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. . . .

Early Native Writers on the Web

I’ve been absent from this blog for a couple of months, because I have been absorbed in a new class on early Native American writers.   My students and I are reading much of this work online where we can find it, because one goal of the class is to start assembling a digital archive of regional Native writing.  There is nothing quite as fun, or as humbling, as sitting around a computer lab with 30 incredibly smart 20-year-olds as they hunt through and evaluate this material, so I thought I’d start sharing some of it here.

A lot of digital literature projects have tended to adhere fairly closely to the canonizing practices of print books and anthologies.  In other words, it seems, the first authors to get archived in cyberspace are usually those already considered “major,” like Walt Whitman, William Blake, William Shakespeare, and so on.  So it’s no real surprise that THE two most studied and taught early Native authors are also the most accessible online:

Samson Occom (Mohegan; 1723, 1792)

Dartmouth College has begun digitizing some of the documents in their extensive collections of Occom papers, with a focus on Eleazar Wheelock and his other students.  This is unfortunately not the most user-friendly interface: the documents are scanned in jpeg format only, not transcribed or text-encoded, so they’re not particularly searchable (nor, in some cases, very readable).

A more readable, more fully contextualized approach is given on the University of Maryland’s Early Americas Digital Archive, where Heather Bouwman and her students at St. Thomas University in Minneapolis have transcribed and edited just two of Occom’s sermons.  If you really want full access to Occom’s writing, with ample footnotes and explanatory contexts, it seems you still have to go to print: The Collected Writings of Samson Occom, Mohegan, edited by Joanna Brooks, is still indispensable.

William Apess (Pequot; 1798-1839)

Apess’s writing is much more widely available online, and in a variety of formats, too.  His published works all show up in the Internet Archive’s Open Library, a wonderful project that offers several different editions, and makes the text available in a wide variety of formats (pdf, plain text, etc; you can even export to your Kindle).  My students were enamored of the ability to read the book online, where the site has a high-quality replication of the original and lets you actually “feel” like you’re turning the pages.  They also liked that you can search for a term in the book (e.g., “savage” or “Christian”) and get a “timeline” of the word’s occurrence at the bottom of the screen.  Additionally, the Open Library also has some very good index functions: you can, for instance, click on “Mashpee Indians” and see links not only to other books on the subject, but also a timeline showing the publishing history on that topic (at least within Open Library selections), which can be very illuminating.

A favorite Apess text for digitizing, it appears, is his Eulogy on King Philip, and you can get some decent historical contexts for it from sites like the Voices of Democracy Project.

In my next post I’ll discuss some of the less-known texts and authors my students are looking at in cyberspace; but I’m also very interested to hear from readers: what Native literature have you found online?  what are your favorite formats?  what would be on your wish list for an online archive of Native writing from New England?

Carol Bachofner’s new book is here

Abenaki poet Carol Bachofner’s new book is out!–thanks to the inimitable Joe and Jesse Bruchac (Abenaki), and their publishing venture, Bowman Books.

This is Carol’s fourth book, and in many ways the most overtly “Native” (raising the whole question, of course, of what makes poetry “Indian.”  I have heard Carol say that if she wrote that shopping list, it’s an Abenaki shopping list.) 

Daughter of the Ardennes Forest (2007) was a slim but powerful chapbook honoring her father’s military service.  Breakfast at the Brass Compass (2009) paid tribute to a favorite cafe in Carol’s hometown of Rockland and the landscapes nearby.   I Write in the Greenhouse (2011), also place-based, contains more poems about Maine and its people, including Andrew Wyeth and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

Bachofner likes themed collections, and in Native Moons, Native Days, she turns to her Abenaki family, history, culture and language.   With her permission, I’m posting this sample:

We Speak the White Man’s Language

except when dreaming, except when our fingers
braid hair, weave blankets, knot bait bags,
when we are praying in Indian. Work brings words
from the belly, the soles of the feet.
Words walk the woods where our relatives
burned the way forward from camp to camp,
trading stories with people along the way.
We speak in our own tongues, syllables full
of consonants, echoing from the back
of the throat to the nose, to the wind.
Our words are a clearing, a place for fire.
Where did the language go when the black robes
threw holy water on it? Did it disappear
when the switch was on our backs? Into the trees,
into the streams, into our wombs to wait.

I’d like to invite anyone who’s interested to join a discussion of Native Moons, Native Days in our Indigenous New England reading group on  We can start after the New Year, though the group’s discussion remains on goodreads for as long as people want to keep reading and posting.  Carol herself has been known to show up there!

You can learn more about Carol on her own website.  Happy holidays!

Nov. 24: National Day of Mourning

What the United States calls “Thanksgiving,” indigenous people call the National Day of Mourning.  In 1970, when the state of Massachusetts invited Frank James/Wamsutta (Mashpee Wampanoag) to speak, he hit them with this:

It is with mixed emotion that I stand here to share my thoughts. This is a time of celebration for you – celebrating an anniversary of a beginning for the white man in America. A time of looking back, of reflection. It is with a heavy heart that I look back upon what happened to my People.
             Even before the Pilgrims landed it was common practice for explorers to capture Indians, take them to Europe and sell them as slaves for 220 shillings apiece. The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod for four days before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors and stolen their corn and beans. Mourt’s Relation describes a searching party of sixteen men. Mourt goes on to say that this party took as much of the Indians’ winter provisions as they were able to carry.
             Massasoit, the great Sachem of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers of the Plymouth Plantation. Perhaps he did this because his Tribe had been depleted by an epidemic. Or his knowledge of the harsh oncoming winter was the reason for his peaceful acceptance of these acts. This action by Massasoit was perhaps our biggest mistake. We, the Wampanoag, welcomed you, the white man, with open arms, little knowing that it was the beginning of the end; that before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoag would no longer be a free people.
             What happened in those short 50 years? What has happened in the last 300 years? History gives us facts and there were atrocities; there were broken promises–and most of these centered around land ownership. Among ourselves we understood that there were boundaries, but never before had we had to deal with fences and stone walls. But the white man had a need to prove his worth by the amount of land that he owned. Only ten years later, when the Puritans came, they treated the Wampanoag with even less kindness in converting the souls of the so-called “savages.” Although the Puritans were harsh to members of their own society, the Indian was pressed between stone slabs and hanged as quickly as any other “witch.”
             And so down through the years there is record after record of Indian lands taken and, in token, reservations set up for him upon which to live. The Indian, having been stripped of his power, could only stand by and watch while the white man took his land and used it for his personal gain. This the Indian could not understand; for to him, land was survival, to farm, to hunt, to be enjoyed. It was not to be abused. We see incident after incident, where the white man sought to tame the “savage” and convert him to the Christian ways of life. The early Pilgrim settlers led the Indian to believe that if he did not behave, they would dig up the ground and unleash the great epidemic again.

There’s more.  James’s full speech continues to be widely circulated on the internet, and on this day every year, the United American Indians of New England gather Native people together at Coles Hill, overlooking Plimoth Rock.

John Christian Hopkins and Trace DeMayer: 11-11-11 e-launch!

With a wink to today’s Mayan Apocalypse, John Christian Hopkins (Narragansett) and Trace DeMeyer (Shawnee/Cherokee) are launching an indigenous e-publishing effort.  DeMeyer’s new company, Blue Hand Books, is unveiling Hopkins’s latest novel, Twilight of the Gods, in electronic format.  Get it on your Kindle, or read it on your computer in Adobe.

Both journalists, Trace and John worked together in the early 2000s on the Pequot Times.  Since then, both have (mainly self-published) interesting books.  One Small Sacrifice (2010) is Trace’s brave and heart-wrenching account of her experience, all too common in Indian country, of being adopted out of her Native community.  (NPR recently ran a much-praised series on the continued widespread removal of Native children from their homes, in direct violation of the 1978 Indian Child Welfare Act).

John has also written about painful Native histories, but parlayed these into imaginative genre fiction.  Carlomagno (2003) made the son of Wampanoag leader Metacom, sold into slavery in the West Indians, into a dashing, swashbuckling pirate.  Nacogdoches (2004) brought the Ringo Kid to a small racist Texas town ruled by Boss Kilgore.  In Twilight of the Gods, now, it looks like the paranormal has caught his attention.  I asked John a few questions about the book (you can find a more extensive interview–and more information about e-publishing for indigenous authors–at the Blue Hand Books link to the right):

S: What prompted you to publish this book electronically?

J: I jumped at the idea of working with Trace DeMeyer, a friend whom I have great respect for, on her Blue Hand Books venture. I’ve been reading how ebooks are the future and been thinking of a way to get involved in that.

S: What’s the book about?

J: Jaded tabloid reporter Napoleon Marquard is off to the Pine Ridge reservation to cover what he sure is a fake “unicorn.” But mysterious events start coming to light from across the globe; reports of savage monsters, hideous beings and “gods” from every civilization throughtout time. The more Marquard learns about the Mayan Long Count Calendar, the more he believes the world is facing theend of days — the Ragnarok, the Twilight of the Gods!

S:  That’s wild!  Each of your novels has been so inventive and different–a swashbuckling tale of King Philip’s son on the Spanish Main; an anti-racist Western; and now a fantasy novel.  Have you tried mainstream publishers, and if so, why do you think they haven’t been more receptive?
J:  I can paper a house with the rejections from traditional publishers! I’ve come so close to being published, but it always seemed to come apart for some silly reason beyond my control. A manuscript that I haven’t published yet deals with King Philip’s War. A now-defunct publisher liked it, asked to see theentire manuscript and then rejected it because they said the names of my Indian characters sounded too fake, “like a John Wayne western” they said. Ironically I pointed out to them that I am a descendant of the main character, King Ninigret. But they made up their minds. The main Indian characters were all real people. Another publisher sent a western out for a peer review and they voted 2-1 against publishing it — and both cited the same reason, a lack of footnotes! I told them it was a work of fiction, but no one listened. It seems like publishers make up the rules as they go and for whatever reason I always seem to fall through the cracks.

Mohegan Medicine Woman Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel

The Mohegan Medicine Woman writes speculative fiction.  How cool is that?

Although still quite young, and incredibly busy with other work, Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel has published several books, some of them out of print and hard to get (sound familiar?): a short tribal history, The Lasting of the Mohegans (1995); a history of her family of Mohegan women leaders, Medicine Trail: The Life and Lessons of Gladys Tantaquidgeon (2000); and, with Joseph Bruchac, a children’s book, Makiawisug: The Gift of the Little People (1997). 

More recently, Zobel has been working quite seriously on fiction (she already has a Master’s degree in History but has also undertaken an MFA in creative writing).  Two novels feel like they should be part of a trilogy: the futuristic Oracles (2004) and the Victorian Gothic Fire Hollow (2010).  Both are set among the fictional Yantuck tribe, whose land, people and traditions look quite a bit like the Mohegans’; both follow young medicine people in training; and both read like environmental histories/omens.

In Oracles, the last casino has gone down in flames (literally and figuratively).  With deforestation nearly complete, some of the elders are left stewarding the small stand of surviving trees, and worrying that their medicine plants have become less abundant and effective. Meanwhile, busloads of children and New Agers trek up Yantuck Mountain to try to see or take what they can from traditional ecological knowledge and spirituality.

As though adding GIS layers into a map of Native space, Zobel visits the Yantucks in an earlier period in Fire Hollow.   Young Wolf Weekum is sent to school with a mysterious schoolmaster; I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but will say that Zobel plays with a local legend of one Jeremiah Shumway, who was murdered and fed to local hogs.  Both books show Native people (especially Native medicine women) keeping their traditions alive while keeping up with cultural changes, and both are really witty and imaginative.  There are a few good Native writers starting to work with speculative fiction (especially Daniel Heath Justice, who’s Cherokee), but I don’t know of any novels quite like Oracles or Fire Hollow.

If you’re motivated to read either one of these books, please join our reading group on   I hear Zobel is working on a young adult novel now; I also hear she is going to be reading from her work, along with several other interesting local writers like Larry Crow Mann and Joan Tavares Avant, at the New England American Studies Association conference on November 4 in Plimoth.

Carol Dana (Red Hawk), Penobscot Poet

A book I’ve loved for years is When No One Is Looking, by Carol Dana (Penobscot), writing under the name Red Hawk/pipikwass.  My friend Margo Lukens, who teaches Wabanaki literature at the University of Maine up at Orono, turned me on to it.  This beautiful little chapbook was first published in 1989 by a tiny outfit called Little Letterpress in Knox, Maine, which also published a great book by another Penobscot poet, ssipsis, called molly molasses and me.

Both of these books are now out of print, and it makes me crazy that I can’t assign them in my classes–at least until now, because Joseph and Jesse Bruchac have once again come to the rescue and re-issued When No One Is Looking through Bowman Books.

Carol is highly respected in Maine for her work in Penobscot language revitalization and education.  Perhaps because language is so important to her, she has a wonderful sense of sound, often smoothing indigenous words, place-names, and surnames into her lines:

Kthadin, Pamola, Atahando

Atteam, Susep, Nicola

Were people on the move

Who laughed, loved, cried and died

Over eons of time

We’re forever grateful to be

from Molasses Molly, Swasson, Susep

Francis, Neptune and Dani.

There are poems here about broken homes and loving ones, about past traumas and present successes (like the tribe’s Katahdin 100 spiritual run), about depression (“a stillness/ and loneliness/ I haven’t been able to shake”) and gratitude (“I must say we have been fortunate/ To have reached out, loved and shared/ in a way uncompared.”)

And there are powerful poems about powerful women–women raising children, struggling with deserting partners, women who “stand strong, stand together,” and at least one enigmatic grandmother who drives the poet to learn her native language:

Pensive in her rocking chair

stiff and straight faced.

The hard line of her mouth

I would wait to see crack

To know what was inside.

Sometimes I felt I should hide

from her sternness and harsh ways,

Although there were many days

she would talk and smile with her friends. . . .

Little did I know the ladies joked about having fun, teasing, and sex.

They talked about human qualities,

What the neighbors said or done.