Saturday, March 8, 2014
"Wabanaki - Molly Muise, Mi'Kmaq", 2013. Image Copyright 2013 Scott Kelley, Courtesy of Dowling Walsh Gallery, Rockland, ME
In writing about Maine’s food sources I believe it is essential to look at the practices of those early Native Americans who inhabited Northern New England. In Maine there are a number of Indian tribes – we have the Wabanaki, a confederacy of Algonquin tribes, and other tribes stretching down the coast. Over the course of the next few weeks this blog will focus on the Maliseet, Micmac, Penobscot and Passamaquoddy, known collectively as the Wabanaki, "People of the Dawnland."
Helping guide this series is George Neptune, Museum Educator at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine. With Neptune’s help we will begin the Root’s Native American series with a look at oral traditions. While, as Neptune explained to me, many are fantastical in nature, he stressed the importance of understanding these stories as ways of understanding important historical events through a very specific cultural lens. According to Neptune, it cannot be said what the significance of Wabanaki stories is within Wabanaki culture, because each story has it's own significance.
Stories, or oral histories, were the primary source of historical information for Wabanaki people, as well as other tribes that did not use written language systems. Some, but not all stories, refer to what to eat, where to find medicine, the location and habitats of animals, etc. Other stories teach respect for elders, love for children, and the interconnectedness of all things.
According to Neptune, these creation stories are still alive and well in Wabanaki culture.
In his book Algonquin Legends, author Charles G. Leland references an inherent similarity between the myths and legends of the Northeastern Indians and those of the Norsemen. Would you expand on Leland’s thinking and how there are certain similarities between Norse mythology and Native American stories?
The only information I have on this is actually a piece of oral history from my Grandmother, so I do not necessarily have any scholarly resources to support this claim. However, this was something that I noticed myself and asked my Grandmother about, and she began talking about the Baring Strait theory of migration to the Americas. She said it was possible that that’s how some Natives got here, but not all. Several were already here, and others came from different lands. She then began to explain that the Wabanaki (or greater Algonquin) people, Celtic people, and Nordic people were once all the same people. However, as the world began to change and the group began to grow, we divided into three separate groups, and eventually became three very different cultures. However, there are still similarities, such as the ones Leland pointed out in the creation stories, to Nordic and Celtic cultures; all three creation stories feature a deity, his brother who is depicted as a wolf, stories of “little people,” and the idea of a “tree of creation,” which is specifically the Ash tree in all three cultures. Recently, I have been noticing articles online finding genetic links between the indigenous peoples of Northern Scandinavia and the Algonquin people, but unfortunately I have been unable to locate the articles.
What do Glooskap* (a culture hero, similar to a demi-gods) and Malsumsis (Glooskap’s brother) represent in Native American stories – good and evil, God and the devil? Why was Malsumsis given the “spirit” of a wolf? I am especially curious, because Glooskap then takes on two wolves for his “service.”
*Glooskap is also known as Koluskap, and in fact there are multiple spellings of both his name and Malsumsis name because of multiple writing systems.
Koluskap and Malsom, and I cannot stress this enough, do not represent God and the Devil. The idea of absolute evil is a Western religious concept, and not one present in the Wabanaki culture. However, this does not mean that aspects of light and dark are not present, nor does it mean the absence of people/beings that do evil things (like Malsom and his companions).
Wabanaki legends speak of a time when there was no difference between men and animals. People could change back and forth from animal to human form at will, and even take a state somewhere in between. So, a pack of wolves was not just a pack, but also a tribe of people. However, as people began to give in to this and that desire, they became frozen in one form of the other; some staying animals, and the others staying human. The word “totem” actually comes from the word ntotem, meaning “my relative,” which is only used in reference to an animal or a “spiritual helper.” So, perhaps both Koluskap and Malsom had wolf spirits (these spirits were not given to them--it was simply who they were). However, Koluskap’s “dogs” were known to be shapeshifters, and were often depicted as squirrels, so it is hard to say why wolves were his companions. Malsom, on the other hand, had the head of the wolf simply because he chose to. He was jealous of Koluskap, and made sure to be recognized as separate from his twin brother.
When Glooskap created the animals, he made them large. However, when he saw some were more powerful than men he made them smaller – like the moose – so the Indians could kill it. However, he let the bear stay big. He (and here I’m borrowing from Leland’s book) changed the sizes of the animals based on their lives and the answers they gave him when he asked each of them what they would do if they met an Indian. What is this story really about? What do they tell us – that he was all-powerful?
Koluskap did not create all of the animals. He did create some, and changed many, but did not create all (it is very important not to mix up the roles of Koluskap and that of the Creator/Great Spirit, for they are not the same). Many animals were “Koluskap-sized” when they were created (Koluskap was a Giant). When the Wabanaki were created, they were very small compared to other animals, so he began to change the animals that were dangerous. Bear was already “Wabanaki-sized,” so Koluskap simply shrunk his throat so that Bear could only eat very small things, such as berries and fish, and not Wabanaki people.
This story is not about Koluskap being all-powerful, because he isn’t. He is extremely powerful, but there are stories that have spoken of his mistakes. Koluskap is not only a deity, he is also a man, and so he has human desires and emotions. This story more closely relates to a time when animals actually were giant—specifically referring to megafauna. Scientific sources most often state that there was no overlap between human existence and the presence of megafauna on the earth, yet these oral traditions speak of many time periods that are now being supported by scientific research. The story of Koluskap defeating winter is now backed up in the archaeological record through the presence of a miniature ice age in Northern New England. Here, the presence of Megafauna on the earth is backed up by the discovery of megafauna skeletons, and not just Wooly Mammoths, but also mega-beavers and other animals. While it has yet to be proven that people were around to witness many of these megafauna, the knowledge of these giants of the past is alive and well within Algonquin oral histories.
You mentioned these stories are not just stories; they are descriptions of how landmarks were created – e.g. Moosehead Lake. Would you tell me a little bit more about this and about the general importance of these stories?
There is a story of Koluskap and the first moose hunt, which not only teaches Wabanaki youth what parts of a moose to eat, but conveys important directions to an important resource; Mt. Kineo, on Moosehead Lake, where chert can be found for making stone tools. It speaks of Koluskap and his dog, hunting a Moose and it’s baby. The mother moose turns to stone after being shot with the first arrowhead, becoming Mt. Kineo—she literally becomes the stone that she was killed with. Then, a trail is made in pursuit of the young moose, and when it is finally caught, the entrails are scattered about in such a way that they, too, eventually become stone. The story serves as a map, identifying certain geological features as parts of the story, ultimately leading the way to a resource that is important to one’s very survival.
This is just one example of how these stories are not simply myths or bedtime stories—they are ways of passing on important cultural knowledge to future generations, by means of interpretation through a specific cultural lense.
Were these stories ever documented on paper? Are there different versions of these stories?
Leland was one of the first to document these stories, though they can’t be considered as entirely accurate, as they are often translated, and absolutely interpreted from a Western Colonial perspective. Fanny Hardy Eckstorm also recorded several legends. There are many versions of these stories, because some parts of oral traditions change depending on who is telling them. Also, stories may be different between the tribes, sharing similar themes but sometimes-different plot points.
The focus of the Abbe Museum is Maine’s Native American heritage. If you find yourself in Bar Harbor take the time to check out their exhibits, and heads up!! – the museum will once again be holding its annual archaeological field school the week of August 3-8, 2014. Participants will work with Maine State Archeologist Dr. Arthur Spiess on the Tranquility Farm coastal shell midden site in Gouldsboro, Maine. Field school participants will conduct excavations, practice mapping the site, and learn about the analysis of artifacts. Should be an incredible opportunity to learn about Maine’s Native American heritage, pottery, farming…For more information go here.
Sharon Kitchens is a neo-homesteader learning the ins and outs of country living by luck and pluck and a lot of expert advice. She writes about bees for The Huffington Post and stuff she loves on her personal blog, deliciousmusings.com.
When she is not writing, she enjoys edible gardening, reading books on food and/or thinking about food, hanging out by her beehives and patiently tracking down her chickens in the woods behind her old farmhouse.
In her blog, Sharon profiles farm families, reports on farm-based education and internships, conducts Q&A's with master beekeepers, offers tips on picking a CSA, and much more.