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Interview with Joseph Bruchac [1]

Bruchac, Joseph [1]
Gardner, Susan
Date of Interview: 
Native Americans; Indians of North America; Storytelling; Mali tribe; Dogon tribe; Abenaki; Translating and interpreting; Jesuits; Fur Trade; Kiowa; Delaware Indians; St. Francis Abenaki; Iroquois; Haudenosaunee; Onondaga; Chinook; Indian Health Service; Indian Education; Native Authors Distribution Project; Qualla Boundary Reservation; Duwamish; Suquamish; Chief Seattle; A Message from Chief Seattle; Walum Olum; Lenape; Wampanoag Indians; Native American Ministry; Legends; Indian tradition; Native North American Indian
Joseph Bruchac III, of mixed Abenaki and Slovak ancestry, is one of the best-known Native American writers today. Not only is he a prolific author of poetry, young adult and children`s fiction, and essays, but he is also a publisher and distributor, and a free-lance storyteller. In his interview, Bruchac describes how authors and scholars often misinterpret or alter the original meaning of many Indian tales. He believes some authors set out with preconceived notions of how Native American life was hundreds of years ago and today. Bruchac encourages those who study Native American people, history, culture or traditions to try to understand these elements of Native American life before embarking on missions to relate these to the public. The author goes on to give many examples of the negative effects these skewed stories have had on people`s perceptions of Native American life. Bruchac, along with his sons, is trying to educate the public on the real practices and stories of Native American life. He does this through his numerous books and by traveling the United States of America as a professional storyteller.
Native Carolinian Indian Elders Collection
Collection Description: 
This project, originally sponsored by the American Indian Heritage Council of Charlotte, Inc., collected and preserved the life stories of Native North Carolina Indian people. Interviewers for the project were Dr. Susan Gardner, Associate Professor of English at UNC Charlotte and Vail Carter.
Interview Audio: 
JB (Joseph Bruchac): Sure I would.
SG (Susan Gardner): And this also just came out and this is a, I wish I could give you the book, but they only gave me one. [laughter] So, but this is about four and a half years of teaching Native American literatures at UNC Charlotte. Yes, it's sort of (semi-) in verbage about (theory) so I spend a lot of time reading in verbage about post-colonial ( ) and then I finally get them to ( ) so--
JB: Right.
SG: [laughter] it's, it's not what I would have written spontaneously but it's ( ). Anyway. Your plain reading or something. [laughter]
JB: ( )
SG: But--. And there's so many things we could talk about and probably some other time--. But I was thinking--.
JB: (It worked out really well) so much to do this film. So little to do and so much time.
SG: [laughter] That is a horror when you think about it.
JB: It is worse.
SG: That would be much worse. Would you tell me a bit about how you became interested in storytelling, and reaching children, and also what your audiences of children are? Are they largely Euramericans? Do you work with Native Americans as well?
JB: I really became a storyteller because of my own children. My two sons, Jim and Jesse, are age twenty-seven and twenty-three now, and when they were very young I thought that storytelling would be the best way that I could be with them. Because when a child hears a story, I later realized, that story goes into them so deeply it may stay there for their entire life without their really knowing it's there. I also told stories to my children because I had been told and because I had experienced through my grandparents who raised me that non-violent childrearing, non-abusive childrearing, means listening to your children and sharing with them what you believe. When a child does something wrong, instead of hitting the child or ridiculing the child, or calling that child names, to tell them a story is one of the strongest ways to get across that message that they really need to hear. Even though they may not recognize at the moment what the message is. It may come out years later. So I would tell them stories every night. In fact, my son Jim, who's twenty-seven, as I said earlier, is just writing an introduction for a collection of essays and exercises drawn from the Returning the Gift Festival from 1992. He and Lee Francis are editing his anthology, which is designed to be a teaching guide for creative writing for Native American students of high school age. And in it he starts his little introduction by talking about how every night he could hear my typewriter, he and his brother could hear my typewriter going. When they weren't hearing a typewriter they were hearing me tell stories. So it just seemed a natural part of life for him, that Native people would tell stories, and that Native people would write. That was what he grew up with. So looking back on that, I think that is the reason I became a storyteller, without knowing it as clearly as I know it now. To pass on to my children and to other children those lessons that you need to help you be a full and complete person in a culture that's constantly taking away those things that make you full and complete. The audiences that I have for storytelling are as varied as human beings are. I do storytelling programs in native schools around the country. I've been a sort of "storyteller in residence," as they call them, at the Onondaga Nation School in New York State for many years. I go there almost every year, and they'd like me to be there every year, to do storytelling workshops with the kids and to do storytelling performances. And I do programs in schools in European-American middle-class suburbs where there are no people of recognizable ethnic minorities.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: And I do programs in schools in areas where the ethnic mix is largely Spanish-American, or African-American, something other than the Irish, white middleclass school, and yet I find the same responses in all of these groups, the same response from the heart. They might not physically respond the same way. The native kids might be quieter, the African-American kids might be, at one level, seem a little noisier.
SG: [laughter]
JB: But when the story begins everybody becomes quiet and becomes part of the story. When the story ends, you can see in their eyes that something has happened. So I think a story, and storytelling, is one of the places where that universality of our human experience can come together. I just did a program today for a group of eighth grade students--very, very mixed racially. And I told a traditional story that I think now it's hard to track down where it came from because it's told so many places and I've heard it told in several different Native languages. The gist of the story is that a boy finds a rattlesnake frozen by the side of the trail. It's not yet dead, and the snake says, "Pick me up, warm me, or I'll die." The boy says, "But if I do that, you'll bite me because you're a rattlesnake!" The snake says, "No, trust me, I will not bite you, you have to save my life." So, of course when the boy warms the snake up [claps hands sharply], it bites him. The boy drops the snake and says, "Why did you do that? You said that you would not hurt me!" The rattlesnake's response is, "Well, when you picked me up, you knew I was a rattlesnake." Now that story is being used in drug and alcohol counseling
SG: Is it?
JB: with Native kids, and when I told this story at the school there was immediate recognition. And I pointed out such things as one: be sure you know what you're dealing with, just because someone says you can trust them does not mean you can trust them; and don't think that you will be the exception; that these things that are dangerous will not harm you--such as drugs, or alcohol. And after I'd finished the program, kids were coming up and talking to me, and one was a young girl who was a eighth grade student who was Chinese-American. And she came up very excitedly and said, "You know, in Chinese culture there's a very similar story, about an old man." And so we talked a bit. And you see those places where cultural crossing takes place, where one culture's specific story touches a lesson into another culture, is also what storytelling is about, because there are no new plots.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: They're all old plots, but there are always new stories because it's not the plot that makes the stories, it's the telling of the story
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: that makes it. Those specific details which are unique to a particular culture or way of speaking of the world, of seeing the world, make that old story become real. So you can find story motifs scattered all across the American continent, and we find similar lessons. Stories bring that circle together, but they are uniquely part of particular cultures. And that's another thing I like about storytelling, that it is a way of giving us a window into another culture, another reality. But it's not intrusive. That is if someone chooses to tell you a story,
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: they have chosen to help you see the world as they see it. And maybe--I find this happening all the time--they want to help you to correct your own misconceptions or your own bad behavior. One thing I tell people in talking about Native American storytelling, Native storytelling is that jokes are part of Native storytelling, too. When you're ever around a group of Indians and the jokes start getting told, listen close, because often those jokes are lesson stories. And it may be they're telling them for your benefit, because they you, one: to know something about them, or two: to tell you in a non-intrusive way that you've been doing something incorrectly.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: That joke will remind you that like coyote who comes and eats all the food at the feast, you've done something which is incorrect and that by hearing the story you may be able to correct your actions. So there is another place where I find stories of great use because they are not an intrusive way of telling someone the things they need to know and correcting people who are doing things that they probably ought not to be doing. Of course, one problem we face with Native American storytelling, with Native stories--something I wrestle with all the time--is making sure that when we use a story outside of our own particular Native culture--and, of course, there are hundreds of different living Native cultures--that that story is one that you are using correctly; that you know enough about it. The best way to do it, which I haven't always been able to do, which I try to do as much as possible is to deal with living members of that particular culture who know that story. And that gives you an insight into it. For example, words in another language might mean very different things. And those words translated might seem to be understandable, but in fact the root of the word is something quite different. For example, when people were translating the Bible into Abenaki, they thought they were translating it into good Abenaki language because they were using Abenaki translators to put it in. There's one passage in the Bible that my son Jesse, who's fluent in our language and teaches a course in Abenaki, pointed out to me. And it's very amusing because it was plain that this Jesuit priest was writing it down and asking for words from the Abenaki interpreter who spoke pretty good French. He gets to this one phrase and writes down a word. It's there in Abenaki still in the Bible, and the word reads, literally, "I don't know the name for that, but I will ask my uncle."
SG: [laughter]
JB: So you have to know the language too and where the language comes from to understand what you're hearing. So to get back to my original point, a lot of things, even things that are studied in great detail by ethnographers, even things that we regard as well-collected texts that were put into print by non-Native people in the 1800s and early 1900s, in many of those there are problems because they're problems of interpretation, problems of lack of knowledge, or even problems of coercion. There are a lot of cases where someone might be forced to tell a story, in various ways. They might be giving them a bottle of alcohol to get them to do it, they might be paying them and they desperately need the money. Or even, I've heard of instances where people were physically abused, tied up, and beaten, and told, "Now tell us this." And not just on this continent. I was in Mali two years ago visiting the Dogon people and they were willingly sharing stories with myself and my son, Jim, as part of a project called "Handprints," which has documented Native traditions of prophecy and the natural world as a message for the future. And I was working on bookend of this (foot) project. We're actually videotaping it. And I discovered while I was there that one of the well known French writers about the Dogon, a man named Griaule, G-R-I-A-U-L-E, had got almost everything wrong that he wrote about the Dogon. And that his book, Conversations with Ogotemmeli,
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: apparently was made up by Ogotemmeli; no one else in Dogon culture ever heard of any of the things that this old man said. He was really kind of a trickster.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: But as Walter Van Beek, the Dutch anthropologist who's worked for these people for over eighteen years, told me, "It may not be true, these stories of Griaule tying up and beating his informants if they did not tell what he wanted to know." And Walter said, "No. It is true." So that level of different varying levels of power,
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: that, that sort of experience that Native people have often had with non-Native Westerners with greater military power, greater financial power, and greater social power, would lead them to tell stories that, one: might be incorrect, or two: might be stories that they did not really wish to share.
SG: Uh-huh. Sacred stories.
JB: Sacred stories. So it's--, at some place we all have to tread very carefully, including those of us who have Native ancestry and those of us who do not have Native ancestry. And I constantly let people know that I am always open to help, and suggestion, and that I'm just as capable of making mistakes as anyone. The danger is when you don't accept the fact that you can make mistakes.
SG: Uh-huh. I was thinking about what you were talking about, about translation and when I study that ( ) example given, given that ( ) "blessed be the fruit of my womb, Jesus" apparently comes out sounding very different
JB: Oh yes.
SG: and get a big laugh out of it. [laughter] And that was one example that, that I've encountered. I wonder if ( ) some others? This may be a bit of a sensitive subject and it's one in which I have a great deal pagan-like ( ), but would you be willing to comment on The Little Tree fiasco?
JB: The Little Tree thing is very interesting. To begin with, I liked that book when I first read it, I suppose in part because I was raised by my grandparents.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: And I can really relate to a story of a young child being raised by grandparents. It's something we need to hear. And I also like some of the other messages in the book it seemed to be very truthful; the messages of racial understanding, about caring for little ones. But when I read it even the first time I wondered about certain aspects of it, which struck me as a little strange.
SG: Like his having no other relatives.
JB: Like his having no other relatives. And then some of the language didn't seem like real Cherokee to me, like "talcon." I mean, that's "falcon," but it's not a Cherokee word. He says that's a Cherokee word for "hawk." I believe that what happened with that book is this: I think that Asa Forrest Carter probably believed a lot of what he wrote in it. But what he did was to create a fictional autobiography. He took details I think from his real life, probably his real experience with his grandparents, and boyhood, and broadened them. And did a good job of storytelling. I think that it's entirely possible too that the racist politics that characterized his earlier life, where he was a speechwriter for people like George Wallace and embraced racist segregationist politics, maybe as an older man he no longer believed those things. Because some of the characters he portrays in that novel are black,
SG: Yes.
JB: and are very admirable. The picture of the Confederate war veteran
SG: Uh-huh. On the farm.
JB: and the black man working the field, the two crippled men working together to make one person, is a very moving picture.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: So I'd like to think that, like many people who have been bad at one time in their life, that Forrest Carter was trying to really do a good thing with that book later on. I also believe there is some Cherokee ancestry in his family. It seems pretty likely that there is less than he speaks of but there is some. The fact that his brother says that they are not Cherokee doesn't mean much because I know loads of families where half the family is Indian and the other half says no, they're not!
SG: [laughter]
JB: That's a typical experience in America. But I, I agree with Geary Hobson in his assessment of the Cherokee aspects of the book. Geary says that a lot of them are just plain made up. And I think Geary's quite right. There are imaginative constructions of an ideal childhood rescue by elders of the little boy. And if we can take it at that--,
SG: The abducted child.
JB: yeah, the abducted child theme, the child raised by bears, and it's the old story in the Cherokee tradition, the Iroquois tradition, the Abenaki tradition. So I think that in a funny way, through inventive re-inventing of himself, Forrest Carter found this way to a mythic reality that touches people. And I think the mythic reality touches people.
SG: ( ) because this is a tragedy (in some ways) but thank you for doing that for me. ( ) construct this (sense) version ( ) with the view that singular individualism, which is so very western in the story. I remember how dismayed I was to find it for sale at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian on the Qualla Boundary,
JB: Oh sure.
SG: for example. And isn't there another one, a later one, that takes place out in Oklahoma ( ) some of that? ( ) Cherokee Indian. I, obviously I, have to look in to that.
JB: Well Forrest Carter had something like four books published in his lifetime. One is called Great Upon the Mountain: the Story of Geronimo. It's a novelized story of Geronimo's life which is fairly accurate. The other one is The Education of Little Tree, that's number two. Number three is a book called, which became The Outlaw Josey Wales,
SG: Yes. Yes.
JB: And Gone to Texas was the original name of it. And then the fourth one is called The Vengeance Trail of Josey Wales, which is a sequel to The Outlaw Josey Wales. Carter died before he wrote the second half of his autobiography, which was to continue his life from the time he left his grandparents to his adulthood and what would have happened I don't know. And unfortunately Carter's life ends before he completes his planned work. And it would be interesting to see what direction he took in it, or how Carter himself would have responded had he been challenged.
SG: Yes, yes.
JB: But I remember being in Colorado with Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: Peter was talking to me about how he wanted to develop film project based on The Education of Little Tree.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: And this was exactly one month before the article appeared in Time magazine.
SG: [laughter]
JB: I said, "Peter"--and I knew this before--I said, "Peter, let me tell you. I think you should back off of this book." I began to explain. He said, "Oh, thank you very much." [laughter]
SG: Indeed. [laughter]
JB: But it's another one of these cases where I think that, with good intentions, people have used Native culture, but that they haven't really given a Native view. They've given a romanticized picture. And you can take this to a much worse extreme in books like Indian in the Cupboard.
SG: Oh yes. And, and--. The other one will come to me in a minute. ( ). Oh. It's the--never mind, you go on talking. I will--.
JB: Yeah, something like Indian in the Cupboard for example is a book that turns an Indian into a diminished, savage little doll.
SG: Yeah, this little ( ) character.
JB: Yeah. And I cannot imagine--I've said this a hundred times--could you imagine a book called "The Jew in the Cupboard?"
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: It doesn't sound too good, does it? And I often ask people, "Do that with a switching routine, instead of 'Indian' or 'Native American', let's take switch some other ethnicity and see what we do, how we feel about it." Because Indians are commonly used as icons and symbols, including for the environmental movement.
SG: Indeed.
JB: Instead of being seen as living, breathing, complex, flawed at times human beings, rather than sort of picture postcards. We're either perfection on the one hand or ignorance and savagery on the other. So The Indian in the Cupboard I think of as a very destructive book. And it's interesting because it tries to teach good lessons for children, such as, one: responsibility, two: caring for those weaker than yourself, guiding them in ways that can avoid conflict, and yet it does it at the expense.
SG: It affirms the little British boy's future imperialism.
JB: Yes, at the expense of people and it gives us another picture of imperialism. And I saw a letter written by the author of that book to Beverly Slapin whose book Through Indian Eyes contains a very useful critique of that and a number of other books. And the author of the book basically said that she had a perfect right to do whatever she wanted to with those characters, and after all that's sort of what Indians were like back then, anyway, before they were civilized. And this, this, you know--.
SG: It was an Iroquois too, wasn't it? An Onondaga?
JB: This is an Iroquois. And remember, Iroquois people were going to France, in the 1600s. Remember, northeast Native people were graduating from schools like Harvard University.
SG: Giving commencement addresses.
JB: Giving commencement addresses, and writing in Latin. And she had the nerve to see that as a true picture of how Native American people really were in the 1700s. It's a very sad comment on some of the holes in British education.
SG: Another one that distresses me and I find it in every school library--is Brother Eagle, Sister Sky. I was wondering what your take on that is?
JB: I have a whole talk that I give called "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Images of Native Americans in Children`s Literature." And Brother Eagle, Sister Sky is an example of a book, again, like some of these others we were discussing, I think had good intentions, but falls short in so many ways. Of course, it's again into this environmental icon. To start off with, as we all know, that was not what Chief Seattle really said. Because you had the Chinook who's first ( ) speech was translated from Duwamish to Suquamish into Chinook, which is a jargon with a limited language, a pidgin language. And then from Chinook translated into English. And then not written down at that time, but written down from memory years later by a man who was himself a minister, who had his own way of seeing the world in terms of Christianity. And then, of course, he went back years later and visited Chief Seattle and talked with him, trying to get the right version. But let me tell you, knowing what translation experiences are like, I can just imagine the setting of him going to visit Chief Seattle and having two or three people involved in translation, and then writing down, not necessarily what was said, but what he heard. So there's one problem, that, that terribly bastardized text. The second difficulty comes in the images that we see in that book. The images for example, the first image in the book is the see-through Indian, a ghostly Indian kind of wafting through the forest. And the last image of an Indian is another see-through Indian, blessing a white man with a little boy and a little girl, so--
SG: Yes, against that devastated landscape.
JB: Yes, against that devastated landscape, which is supposed to stand for renewal. And I'll get to that in a minute. So here's our two images of Indians to begin and end. They don't exist, they're ghosts. You know, people love the Chief Seattle speech, like the "I will fight no more forever" speech, because it's a giving up speech, "It's OK, it's in your hands now."
SG: "Take good care of it, folks"--
JB: Yeah, right. "For you for failing hands we throw the cross but yours to raise it high." It's like "Flanders Fields" all over again! Inspiring people to go to fight in World War I. So, here we have that. Then the second problem with Indian images in there is they're all combined; the dress, the clothing, the hair, the decoration on the horses is a mishmash of many different styles all from the Plains. We have a birch bark canoe in there, too. So we have all these different pictures, not a single wooden canoe, which of course is what those sea-going people would have on the west coast, those Salmon People. Then we get to another aspect of the book, which I find interesting, and that is its lack of understanding of natural history, the botany of the book in particular. I was a major in wildlife conservation at Cornell University, so I've been a stickler for accuracy about the natural world. Just from that point of view, much less the fact that when the native cultures/people are very aware of the various parts of the natural world. I mean, Native people knew the interior of every animal. They knew every plant and how it was used, they knew it by name. Within this book we see a group of Indian children playing in a field full of beautiful flowers. They're Californian poppies; the California poppy's an intrusive, introduced plant which is crowding out the useful roots in medicine plants which are eaten for food and for medicine in the northwest. It would be the equivalent of having a happy, smiling Dutch child in a field, not of poppies, but of poison ivy. The last image in the book shows what I think was intended to be an image of the future, renewal and so on, where this man, and the children, are now planting trees behind what is clearly I would call a Weyerhaeuser tree farm. Monocropping. One kind of tree, planted in rows with clear cutting next to it. That makes me cry because first of all, when you clear-cut the northwest, you devastate the landscape. Secondly, biodiversity is vital within any forest. And I can tell you as a matter of fact that once you plant thousands of the same tree, you're inviting in disease. You're inviting in all kinds of problems and also, many of those tree farms including here in the American South, and in Maine, they're saturated with chemicals to prevent insect infestation. The result is nothing can live in them except the trees: no birds, no animals, virtually no insects, even microorganisms are fewer in the soil in these monocropped plantations. And that was the image that was chosen to convey a picture of renewal. So the book is flawed even in its title, Brother Eagle, Sister Sky. No one calls the sky "sister" in all of Native North America. It is the father sky and the mother earth, if there's any kind of description in terms of family. And as we know, the rain comes from the sky, and the plants are all from the earth; the rain fertilizes the sky, which gives birth. So to call that "sister sky" is just completely a misunderstanding; although it sounds pretty, like a lot of things that are being made up to be ersatz Indian. It sounds pretty, but it ain't true.
SG: Have teachers been asking you for advice here, like what books do you find acceptable?
JB: I have been in a number of schools over the last ten years talking about how to find material. In fact, one thing that we do--this sort of developed out of that desire for good material--I used to go to pow-wows and do story-telling programs and I started carrying around some of my books and then books by other people, other Native writers because I found most people didn't know what existed, including other Indians.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: So we started--my wife and I--a little project that we called the Native Authors Distribution Project and we bought, at discount, and sold at the cover price, books by Native authors. And finally a couple of years ago my twenty-seven year old son Jim took it over. This Native American Author's Catalogue, Native North American Author's Catalogue, which lists hundreds of books with very detailed descriptions by Native authors, authors of Native descent, including some cassette tapes and it is meant to be a resource for teachers. And a lot of schools, including Indian schools, use this to stock their libraries.
SG: That's wonderful. I'm glad the Indian schools that (are funded ).
JB: Oh yeah. We get a lot of orders from Indian schools for these. I'm just hoping that there will be a level of support that is guaranteed, and that treaty relationships between the United States and Native communities, that level of support is being challenged by illegal actions on the part of the United States Congress.
SG: Yes. Uh-huh. Yes. Yes.
JB: And they are illegal actions. They're breaking treaties. And Indian Education is one of those agreements, in return for giving up the land, millions and billions of acres.
SG: I think it's terrible. ( ).
JB: Exactly.
SG: --public schools ( ).
JB: It's a terrible thing: the Indian Health Service, Indian Education, a lot of these things. We're in a time where a lot of people in power can't see tomorrow. They can barely see today. And because of that, we're doing things that are hurting everyone. You see, that's another thing the stories remind us; stories remind us to have a long view of things. They see things as a circle. And if you break that circle, it's disastrous. You have to maintain the circle. And the circle includes everyone and everything. And you have to see things as my Haudenosaunee, my Iroquois friends say, in terms of seven generations. Not just what will happen now, not just what will happen in one year's budget or one four-year presidency, but in terms of seven generations from now. If we thought in those terms, as the stories tell us to, a lot of the things that we see now that are going on, they would not be there. And I think that another thing about our traditional stories--I say "our" in the broadest sense of human beings, not solely Native people, is that our traditional stories are a result of thousands of years of experience. They're very scientific, scientifically related to this land. So that if a story tells you something, listen to it because that story is wiser than you are. It knows more than you do about the lesson it's giving. You can't make contemporary stories that have the same deep impact as these very ancient tales that have been passed on, whether it's for seven generations or seven thousand generations. As long as they've been passed on, they've lasted because they record the people (for our sake and). I think that the image of the Indian as sort of a mystical environmentalist is ridiculous.
SG: That's what many of my students tend to see, along with drugs, beans, guns, pistols. You know, the whole bit.
JB: It's not, I mean there is indeed a great deal of spirituality, but I regard it as practical spirituality,
SG: Rooted!
JB: rooted in the knowledge of what really is, not what ought to be. And that environmental practices in Native communities--although some people are trying to say they didn't exist.
SG: Uh-hum. I've seen some the--.
JB: We're getting a whole revisionist, revisionist theme of how "Oh no. Indians weren't really environmentalists, they were just killing everything. In fact, they killed the buffalo, we didn't.
SG: Oh that one I have yet to see. Oh.
JB: And that's being said, you know. And of course there's of course Calvin Martin's the Keeper of the Game that says he's deliberately gone to war as the game animals and tried to wipe them out because they had believe the game animals brought disease upon, was brought by the Europeans. Totally fanciful. There's no basis for anywhere in our oral traditions or in fact in real history, especially ( ).
SG: [Inaudible Speech] ( ) what were people thinking of that they would come up with that resolution ( ).
JB: They don't. And our stories don't but Martin takes it as a thesis and then tries to prove it, so that you have in fact, environmentalism as a practical way of insuring survival.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: That's all it is. And there are some people who are deeper thinkers than others who saw the spiritual basis for this. But not all Native American people are spiritual, though we're supposed to be. Although I have a lot of friends nowadays who feel kind of forced to behave or to speak in a spiritual way, and they would much rather tell a joke, which may in fact be more spiritual than some of the stuff that they're expected to live up to. It's, it's a very ironic position that Native people find themselves in now. They're required to be the image of an image that was created about them.
SG: ( ).
JB: Oh yes. I mean, I grew up with a lot of Native people around me, in two ways. One, I grew up in a little town called Greenfield Center, NY, raised by my grandparents. My grandfather was visibly Indian but called himself French Canadian. And all around us there were families of people who were Indian, who wouldn't talk about being Indian. It's only now in this generation their children and grandchildren are talking openly about it. But, you know, for 50 or 100 years, everybody kept quiet about it. "Hiding in plain sight", that's what my sister, Marge, calls it. And the other Indians that I saw were really Indian people playing Indian for tourist attractions. They were some of my friends and teachers later in life. I knew them as little children. I'd go to places like "The Enchanted Forest" and see Chief Maurice Dennis, who was actually an Abenaki and later became a very dear friend and a real teacher of mine.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: You know, in "The Enchanted Forest," in the "Indian Village" or I'd see "Chief Swift Eagle"-- who was not a chief, nor was Maurice, they were called the "chiefs"--in "Frontier Town," in the "Indian Village." And Swiftie, as all of us who dearly loved him called him, was Pueblo and Apache, and also became a friend and a teacher, later on in life.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: I mean, I could name a half dozen people like that I met in my childhood. They were all Indians forced to play Indian. They did have indeed a great deal of knowledge of tradition and a lot of them were trying the best way they could to get it across to an ignorant public. Well, I'll never forget "Swift Eagle" sitting down there in the little "Indian Village" next to the bear cages, by the archery range, watching the cowboys swoop down from "Fort Custer" on the hill each day, at eleven in the morning to go through the, over to "Frontier Town". That is an image of what a lot of Native people have had to deal with.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: And that's one of the images that I want to counter, in my writing and in my storytelling. To give people a chance, on the one hand, to hear the real stories, and then, through fiction and poetry, to tell some of those painfully real stories that combine the old and the new. I think that's very important for all of us to do. I think that the best Native writers, including brand new writers like Susan Power
SG: Uh-huh. Yes.
JB: and Sherman Alexie, have a real grasp on that, that difference between phony tradition and real tradition. And that experience of living and being a real Native person, or a real Native culture, is essential. With your feet only towards--.
SG: [laughter] Indeed. Have you read Shakespeare and the (witchcraft, fiction)?
JB: Yes, I think I still own the essay, The Universality of the Witches. Oh yes! He did write too. Those witches. You can't listen to them. [laughter]
SG: And her being advised to go back and consult with her own elders--because she had clearly misunderstood the stories--that they would tell it to her again.
JB: It's really a wonderful example. Actually there's a book called Greener Pastures by Alice Marriott.
SG: Yes.
JB: It's about her, her young years in working with the Kiowas and others and she tells how at one point they were trading stories and so she told the story of Beowulf.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: They loved it! They'd never heard it before. And years later another anthropologist collected a version of Beowulf along the Kiowas it seems this strange parallels that the European version proving the universality of this story. And of course they were still telling the story that Alice Marriott had told them years ago.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: It's a lovely little inversion of these stories we're telling. In fact, getting back to the Dogon and Griaule, one of the things that you'll see on things like "Mysterious Universe" or "Secrets of the World," or whatever, I mean one of the schlock TV shows that talk about strange things that are known around the world is that the Dogon people believe they came from outer space.
SG: Oh did they?
JB: And they came from Sirius
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: and they know that Sirius, the Dog Star, is a dark companion and there's no way they could know that because you can see it without a high-powered telescope. You know so this is proof that they really came from outer space. I mean there's a whole, whole thing; I mean Griaule got very much into that, all those chariots of the gods.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: Their granaries were actually space ships. All this sort of crazy stuff. Well while I was in Mali, I was asking Walter Van Beek, who was apparently there for fourteen years, what he thought about that. Then I talked to some of the elders who explained that the reason they know--of course they have no knowledge of the space ship and the stars aren't really that important to them except one or two of them help deciding when to plant certain crops--the reason they know Sirius has a dark companion, and when they've been interviewed, I've seen interviews with them, and oh yes, it is said that Sirius has a dark companion. It is said. That's how they quoted them. Incorrect information. It is said, yes, but who said it to them first? Two French astronomers
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: who were visiting them about twenty years ago, told them that Sirius had a dark companion. They said, "That's interesting. These white men must know because they have a lot of knowledge."
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: "So we will put that into our knowledge. Now we know that it is said that Sirius the Dog Star, has a dark companion."
SG: [laughter]
JB: So there's all the sort of things that people want to hear become a part of tradition that's not real tradition. I can give you one very good example. It's a recent, a recent one. I am forgetting--. Drat. I am forgetting the name of the person who just wrote this essay, but it's a complete unmasking of the Walum Olum.
SG: Oh really.
JB: The Delaware Walum Olum, which is supposedly the Bark Records
SG: Yes.
JB: or the (tapis) that tell the story of the migration of the Delaware people. And by consulting the Delaware people, by example the Delaware language, by going back into the history of the guy Rafinesque, who supposedly found these and translated them. He's proving it's a total fake. The whole thing was painted by Rafinesque. Things in the language are totally ridiculous. And knowing Abenaki, and looking at Lenape, I can see that doesn't make sense. Verbs are incorrectly conjugated; words are put together where it wouldn't be put together.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: And things like mentioning names of people more than once, among the Delaware tradition and knowing that no one had the same name as anyone else. (There would always be renames.) What Rafinesque did was to make this whole thing up to prove the Indians came across the Bering Strait. And here almost two hundred years ago, this huge forgery convinced enough people that many Delaware people today think it's real. And Nora Dean Thompson, who is a Delaware elder, often said that Walum Olum was just a bunch of mish-mash.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: We don't believe in that and we have nothing like that in our tradition. And this New Jersey Historical Society, it's most recent issue had really wonderful expose of that. It's a marvelous essay and I have the citation of the essay at home. In fact, some Delaware friends of mine from Oklahoma gave it to me when we were doing a program up in Indiana about three months ago, two months ago. But that's another example of so-called tradition, which was brought to the world by a non-native person
SG: Uh-huh. [laughter]
JB: without the help of any native people at all! And this essay finds all that sources that Rafinesque had. There was a dictionary of Delaware that's put together incorrectly; even the misspellings in the dictionary are his misspellings. It's very interesting. So I think there's going to be a lot of places in the future where detective work will help you see where things come from and what things really influence others. And I think that as more Native people and Native languages become involved, languages themselves have their own way of describing, their own rules,
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: so that there are certain things that you can say in a Native language that you could not say in English if it were translated it would be something entirely different. And that in itself will be a very interesting path for us to take in the future as more native people begin to present the old traditions to the world. But I consider myself a kind of transitional person. RECORDING INTERUPTED, RECORDING RESUMED
JB: Raised in a European-oriented household,
SG: Uh-huh
JB: with a knowledge that there was Native ancestry. From my twenties onward I've sought the knowledge, and began listening to elders, and I've also done a lot of research.
SG: Uh-huh
JB: But I consider myself, you know, a step, and I think there'll be a lot of steps beyond, and I know that some things I've done I think will last, and I think some things I've done are only partially done ( ) for the future. That's a good way to feel.
SG: It is. When you say "partially"--
JB: Well, I'll give you one very clear example, and this is in my own family. My two sons grew up with this. They're feeling a deep connection to this. They've been doing things, involved with things as young men that I never did. My son Jim has been involved with reburials; they're returning remains of ancestors back to northern Vermont. He did a canoe journey, a hundred miles, last November taking these remains with them back to the Abenaki nation by the Vermont Historical Society, down the Winooski River and up Lake Champlain. A very powerful experience! And they were met as one of the ( ) of the Abenaki communities by my son Jesse, singing the traditional songs with the chiefs, that he had been given by elders who were his teachers. That was very nice. Jesse speaks fluently the Abenaki language. Every week he spends a couple of days with elders up at ( ), the Reserve in ( ) County, one of the great-grandparents of the ( ). There are few remaining fluent Abenaki speakers. So Jesse is looking at the stories that I tell, by Abenaki, stories of Abenaki tradition, and going deeper into them through his knowledge of the language. And I might use a word and Jesse will give me the entire etymology, which shows me more about it. For example, one of our words for the creator is "Tabaldak," T-A-B-A-L-D-A-K, Tabaldak. In fact, we're finding the things written around the time of the Plymouth Plantation, the Wampanoag of Massachusetts people also spoke Tabaldak and the Puritans translated it as "Devil Dick." You know. They turned this character, one of our creation characters into the devil, or "Dibble Dick". And they have all these different, really weird ways of writing it down. And I've even heard it said that "Tabaldak" is actually not even an Abenaki word, but it's a corruption of "Jesus Christ" or something like that; that it's not really our (development). Jesse has found the etymology of that root, which is "Tolba", which is "turtle." Turtle, turtle. I think that may be a possible etymology; maybe, maybe not. But things like that make you start seeing things in a different way. Jesse's been going through The Jesuit Relations and digging out things in those early Jesuit Relations that very few people have talked about; including stories that are buried in there.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: And then going back to those stories with a knowledge of the language. So things like that exist and the thing is that every elder who speaks the language is like a Bible. And the more we listen to those--. START OF TAPE ONE, SIDE B
SG: For a while and then I got interested, I was brought up in the ( ) and so my first instinct found here (that that might be a way to).
JB: Kenneth Roberts is interesting, and this again gets into the areas where Jesse, my youngest son, knows much more than I do. One of the things in Northwest Passage is the raid on (Olbenac).
SG: Oh yes. Yes.
JB: That's a very important part of our close past, a central part of it. Recently The History Channel came up and did an interview of Cecile Wawanolet, W-A-W-A-N-O-L-E-T, Wawanolet, who was Jesse's primary teacher. She's in her eighties. And Cecile told the story of the raid from the Abenaki point of view, as it was told to her by her mother, as her mother had told her by her mother and back several more generations to one of the survivors of the raid, who talked about how they hid in a hole on the side of the village and escaped the notice of the raiders who came in. And it's a very interesting story and she told the Abenaki and they filmed it three times, each time she told it in Abenaki. And then Jesse's job was to translate so that they could put the running commentary, sub-titles underneath it, and it was a very hard job for Jesse to do because every time Cecile told it, she told it a different way. So Jesse one time, they said they hid in a hole, the other time they said they hid in a trench and then the other time--you know. Then so each time he had to do sort of different words for each one and different ways of telling it. So he had to work like crazy to get it exact each time, yeah three times. Kenneth Roberts got a lot of information about the raid on (Olbenac) and about Abenaki people from his own research, both written research and oral tradition. Steven (Warent) is a living Abenaki elder and again one of my friends and teachers, lives in New Hampshire. Steven's in his eighties, was credited by Roberts as one of his informants but Steven said to me, "Mr. Roberts didn't tell the right story, he told it his way. And there were some things he just plain got wrong." And that's, I think, an important and significant part of any view of Native people and novel by non-native person. They may have their own agenda. And Roberts' agenda was "good Indian, bad Indian" and the St. Francis Abenaki were bad Indians. Well of course, the St. Francis Abenaki were a community that was literally created like carving a rock, in the ( ) community to provide support for the French. And they were taught to be guerilla warriors. But, in large part, they were responding to a British presence in New England that was taking away their land. They were engaged in guerilla warfare and defending their own land, so a picture of them is implied liked they're "blood-thirsty" people as well as to the text books in the state of Vermont used to do. Within the last ten years the "blood-thirsty" St. Francis Abenaki, is to do a great disservice to a great history and to present us again with this one-sided image. There's no doubt that the North here often things happened on both sides. But to say that Indians were always generous and kind in battle is really amusing to me--
SG: [laughter]
JB: because people got upset when they saw their villages burn and their people killed. They would go out and they would mirror the mean people in warfare sometimes, but they also tended to be very honest with saying what we did. And you'll find again and again, starting with the Indian wars and continuing on to Vietnam, body counts. You know, "We killed all those Indians and only one of us died." And that's the same story in the story of (Olbenak). They exaggerated how many Abenakis they killed.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: And they attacked a village when the men were away. It was mostly women and children in that village. And on their way back, Rogers's Rangers got lost. And they split up into several groups and a great many of them were caught by the sons and brothers and fathers of those who were attacked in that village. And a lot of Roger's Rangers were wiped out before they made it back to so-called civilization. So the extreme picture is a picture we have, the movie, Northwest Passage, Spencer Tracy. The Abenakis have been destroyed. That's the first thing you heard about the Abenakis. So I can point to books, in fact I was looking through a dictionary of American Indians and it says Abenakis are an extinct tribe. They were wiped out in the 1800s. They don't exist. Even though in Canada we're recognized and in the United States we have a petition in for federal recognition, it's probably about second in line right now.
SG: Second after?
JB: Actually we might be getting up to number one because the Mohicans were ahead of us and they were just recognized a month ago.
SG: I think so. Uh-huh.
JB: So it's kind of interesting they way people portray things. Roberts was a good writer but his, his whole idea was to present a picture of bad Indians in the St. Francis Abenaki. That's what he did.
SG: Uh-huh. I know. Come on back to this multi-cultural perspective. They're, I'm sure, must be finding all kinds of interesting parallels or similarities between West African stories and Native American ones.
JB: Well I lived in Ghana from 1966 to '69. Then I went back again in about '73, '74 in the summer and I have many, many close friends who are African writers and have taught African literature on occasion in college. My experience of being in Africa, in many ways, I found myself quite at home in African culture. And I couldn't understand why my wife and I found it so easy to make friends and to be with people when all the Europeans were having problems.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: Part of it was being patient.
SG: [laughter] Yes.
JB: That's part of it.
SG: ( ) definitely ( ) there.
JB: And part of it was recognizing you're dealing with community and family and that you are a guest and a visitor and neither expecting too much nor giving too little.
SG: Uh-huh. [laughter]
JB: People expect too much and they give too little.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: When I came back to the United States I saw the United States much more clearly than I had before because I had seen it through African eyes. And I found so many similarities between traditional Native culture here and traditional Native culture there. Among other things, our respect for the earth and recognition of the earth as a source of life. European culture has lost that.
SG: In what sense?
JB: Respect for women, for motherhood; European culture has lost that. Respect and love for children. Seeing them as the future. Again, we see that very, very tenuous in European culture. Respect for elders as the center of the culture, as the true keepers of tradition, and as the most valuable people in your society. That is what they're missing. So you see in North America, much of western culture is children are locked in one institution and elders are locked in another. And they are not together as they are meant to be. And also as you see in West Africa is cooperative child rearing, where a woman doesn't raise a child by herself or even with just the help of her husband, but she has her mother, the aunts, cousins, sisters; all are a part of the child rearing process within the extended family. And as anyone knows who has gotten to the age to be a grandparent, it's so much easier the second time around because you've gone through it once; any man or woman who's trying to raise children without an elder to help them is in deep trouble because you're never done it before and you are so isolated. And I think that's one reason why there's such a terrible abuse of little children. Why every day you read in the newspaper about someone who's killed a little baby.
SG: Yes.
JB: A mother or an uncle or a father. A child has been abused or victimized in some way because these are people all alone.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: It's just a generation isolated from every other generation and it shouldn't be that way. And children also should have access to aunts and uncles, either blood relatives or people who take on the role symbolically and socially of aunt and uncle because, again, everybody should know a father can't do everything for his son, a mother can't do everything for her daughter but it's always is going to take another role model from someone within their sex, a surrogate mother, a surrogate, you know, a surrogate father (necessarily, you know), because children at a certain age are supposed to bond.
SG: Yes.
JB: It's part of the natural biological process, psychological too. And if they have nowhere to go, they go to each other. And when children go to other children for initiation or for approval, they often create situations that are in the long run destructive and in the short run in isolation.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: So gangs come a result of a lack of real family because they're trying to create their own family. These kids know what they need; kids and gangs know what they need. What they need is community, what they need is family, what they need is respect, what they need is security and they can't get it at home. That's their mistake, but they know what they need; it's exactly right. But it should be given to them by our country; it should be given to them by their communities; it should be given to them by their families and everyone's involved and no one (just gets blamed for this). So we have to (examine the way we can to think about) and work together.
SG: A graduate student of mine is collecting stories--autobiographical and whatever the children make up--from urban Indian school children here. Of course (Numbi) children, Catawba children and this, I'm sure you know from (Rosa or family) [laughter] here as well and at the other end of the scale I am interviewing (Numbian charity people) over eighty about Native (motor wheel pottery). But I'm trying to interview especially the old ones and I never had any preconceived notion other than information retrieval and also aesthetics of transforming the Native, aesthetics and ethics of transforming the Native collection to the written word. Beyond that I never had any grand theoretical conception for the project and I'm very glad that I did not. ( ).
JB: ( ).
SG: That has been what has happened. Now the children who spoke to my student [pause] will tell stories about Pocahontas; they will, they tell some that don't seem to be derived from Disney or where ever, "How We Got our Moccasins," ( ) this fascinating blend of European fairy tales and then whatever they know usually from parents, say our age, usually from parents with (less) and for many years didn't identify as Indians themselves.
JB: That's a common phenomenon, a very common phenomenon.
SG: And very understandable phenomenon. Well what is interesting is to see how these children are re-appropriating an identity. And of course, and a lot of it is done through (Louis's ) work at the Native American Ministry as well.
JB: Wonderful work.
SG: It is, and again, with those, the ones tempted to do drugs, whose parents are abusive, parents younger than we are (more than should be kids). (It came to me that possibly both, that she and I both are doing this really about cultural revitalization through story telling and yet I wonder sometimes the Indian images available to these kids are precisely Pocahontas for example, and so forth. I'm not sure what I'm asking you. Some kind of (sychritizatism) is going on ( ).
JB: Well I think that a lot of things are happening all at once. And I believe that there is a point where balance is tipped and something begins to occur. If you believe in telepathy or if you believe in a kind of communication beyond verbal communication, beyond written communication. I tend to believe in that. I've seen things happen too often. I think that you get community to a point where something begins to happen and then it begins to regenerate itself. People who don't even stay connected to that community begin to do it as well. So that it's like the hundred monkeys phenomenon. You know, four hundred monkey, whatever. It's like if a hundred monkeys in Burma learn to do something, then one monkey over in India also learns to do it at the same time.
SG: [laughter] I see.
JB: That kind of thing. I can't remember the exact term, how many monkeys it was. I think that something like that does occur within Native culture-that you reach a critical mass; something begins to happen. And maybe on the way in reaching that point you're going through a lot of learning that isn't exactly right. You're learning things that give you a beginning. And you might begin with the Pocahontas stories or you might begin with the Creation story of someone else's culture.
SG: Uh-huh.
JB: I know for example that my Lakota friends are great missionaries. The Lakotas are trying to teach everybody how to do Lakota sweat lodges, a singing Lakota, and to be good Lakotas. Lakotas are a stitch. I love them. God I love them. [laughter] But every now and then a native community will go through a Lakota-ism and eventually merge looking for their own traditions. And I think that's sometimes a necessary step because people have been distanced so far being Indian that they have to take steps back towards ( ). Those steps may be very faltering at first leading them in the wrong direction but they are walking. And the fact that they are walking is very important.
SG: That sounds like a wonderful note on which to end! ( ). ( ) and--.