Coming to Terms with Oral Family History and My Family’s Origins
I am not immune to the quirks and ills of modern society.
Growing up, I always felt as if I did not belong to modern society. I felt at home in the forest or by a lake, but never in the city or a house. There always seemed to be a hole inside that needed to be filled. I felt like someone or something was calling to me to vanish into the forest with them. I thought this was due to Native American ancestry. My mother and my aunt said there was some Native on their dad’s side. I had no reason to believe they would fib to me about such a thing. It made sense and it filled the emptiness, so I believed it. I embraced it and naively believed I had a right to declare myself a Native American Person.
A mid-life crisis got me thinking – about everything but mostly about my personal beliefs. At this same time the local school system offered an adult ed class about the Native People of Maine and I eagerly signed up. I met lots of interesting folks with similar stories to my own. We bonded. We decided to form an organization and share what we learned in class with the general public. We named our organization Dawnland Alliance and held monthly meetings for a number of years. We prepared educational materials and a “Learning Booth” which traveled around to Pow-Wows and public festivals. Our organization had no membership criteria, no dues, and no paid employees, just a bunch of volunteers trying to spread the word about how cool Native culture was. We tried not to be too New Age, but it happened. We had many programs that were generic Indian in nature. We had some speakers that were Native, some that shared their knowledge of the natural world, and some that were phony-balonies making it up as they went along. It took time for me to figure out the difference between the three.
One of the things this social club liked to do was give members “Indian” names. It was a fade and oh so cool at the time 😉 When it was decided I needed a name, I was invited to a naming ceremony. We sat in a circle and everyone shared their thoughts about me until a name was decided on. I started using my new nickname, Canyon Wolf, as a pen name in my writing and I continue to use it today. Sometimes it seems silly, but I expect most folks think the same way about any nickname they didn’t chose themselves.
Dawnland’s president (chief?) was Louis and he was the only member that I recall who could actually trace his Native heritage back to a real Native Community. Unfortunately, we didn’t spend much time visiting local tribes to learn from them directly. Instead we took the easy path of learning from books, tapes, presentations, and self-proclaimed Abenaki such as the Bruchac family and Tsonakwa (who boast of being Abenaki, but research says otherwise). We believed we were doing a good thing, but in the end it seems we were very naive and perhaps did some damage as well. The Dawnland Alliance was what is referred to today as a culture club. The organization eventually disbanded and the nonprofit corporation was formally retired in 2005.
I became dissatisfied with the politics that eventually crept into the Dawnland Alliance and decided to start a separate nonprofit organization with a focus on historical & genealogical research and public sharing of the results. Ne-Do-Ba was born in March of 1997 and maintains an active presence on the internet with a website and research blog. In the beginning I believed oral family history was trustworthy and dutifully recorded hundreds of “Indians” in the Ne-Do-Ba database. With almost 2 decades of research under my belt, I have learned the vast majority of oral history concerning Native ancestry is not true. I keep weeding, but it seems I will never get all the self-proclaimed Indians out of our database and website. Oh well, live and learn.
I (and Ne-Do-Ba) do not claim to speak for the Wabanaki People or to be an expert in Wabanaki History and Genealogy, but I have been at it a while and have collected a fair amount historical documentation concerning the Wabanaki. By publishing historical documentation, Ne-Do-Ba is able to provide a forum in which the Wabanaki of the past can speak for themselves through the documents they left behind.
Ne-Do-Ba does not now and never has received state or federal grants, nor any other money ear marked for Native Peoples. We do not get involved with modern day Native concerns, politics, or tribal registration issues. However, personally, I do try to stay informed of and sensitive to the issues faced by Wabanaki People today.
Throughout all this, there were times when I dressed up and played Indian. I made some regalia, but only wore it a couple of times – just didn’t feel right. I danced in a circle once or twice but it wasn’t pretty. I became a pretty good Native story-teller and this felt right. But alas, the story-tellers I leaned from turned out to be phony indians, so I decided to leave the story telling to others.
As the educational director for Ne-Do-Ba, I worked as a consultant with Norlands Living History Center to adapt some school and summer programs to include a Native character. I learned the craft of re-enacting from a variety of experienced 18th & 19th century historical re-enactors. As a costumed interpreter, I played the part of the historical character, Hannah Susap, and the fictional character, Sophie Wood. I was part of a team acting out scenes written by people interested in history and public education. The re-enacting felt like a good fit for me. Unfortunately, my health forced me to stop re-enacting.
All during my “Indian Journey”, I have been researching my own family – all my ancestors, not just ones that might be “the indian”. So far, I have found no good candidates for my family’s indian. It was Mom and one of her sisters with vague knowledge of an Indian ancestor (full disclosure — 2 other sisters and 5 brothers didn’t know anything about it when I asked). Their mother was Irish, so it must be on their father’s side if the story is accurate. The identity of Grampa’s mother is a problem because I have conflicting information. Until I solve this mystery I can’t say much about my grandfather’s ancestry. However, in all the lines I have been able to research, there are no indians in sight.
Through all of this I have learned two important things about being Native. First, I am not Native. I have no right to claim I am Native just because someone in the family has a story. Until I can prove it, it is just a family legend. Even if I am able to document it in the future, I am still not Native based on the second thing I have learned. And that second thing is that being Native is not about yesterday, it is about today. It is about belonging to a current family group that has endured centuries of persecution in order to protect their identity, culture, and historical communities. These Native families did not hide from the public or give up their identities to make it easier to survive. For generation after generation Native families have chosen the hardest road of all – to be Indian in an environment that was constantly attempting to exterminate them one way or another. My ancestor (if there really is a Native in the tree) chose a different path and I am here today as a result of that choice. I have come to terms with my family myth.
In hind sight, some of the things I have done on my “Indian Journey” seem pretty naive today, but it was part of my life journey and therefore an important part of who I am today.