always telling me things, like wow, that's amazing. I didn't know that, to speak your language, we don't understand things about English. Like last night, we were doing our program at the library and I had this gentleman who's a forester come up and tell me all kinds of things about the many uses of the inner bark of the white pine. You can dry and grind it to make a kind of flour out of it ... it's called the starvation food.. I just know that, in that story, the people used it because they were hungry. Then, to realize all these different uses of it. That is what the story keeps for us, and what the language keeps for us. It holds more than we may realize. When we lose our language, we lose connection to a lot of things that the language can remind us of.
Joe: Like Saranac, derived from the Abenaki word for sumac
Jesse: Salanaki—out of the sumac.
Joe: The interesting thing here is that sumac is the first tree that grows up when a village has been deserted. Often we have stories where it's said that sumac will grow where your village stands.
Jesse: It was literally a way of saying "your village will be destroyed." It literally means "the sumac trees are going to grow back." The trees will grow where your village stood. That's how you'd say doom is coming. A warning.
Joe: It connects back to a story about the dispossession of our people, the destruction of the village of St. Francis being prophesized by a beaver.
Jesse: The singing beaver story. The beaver sings that to the people of the village to warn them of a raid that's coming. There’s also a story where a Mohican says those words to the people to warn them of a coming attacks by American rangers.
Joe: Rogers Raid in 1759.
Jesse: The Mohican says the same thing. The same words. He says, I'm a friend. I've seen that your village will grow up back to the trees. You have to leave.
Rick: About the language and the sub-strata of oral to our forcing stories in a certain way?
Joe: Yeah. I am actually often informed by the story while I am creating that story, or remembering. We say that the land remembers, but we forget. We come back to a place, and that land has remembered things for us. Often I'll write something and not realize what I'm writing until it's written. Then realize I've told a story or said something that I didn't think I knew. I have a novel called Dawn Land that takes place maybe 10,000 years ago. Over the years since it's been published, numerous elders at various times have thanked me for telling a particular story they said they hadn't seen in print before. They didn't know I knew it. I'm going "I didn't know it, I just wrote it. It turned up that way, I have no idea why I did that, but there it is."
Jesse: There's a great story about our friend Kevin Locke. Kevin is a great flute player. Years ago when he was in Tama, Iowa visiting the Meskwaki people, he played what he thought was a new flute song. While he was there, he’d listened to the grass, the wind blowing through the grasses outside the community. As he listened a song came to him. He could hear that song in the grasses. But after he played that "new" song on his flute, Meskwaki people came up to him and said, "Oh, how do you know that old song of ours?"
Joe: I've heard from many, many different people, that animals and birds also remember things for us. They speak a language, and sometimes we understand their language that's telling us things that we didn't realize we'd forgotten. The meadowlark, for example, is listerned to closely by the Lakota people. They say it speaks Lakota. They say that a meadowlark may sing a song, and they will know what that meadowlark said. I have, on numerous occasions, found myself listening, and heard something in the wind, or in the song of an animal, or in just the natural environment. I hear it more in the Adirondacks than anywhere else. Maybe because I'm more attuned to it.
That's the other thing, too. Become attuned to a place, and you are of a place, and you feel yourself drawn back to that place. Dreams are very significant, too. I pay a very close attention to my dreams. When we were in Mexico spending time with the Mayan people, in the Lakoandone village of Naha, Chan Kin, the elder, who was then over 100 years old, by quite a few years, every morning wanted us to tell him about our dreams, what we dreamt. He would talk about the significance of that dream.
One morning I had told him I had dreamt I had a small dog, and that I sold the dog. He got very concerned. He said, "Oh dear. That may mean that disease is coming to you." Then he smiled and said, "But then again, maybe you're just going to sell a small dog." However, I got Leishmaniasis from the bite of sand fleas. I developed a sore on my ankle that took months to heal.
I went to doctor after doctor, no one could solve the problem. Finally, a Mohawk friend of mine, Trudy Richmond's husband, said, "Have you tried a potato poultice?" Because we use that for wounds. I just ground up a potato, put it on. It immediately started to dry up. Within a few days, it disappeared.
I learned later, that among the Mayan people, that was the remedy they use—potato poultices. It left a scar on my ankle, which for years looked like a small dog, sitting. It's not so visible now. It's kind of lost some of its shape, but it looked very much like a little dog sitting with a tail, and the feet here, and the head there.
The power of dreams. I’m reminded of another story which has nothing, again, to do with the Adirondacks. John Stokes is the founder of the Tracking Project, a very close friend of ours, and my two sons, Jim and Jesse both would spend summers with John out in New Mexico learning tracking and, when they were older, working for him as counselors. Long before we met John, he married a woman who is from New Zealand. On their honeymoon, she died of meningitis while they were in Australia. He stayed there for years, teaching in the aboriginal community college, and was taken under the wing of an elder called Uncle Jimmy Johnson, who is the most famous tracker in Australian history. He taught John a lot of things. Then said, "Now you've got to go home, because indigenous people, or the Native people back where you come from, they need to be reminded they have these skills." Joihn did just that. We met him shortly after his return to the states. In the three decades since he came back to America John has worked with indigenous people throughout the world, helping them recover or recognize their relationship to those indigenous skills of survival, which were environmental and traditional and social.
Anyhow, while John was still in Australia, it was arranged for Gary Snyder to come to Australia. John toured him around Australia. Everywhere they went, there were stories to be heard. Things were happening. They went to Uluru, Ayer's Rock. Uluru is what it's called in one of the aboriginal languages. It's a giant stone rising out of the middle of the Australian desert and has a cave in it. It's a very sacred place to aboriginal people.
Gary, being Gary said, "Well, John, what do you know about this place? What are the stories about it?" John said, "Well, there are stories, but they're very sacred. You have to be initiated within a particular tribal community. So I know none of them. But every time I come here, I have these dreams. So let me tell you about the dreams I've had."
He started telling Gary the dreams. However, in the middle of telling him about those dreams, people started appearing out of the bush, aboriginal men, listening to John’s story about Uluru. Finally one of them grabbed John by the wrist and said "Come with me." John was led him off into the bush with Gary Snyder watching and thinking, "What's going to happen to him?" After they were way back in the bush, they sat John down, they sat in a circle around him, and there was a long silence. Finally, one old man said, "Who told you the story?"
John goes, "No one. It just came to me in my dreams." Everybody immediately starts laughing. Oh, that is good, they say. But don’t you ever tell anyone else our story again.
Rick: Are there any taboo stories up here?
Jesse: A lot of ceremonial stuff that remains in the ceremonies. There are certain stories that are only told for certain occasions and reasons. I know that whenever my dad learns them, they are stories that you know are meant to be shared while there are others. . .
Joe: There are others that are meant to be kept. Remembered but not shared. Or just kept within your family.
Jesse: Or told at a certain time, for a certain occasion. Obviously the ceremonies that are poart of the Iroquois Longhouse tradition.
Joe: The idea of what you should do and what you should not do remains very strong in the Native communities of the northeast. There is a sense of decorum and proper behavior, as well as a bit more protectiveness these days, because of the disrespectful and intrusive things European Americans have so often done. Last year we were at the Onondaga Nation doing workshops in the Onondaga Nation school. I decided we should visit the cemetery, because several Onondaga friends of mine are buried there. We were in the cemetery walking around, when someone comes up to confront us, asking, "What are you doing here? People have been complaining about seeing strangers in our cemetery." I explained that I was looking for the resting place of one of my friends to pay my respects. It turned out he was the son of one of those dear friends, and he took us to her grave.