Digitizing Tribal Newsletters

As I look forward to the third Indigenous New England Conference tomorrow at UNH, I’m especially interested in speaking with Paul Pouliot, Sagamo of the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki people, based in Alton, NH.  From 1993 until quite recently, the band was regularly (i.e., quarterly) publishing Aln8bak (Abenaki Indian) News.  Like many community newsletters, it includes notices of social events, obituaries, updates on tribal decisions, plus cultural features like book reviews, language lessons, and pieces written by tribal members.

In New England and beyond, tribal newsletters are an important source of history and literature.  When I was compiling Dawnland Voices: Writing of Indigenous New England (forthcoming from the U of Nebraska Press), many of the tribal editors mined their store of newsletters for poetry, creative nonfiction, letters, recipes, and more.  Cheryl Watching Crow Stedtler (Nipmuc), started Nipmucspohke in 1994, just a year after the first issue of Aln8bak News.  Many regional tribal publications are much older.  The first was probably the short-lived Narragansett Dawn, published in 1935-36 by Princess Red Wing.  In Maine, the Wabanaki people had a variety of newsletters and newspapers, from the Aroostook Indian, run off a mimeograph machine in Houlton, Maine, during the 1990s, to The Wabanaki Alliance, a full-sized newspaper that run during the 1970s and 80s.

Most of these are not yet digitized (an especial shame in the case of the Maine newspapers).  Even when they are available online, as in the case of the Narragansett Dawn or Nipmucspohke, they’re usually only scanned and uploaded in pdf, which means they’re not searchable, sometimes not very readable, and not really suited to long-term preservation and archiving.  In the case of the Aln8bak News, issues from 2003 to 2007 are posted on the band’s website.  They contain information on Abenaki history–including the band’s reorganization in the 1990s, its maintenance of connections to relatives outside of New England, its outreach to prisoners and activism within the state of New Hampshire–that are simply not readily found anywhere else.  As such, they’re great teaching tools and important historical documents.

If the Cowasuck Band of the Pennacook Abenaki People–and other tribal entities–feel it is appropriate, the work of transcribing and indexing these kinds of newsletters would be an excellent, long-term project for university students.  Over time, we could build a large, visible archive of regional indigenous periodical history.


Mihku Paul’s first chapbook

It’s a beautiful thing that Bowman Books is now publishing regional Native titles faster than I can review them.  I had been eagerly awaiting Mihku Paul’s first book of poetry, and it’s now out: 20th Century PowWow Playland.  You can order it here.

Paul is Maliseet, an enrolled member of the Kingsclear First Nation in New Brunswick, though she grew up in Maine, near Penobscot homeland, and lives now in Portland.  She’s a visual artist as well as a poet, doing colorful medicine wheel paintings like the one on the cover of 20th Century PowWow.  She did an MFA in creative writing at Stonecoast, and an exhibit for the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, which is where I first heard of her.  “Look Twice: the Waponahki in Image and Verse” juxtaposed some of her most powerful poems with historic photographs of Wabanaki people from Maine and the Maritimes.

It was a pleasure to watch this book grow; if you have any opportunity to invite Mihku Paul to your school or library or other venue to give a reading, she’s a magnetic performer.  The poems from “Look Twice” are carefully amplified and revised in this sparkling volume (given extra gloss, I’d like to note, by a UNH PhD student, Michael LeBlanc, who is really a remarkable editor).  The ordering is striking.  The first poem, “Echo of Multitudes” begins in Maliseet homeland, the Wolastoq (St. John River) watershed:  “Picture this.  Great rivers snake through a forest; water road, traversed in season, straining and/swollen at ice out, moving endlessly to the sea.”  Paul returns again and again to the river motif; along the way, she moves between imaginative reconstructions of her ancestors’ lives, and grittier explorations of contemporary realities: racism, suicide, community trauma.

I love many things about these poems: their sheer music, their incandescent colors.  But I think one thing I love best, having seen “Look Twice,” is how Paul can seem to liberate the spirits within an image.  The old photos she has studied so lovingly can seem, as she says in the collection’s title poem, colonized and frozen by the “rigid lens of history, a dangerous weapon.”  But the poet has such imaginative empathy, such strong identifications, with those figures that she suggests a very strong sense of a Wabanaki “we.”

Mihku Paul maintains her own website where you can learn more; if you have any taste for academic reading, I published an essay on her poetry and Alice Azure’s  earlier this year in MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literatures of the U.S..

A New Digital Anthology of Regional Native Writing

This is a fairly academic (but short!) piece I wrote for an NEH Institute of Digital Humanities, which I attended last summer at the University of Denver.  It serves as an introduction to the digital anthology that my students, some Native collaborators and I have started.  The anthology will always be a work in progress, but it’s especially fledgling now, so all comments are most welcome!

This project sits squarely within the new movement calling itself #transformDH. From the standpoint of what are often called “diversity” concerns, digital scholarship and projects have tended to follow fairly predictable patterns. In my own field, literature, the most visible and best-funded projects began with canonical (#deadwhite!) authors: the Rosetti Archive, the Blake Archive, the Whitman Archive. Close on the heels of these, to be sure, have come new projects informed by critical ethnic and gender studies, including some pursued in our IDH workshop: Angel Nieves’s Virtual Freedom Trail, Leo Flores’s work digitizing Puerto Rican collections, Charles Foy’s history of eighteenth-century African-American mariners.

Still, only very recently have scholars working in critical ethnic and gender studies started to coalesce within DH, to articulate how this work challenges or confronts the field’s establish(ing) parameters. Alexis Lothian (English, Indiana University of Pennsylvania) described the rise of #transformDH in a Winter 2011 essay for the Journal of Digital Humanities, just months after the American Studies Association hosted panels devoted to diversity and DH. Some scholars, like Lothian, were concerned that DH has ignored the “many politicized queers and people of color engaged in scholarly work in and out of the academy [who] do use digital tools and think critically about them and even create them.” Others, like Moya Bailey,(Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies, Emory University) worried about deeper, “implicit assumptions about what and who counts in digital humanities as well as. . .structural limitations that are the inevitable result of an unexamined identity politics of whiteness, masculinity, and ablebodiness.” Since then, Adeline Koh (Literature, Richard Stockton College) has been cyber-rallying #transformDH scholars who want to interrogate these politics.

Writing of Indigenous New England started with a conventional print anthology: Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Writing from Indigenous New England, forthcoming (2013) from the University of Nebraska Press. I edited this tome, which runs 600 pages long, with 12 tribal community consultants: elders, scholars and historians who selected, annotated and contextualized a wide range of indigenous-authored texts, from early petroglyphs to contemporary blogs. Long before we submitted the final manuscript, we started feeling the limitations of print: we wanted a living document able to expand (in response to both new historical findings and new literary production), to change (in response, again, to new findings about historical accuracy, or new community-driven questions about texts), and to stimulate (and include) new debate and conversation. It seemed obvious that a digital platform, and the crowdsourcing made possible by such platforms, would only enhance our work of literary collection, editing and interpretation.

With few resources immediately available, we have started with Omeka.net, tailor-made for this kind of project. Tribal collaborators have chosen texts they would like to see included, and UNH students have done the work of uploading these items, describing them, curating them, and then re-submitting them to the consultants for approval. Our first full “exhibit,” a partnership with some local historical societies, basketmakers, and the Mt. Kearsarge Indian Museum, focuses on Abenaki baskets, and asks readers and viewers to consider nonalphabetic forms of literacy as part of indigenous literary traditions. Future exhibits will be initiated by external partners, not (top-down) by me or my classes. If future funding appeals pan out, I hope to offer training for tribal historians and writers to use Omeka so they can load their own documents remotely and independently. For this phase, we’ll form an advisory board and develop an explicit, indigenous-centered protocol for intellectual property rights, using, for instance, a licensing system like the one attached to the wonderful new Mukurtu platform.

As I teach at a public institution that ranks among the lowest in the nation for state support, and that is experiencing cutbacks that are nothing short of frightening, I have been thinking a good deal about the unfortunate tensions that seem to be arising between digital humanities and ethnic studies. When programs are on the chopping block, ethnic studies and related programs are always the first to go. Meanwhile, the very word “digital” brings the dollar signs to university administrators’ eyes. Some of their support might be for genuine DH; more seems to be driven by some bizarre fantasy that as the e-courses flow, so will the cash (Coursera’s attrition rates be damned). But either way, all parties concern will need to be newly attuned to issues of social and economic injustice. Our “own” Angel Nieves has insisted that when it comes to diversity in DH, access and inclusion aren’t enough. How can DH projects help build capacity in disenfranchised communities? How can they create closer promixities between people with privilege (including some university students and professors) and people without (including un- or under-employed community members with historic knowledge and skills)? Can DH pull against, or offer creative responses to, the radical upward re-distribution of resources we are currently witnessing in the academy?

Trace DeMeyer and Blue Hand Books

Trace DeMeyer, who lives in western Massachusetts, has been an important figure in the regional Native literary scene.  In the late 90s and early 2000s she was an editor at The Pequot Times, the excellent paper published out of Mashantucket.  She still freelances for News from Indian Country, keeps several blogs of her own (linked throughout this post), and Tweets Native news at ModernNdn.   With all of her media savvy and vast network of connections, DeMeyer recently started Blue Hand Books, a new e-publishing collective well-positioned to support established and upcoming Native authors, who are often frustrated by more entrenched publishing houses.

Hot off Blue Hand’s e-presses is her own poetry chapbook, Sleeps with Knives (just over $5 at amazon).  Writing under the pen name Laramie Harlow, DeMeyer revisits and expands some of the traumatic personal history she explored in One Small Sacrifice, her painful memoir of growing up as an Indian adoptee. As in the memoir, she recounts unspeakable abuse (“When I got to the house,/ dad said ‘the whore is home.'”) as well as resilience.  The poem “willow” concludes:

Now, as I choose,

I am safe within my own walls,

alive in my body, strong as a willow,

as wild, as free.

Sleeps with Knives is also a book about Indian travel, about the determination to connect with place and people even when geographic dislocation is forced or undesired. There are “tales of wisconsin” that root her childhood home among “Anishinaabe friends/ and their sacred songs.” There are song lyrics written in 1980 for her band, Sardaukar, in Washington State.  And there are many poems about flight.  One in particular seems to sum up DeMeyer’s unique ability to capture both movement and community.  The “Swallow Manifesto” declares, “We do not recognize laws, divisions, fences, borders, countries, counties, states, presidents, governors, police, park rangers, scientists, paramilitary or queens. . . .”  It finishes by issuing “Your orders: Migrate. Fly.”

In this sense, DeMeyer shares quite a bit with writers like Alice Azure (Mi’kmaq), who describe some all-too-common Native experiences of rupture, dislocation, and re-connection.  Most of the writers I cover in this blog belong to tribal nations indigenous to New England; and many of them celebrate centuries-old connections to their homelands.  But DeMeyer was out-adopted; she identifies as Tsalgi (Cherokee)/Shawnee/Euro and is not, at present, living in Cherokee or Shawnee territory.  And yet she demonstrates an utterly fierce commitment to identifying and building community across tribal, ethnic, and geographic lines, while giving voice to so many indigenous people who have experienced healing as well as trauma in diaspora.  That is experience is every bit as much a part of Native life in New England (and elsewhere) as are stories about ancestral homelands, baskets, waterways, and the other varied themes explored by the writers named in this blog.

A Penobscot Musical in the Making

Last Monday, May 21, I was lucky enough to get up to Orono to see a staged reading of Donna Loring’s musical play, The Glooskape Chronicles: Creation and the Venetian Basket.  I love visiting that UMaine campus: between its proximity to Indian Island and its strong Wabanaki Center, it has a vibrant local indigenous presence, and Native events like this one are well-attended, community gatherings.

In fact, this play was partly an outgrowth of a really nice collaboration between Margo Lukens, a professor in the English department, and William S. Yellow Robe, Jr., (Assiniboine), one of the preeminent indigenous playwrights working today, and a frequent writer and teacher in residence at the university.  Lukens and Yellow Robe have been doing community theater with local Penobscots for a couple of years now, and out of that work, something incredibly exciting is emerging: a new literary tradition of Wabanaki drama.  (In addition to Loring, a talented young woman named Maulian Dana also has a play in the works.)

One of my students guest-blogged here last summer about Loring’s impressive memoir of her years in the Maine state legislature.  Now “retired,” Loring is working full-bore on writing and other media productions, through her new nonprofit, Seven Eagles (and that link is really worth visiting, because you can see a trailer of Glooskape, as well as descriptions of Loring’s other projects).

Glooskape opens on three contemporary Penobscot women at a camp deep in the Maine woods: Hazel and Georgia have moved out there to try to live more traditionally and simply; their friend Jane, a Vietnam veteran, is visiting.  The women share their knowledge about the old ways, but the scenario is thoroughly modern, and the dialogue often hilarious, as the women outwit a pushy game warden (deliberately mispronouncing his name “Jeckin,” the Penobscot word for “buttocks”), and tease Hazel’s grandson Little Bear, who also comes for a visit.  These visits prompt Hazel to tell creation stories of Gluskabe, the Wabanaki trickster/culture hero; when, midway through the play, she learns she is terminally ill, her storytelling takes on extra urgency.

Though Glooskape is still a work in progress, and still in search of a composer, the staged reading suggested plenty of places where song and dance will enhance not only the stories, but also Loring’s innovation.  During a talkback after the reading, Loring noted that in her research into the Gluskabe tradition, she learned that these stories were often sung.  So she is not thinking (necessarily) of a “musical” in the Judy Garland or Glee sense, but as a way of updating and revitalizing Penobscot tradition.  In this sense, Loring’s play is like the Venetian basket referenced in her title and on the poster.  Made by Maliseet Medicine Man Charles W. Solomon, the basket was made out of Venetian blinds, as a comment on how Wabanaki people can adapt to a future–one in which trees are under very serious threat–while still keeping their traditions and culture alive.

What I took away from that was that this “first Penobscot musical” could shake up my expectations of musicals, of theater, and of Native American representation. . .while still being eminently, vitally Penobscot.

For news and updates on The Glooskape Chronicles, watch the Seven Eagles website!

Deacon and Lewy Sockbason, early Passamaquoddy writers

Last night, at the Windows on Maine site, I ran across this early-19th-century penmanship sample from a 15-year-old Passamaquoddy student, Lewy Sockbason:

The sample is tucked into an 1828 report from the Reverend Elijah Kellogg, a Protestant missionary who ran a school on the Pleasant Point reservation for six years.  Kellogg was much enamored of Lewy’s father, Deacon Sockbason, whom he considered one of the “good Indians” willing to embrace “civilization.”  Deacon Sockbason, of course, was more complicated than that.  Often recalled as the first man to live in a wood-framed house at Pleasant Point, he was literate, and fluent in English, French, and Passamaquoddy.  Tribal historian Donald Soctomah says that Sockbason worked on a number of important negotiations for the Passamaquoddies.

To get at early Native American writing (like the Lewy Sockbason penmanship exercise), you often have to go through white missionaries, administrators, and agents; which is usually a depressing venture, because it flushes out so much racism, subtle and not-so-subtle.  William Henry Kilby, whose 1888 Eastport and Passamaquoddy: A Collection of Historical and Biographical Sketches has (inexplicably) gone through several reprintings, met Deacon Sockbason, and says:

He could read and write, though his spelling, as shown in the sample in my possession, was rather imperfect; and he had been to Washington to see the President.  He considered himself the greatest man in the tribe, and was continually trying to impress others with the idea of his dignity and importance. On special occasions, he wore a coat of startling style. Years ago, on one of my visits to Pleasant Point, looking over the fence of the little burial-ground I saw a rift of split cedar standing in place of a headstone, bearing in rude letters the inscription, —  TIKN SOKEPSN.

This has been on my mind for the last 24 hours: the “rude” lettering on the allegedly uppity senior Sockbason’s grave, set against his son’s exemplary penmanship, circulated as an example of successful “civilization.”  The nasty assumptions about why Indians should or should not write, and where and how they got it wrong; against the real reasons Indians pursued literacy, and where and how they got it right.

The Passamaquoddy reservations in the 19th century (and later) were grievously poor, because, as the Abbe Museum explains, the state of Maine–illegally, and continually–sold off and leased tribal lands and resources without distributing the profits to Native people.  Those resources included timber, a theft routinely protested–in writing–by Passamaquoddy leaders including Deacon Sockbason, and later Lewey Mitchell, the tribal representative to the state legislature in the 1880s.  Donald Soctomah’s archives include this petition from Deacon Sockbason, demanding that the State stop depleting fish and timber and return Passamaquoddy lands:

Your friends further state that they are in great want of a piece of woodland for the purpose of getting wood in the winter for the use of the elderly Indians, their women, and children, as they live on a point of land called Pleasant Point where they cannot procure wood, as all the woodland for the distance of thirty miles is owned by private individuals.

Not exactly the words of  a tool of the colonial powers.  The fact that Deacon Sockbason lived in a wood-frame house, then, was not what his white neighbors thought.  Settler colonists including William Kilby and Henry Thoreau were unnerved by literate Indians in wood houses: they found such people pitiful, tragic, assimilated.  But Sockbason was clearly trying to ensure that his own people had access to their own resources.  Kellogg tells a story of how the local priest tried to bar workmen from bringing a frame for a workshop ashore at Pleasant Point; Sockbason intervened, and the workshop was built.

Now I want to know more about Deacon Sockbason and his son, including how Lewy thought about his identity and homeland as “Quoddy” when he demonstrated his perfect penmanship.  Sockabasins (with a variety of spellings) at Passamaquoddy have included many fine writers, including the poet Mary Ellen Socobasin and the memoirist and children’s book author Allen Sockabasin.


An open bibliography of regional literature

Here is a link to my bibliography of regional Native American literature, on which I’m eager to entertain comments and suggestions!

I have been building this bibliography in Zotero, a tool I really can’t praise enough.  Designed by the geniuses at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, it is a free, open-source citation manager that really puts others (EndNote, RefWorks) to shame.  Zotero is not only a cinch to use*; it was designed with the express aim of allowing scholars and readers to share their work in progress.  In this interesting podcast, historian Dan Cohen talks about one of the impulses behind the design: he recalled a moment when, as a graduate student, he entered his dissertation adviser’s office, and the professor rapidly fired off a list of the top books, articles and archives he’d need to consult to become an expert on his topic.

Why, Cohen wondered, should anyone have to learn a secret handshake to get at this kind of knowledge?

Further, (Siobhan wondered), why would a scholar think that she could assemble a definitive bibliography of anything all on her own?  If there is one thing I’ve learned while reading, teaching and researching about Native American literature, it’s that so many interesting works fall through the cracks, and are likely to be missed if you adhere only to the usual channels (mainstream publishers, large library databases).  You find a great deal more by visiting local communities where Native people live–browsing local shops, libraries and historical societies; and, most of all, talking to people who either own or remember that old volume of poetry from the 1930s, now long out of print.

Taking a bibliography like this online has the power to expand those conversations even further.  So I am eager to hear from readers, writers, and fans of this literature: what’s missing?

*for academics: honestly, I could cry thinking of the hours I’ve wasted, assiduously typing in source information to my own bibliographies and re-formatting articles for publication depending on individual journals’ demands.  Zotero automatically grabs all the publication info for you and stores it in an iTunes-style window;  it lets you drag and drop those citations across new bibliographies and into your Word Documents; and it automatically generates Works Cited pages for you.  This is the kind of work computers were supposed to save us. . . .