The Power of Memory

Presumpscott River

I just finished reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Water Dancer, a powerful novel set in the days of slavery and the underground railroad, told through the voice of one young man who is among “the tasked.” There is so much I could say about this story.  Starting with this word, “tasked.” Coates never has his characters who are in bondage call themselves “slaves,” but rather, “the tasked.” And this subtle shift of language helps to transport us beyond the familiar words (of the masters) that have been written as history, into the direct perspective of those who were counted as property.

Even though I learned about slavery from my early days in school, it was easy to discount (even by benign repetition) the pervasive way this institution shaped the whole of our nation from its beginnings, it was easy to mask its reach and extent and corruption.  I grew up in the north, and it was easy to think of it as something far away, other.  But in recounting exploits of folks in the underground railroad, Coates makes clear that people in the north weren’t safe from slavery, or immune to its power. Any person of African descent could be captured off the streets of Philadelphia and transported away into bondage. A person of European descent who devoted themselves to ending slavery risked being murdered.  It was everywhere in this country.

It is not that the novel opened my eyes to some new knowledge, but that it helped me remember what I have already known, and bring it alive in a vivid way.  The whole practice and institution of slavery makes a lie of any notion of “greatest country” or “good old days” or “American dream.”  From the earliest settler invasions in 1619, through the creation of the “United States,” through the Civil War, up to 1865–246 years–the country was bound up in these practices of forced labor, torture, separation of families, sexual abuse. We are part of a horrible legacy that still shapes everything about our country, even though there are strong incentives for us to “forget.”

In The Water Dancer, the central character, Hiram Walker, has a magical gift that is tied to the power of memory.  He was a precocious child with a photographic memory of everything, except for the memory of his mother, who was sold away from him when he was only a young boy.  That trauma erased all memories of her from his consciousness. But later, crossing a bridge over the river Goose, the bridge where so many people had been lost into the deeper south, he sees a vision of his mother dancing with a water jar on her head.

The story begins here.  On the first page he says,

“knowing now the awesome power of memory, how it can open a blue door from one world to another, how it can move us from mountains to meadows, from green woods to fields caked in snow, knowing now that memory can fold the land like cloth, and knowing, too, how I had pushed my memory of her into the “down there” of my mind, how I forgot, but did not forget, I know now that this story, this Conduction, had to begin there on that fantastic bridge between the land of the living and the land of the lost.”

He doesn’t come into the power of his own magical gifts until he can awaken the full memory of all that he has lost, and the painfulness of that loss. And perhaps we too will never find healing for all that we face in our world today, until we open our minds to the painfulness of what we call the “past,” (because it is never “past”), until we are willing to face it as it lives within the “down there” of this land we call home.

The Water Dancer creates that kind of magic, conjures the power of memory to transform all that we are.

Ancestor Wounds and Healing

I’m on my way to the Wild Maine Witch Camp!  My friend Sylvia and I are leading one of the morning workshop series (called a Path), on the topic of Ancestor Wounds and Healing. 

Our intention in this path, is to open our lives to the blessings of our ancestors and to healing the wounds we carry from them. This work, for us, is rooted in our understanding that our path as witches is tied up with collective liberation from colonization and oppression, from patriarchy and racism. Connecting with our ancestors is a way to wrestle with our collective history and all that it includes, in order to bring healing and liberation in our times.

I have been blogging about this process with my own ancestors for the last several months, discovering more about the experience of my German and East Frisian immigrant ancestors, and the Quebec story of my French, Innu and Scottish ancestors. I’ve been asking questions about how the stories of my ancestors fit into the larger story of colonization, of relationship to the land, of migration, and belonging. Perhaps I have also been wrestling with the question of whether my European ancestors might have any blessings to offer me. That story is so tangled and broken.

I am looking forward to sharing this work with a group of people in the context of our lives as witches. Our tools will include experiential magical practice, music and chanting, personal sharing, guided meditation and trance work, sacred herbs, and the wisdom of each person in the circle. We will draw on Joanna Macy’s Work that Reconnects which is based on a cycle of four movements that we will use through our four days together. We will begin with gratitude, then move into honoring our pain, then seeing our connections with new eyes, and finally, going forth.

Perhaps I am hoping to discover if this message from Linda Hogan, Chickasaw writer, also might apply to me:

Walking. I am listening to a deeper way.

Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me.

Be still, they say. Watch and listen.

You are the result of the love of thousands.

Biddeford Pool beach

Meanwhile in the Garden

Winecap MushroomsA few fun surprises this week in the garden. Way back in May, I had inoculated the wood chips near the fruit trees with Wine Cap mushroom spores.  Then nothing happened all summer, so I figured maybe it wasn’t moist enough and didn’t take.  But this week suddenly, beautiful big mushrooms started sprouting with a reddish tint to their caps. Being cautious, I checked the package again, and also researched Wine Caps on the internet–I was relieved to discover there are no poisonous look-alikes. First Mushrooms

Since then we’ve had fresh mushrooms in our eggs and in a batch of spaghetti sauce. The mushrooms keep popping up all over the orchard. They should come back again each year now.  What a marvelous thing to get food right from the ground!

Speaking of food from the ground, the squirrel was excited to discover that one of our volunteer sunflowers had seeds on it. Just like she would do on our bird feeder in the winter, she hung upside down to get to the meaty morsels.Squirrel on Sunflower

Were they really there? Later, I checked for myself. Certainly enough for a little snack. I think this is the same squirrel that decided she should build a nest this week under our solar panels, in a spot behind a cross board that supports our deck roof.  Not good!  (Squirrels can chew the wiring and mess up the solar panel system, we discovered.) Each morning and evening Margy or I would climb on a ladder to pull out small branches and leaves and grass to undo what she had built. We’ve got a plan to cut off some branches on our ornamental crabapple that form a super-highway from the materials to the roof.

But one day, while I was on the ladder pulling out stuff, she came running down the gutter and stopped short when she saw me. I said to her, “You can’t build a nest here! This is our house. Go find a nice tree.”

I don’t know if it was my stern suggestion, or the pile of “stolen” nesting material that was scattered on the deck beneath the ladder, or sheer discouragement from all her work being undone each day, but the last two days she has not replenished her spot. (We’re still going to prune the tree though!) Maybe the sunflower seeds were a little something to sweeten the agreement. We try to find a balance with our plant and animal neighbors in this place. Giving and receiving in gratitude.

Sunflower Seeds

Ancestors: Clearing the Forests

I just finished reading Barkskins by Annie Proulx. It is a 300-year-plus epic novel, beginning with the stories of two French settlers who arrive in Quebec in 1693, who become involved in cutting down the trees of the forest. One runs away to make a fortune starting with the beaver pelt trade, and the other ends up marrying a Mi’kmaw woman.  We then encounter the lives of the descendants of these two men, through a relentless series of clear-cutting the forests of this continent and beyond, partly from the perspective of lumber company entrepreneurs trying to get wealthy, and Mi’kmaw logging laborers risking their lives and health working for the lumber companies, when they can no longer live in their traditional ways because the forests are being destroyed.

Any attempt to summarize does an injustice to the complex multi-generational stories Proulx weaves from the characters she creates, and the overarching sense of doom one feels, looking at it from our current perspective. I was glad to see that she consulted with Roger Lewis, a Mi’kmaw scholar, ethnologist and curator of the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History. I would be curious what my Mi’kmaw friends think of the stories she wove of their histories.

While I was reading the early chapters, I also was researching my Scottish ancestor, (great-great-great grandfather) Peter MacLeod (sometimes spelled McLeod), who came to Quebec in the late 18th century. He too was involved in the beaver pelt trade, and then in the logging industry, and married a Montagnais (Innu) woman, (or possibly two.)

Peter MacLeod

Peter MacLeod, senior

I found this excerpt about his activities, loosely translated from the French by Google:

The Simard-McLeod tandem is behind the construction of the first sawmill on the Riviere Noire, whose work began in 1834. Thomas Simard, assisted by Charles Dufour, Peter McLeod Sr., who was responsible for the construction of the building, worked with the merchant Hubert Simon to build the Port-au-Saumon, Port-au-Persil and Riviere Noire mills.

“[…] Many of these characters employed by the lessees of the king’s posts will later participate in the early days of the Saguenay colonization. The best known are the brothers Thomas and Michel Simard, Peter McLeod father and son, Cyriac Buckell, Alexandre Murdock, Simon Ross and the Verreau family. Associates in several Charlevoix companies, Thomas Simard and Peter McLeod Jr. represent the pivotal era of the opening of the Saguenay to colonization, at the time of the transfer of an economy based on the fur trade to that of logging. “

Peter MacLeod Jr., my great-great-great uncle, was half-Scottish, and half-Montagnais/Innu. He was the founder of the city of Chicoutimi, and he is more well known than his father.  But the Dictionary of Canadian Biography under his entry, says this about his father:

Engineer, surveyor, and officer in the British army, he entered the service of the North West Company, and on its merger with the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1821 he became the confidential agent of William Lampson, the lessee of the king’s posts. He occupied this position until 1831, when the HBC secured the leasing rights.

It was during his time as Lampson’s agent that McLeod Sr became interested in lumbering in the Charlevoix region. Acting virtually as a timber contractor, he built sawmills for rental in La Malbaie, served as a timber supplier, and obtained felling rights. From 1827 to 1836 he became one of the principal sources of timber for William Price, who was then established at La Malbaie. In September 1836 he entrusted his eldest son with the responsibility for his facilities and commitments. But Peter’s assumption of control evidently did not produce very satisfactory results. From 1837 to 1842 the McLeods’ debts to Price continued to grow, and by the end of the latter year had reached £2,200. It is in the context of indebtedness, and also of Price’s desire to be the first timber contractor established as far up the Saguenay as Chicoutimi, that the partnership between Price and the McLeods must be seen.

Price could not himself acquire the felling rights and the letters patent on mill sites or on land in the region because of the prerogatives over this territory granted to the HBC until 2 Oct. 1842, and its antagonism towards him. He therefore proposed to use McLeod Jr to push farther inland along the Saguenay. With the help of the Société des Vingt et Un, McLeod had established himself between Tadoussac and Grande-Baie by 1837. Since, as a Montagnais on his mother’s side, he had natural rights to circulate freely among the king’s posts and to settle there, Price would be able, through him, to thwart the HBC and achieve his goal of exploiting the region’s rich pine stands. This prospect prompted the agreement between Price and the McLeods.

It is probably true that most of the settlers were engaging in the logging industry, if they were not clearing land for farming.  But learning this information while reading the novel Barkskins made it really come alive for me, in such a sad way.  These men who were trying to make their fortunes, these men who were caught between two worlds, these forests that were thought to be never-ending, but weren’t.

So much was lost, so much was invisible to the settlers, who saw trees as merely a way to sell lumber and make money, and saw the rivers as a way to power the sawmills and transport the lumber. My ancestors in Quebec were a part of all of that. It feels heavy. But I am grateful for the novel Barkskins that revealed so much what it must have been like for those who lived it.

 

First Quote from:  UNIVERSITÉ DU QUÉBEC, MÉMOIRE PRÉSENTÉ À L’UNIVERSITÉ DU QUÉBEC À CHICOUTIMI COMME EXIGENCE PARTIELLE DE LA MAÎTRISE EN ÉTUDES ET INTERVENTIONS RÉGIONALES PAR ÉRIC TREMBLAY , L’OUVERTURE DU SAGUENAY À LA COLONISATION (1821-1842), JUILLET 2015

Conflicting Survival Strategies in early Quebec

(More reflections on colonization in Quebec, jumping off from the book Helene’s World.)  Author Susan McNelley writes:

Summer days for the French settlers were long and filled with hard work. This was not the case for the indigenous people. Life was much less demanding in the summer. Fish, fowl, and small game were readily available in the river and nearby forest. The indigenous peoples along the St. Lawrence didn’t worry about storing food to last the winter. To the consternation of their French neighbors, the natives spent much of their time sleeping and socializing with their friends. There were games, story-telling, feasting and opportunities for young people to meet and court.  Summer was a time of replenishment and fortification for the rigors of winter.

A common factor for both Montagnais/Innu people and French settlers in early Quebec was surviving the long hard winter.  But they had quite different strategies for doing that. The French worked very hard in the summer to clear fields, and plant and harvest crops. Bread was their primary food. They were agricultural people, and in the early years were also reliant on ships arriving in summer with new supplies, to replenish their stores of wine and oil and spices and grains. They preserved food and stored it for surviving the long winter. Winter included much less activity, so in some ways it was an easier time, but they were on their own, and their strategy for survival was to carefully ration what food they had among the people in their families.

For the Montagnais, on the other hand, summer was the easy time–they camped by the river, fished & hunted, gathered fruits and nuts, feasted and celebrated with each other, and generally felt a sense of abundance in all sorts of food. As the fall came, they caught and dried eel, and then they left the summer encampment and began to hunt small game in the nearby woods. In winter, they traveled in small family groups into the interior, where they relied on heavy snow cover to slow down the big game: moose, caribou, deer, and bear. When they were successful in the hunt, they shared their feast with nearby families.

hiver_transports_11Susan McNelley describes a winter incident recounted by Champlain when some of the Montagnais/Innu came to the early French settlement, because they were starving, and asked for food.

Although the French did try to be generous, they rationed the distribution of provisions to the aborigines out of necessity. Otherwise, the food would not have lasted a month.

The French believed that the Innu were irresponsible because they didn’t store food, and because when they acquired food in the hunt, they ate all of it, or shared with their neighbors.  But if you are traveling to follow big game, it wouldn’t be practical to carry large quantities of preserved food.  It would be practical to share the abundance that came sporadically depending on who had a good hunt.  Reading between the lines of this incident, I could imagine the Innu noticing that the French had food while they had none, and expecting, according to their own values, that of course the French would be willing to share with them. Their strategy for survival was sharing what became available, as it became available. The French strategy was about storing up and rationing.

And isn’t that just like capitalism, really, and how our modern mainstream society works.  “Save what you don’t need now, to use later. Try to accumulate as much as possible. That is the definition of wealth.”  (But perhaps rampant consumerism and planned obsolescence have superseded that model too.  Some things to think about.)

I feel the pressure of this time of year to preserve what we can from our garden, small as it is–making pesto from basil and chives and parsley, freezing kale, drying herbs–in our own way getting ready for the long Maine winters. We certainly wouldn’t know how to survive on our own, without being able to go to the Food Coop or grocery store. So perhaps both the French settlers and the Innu had better survival skills than we have now.Kale

 

French and Innu in Early Quebec

Samuel de Champlain map of Quebec

1612 Map of New France by Samuel de Champlain

Some thoughts on early French and Innu ancestors, on reading Helene’s World: Helene Desportes of Seventeenth-Century Quebec, by Susan McNelley.

I was surprised to learn that the primary Indigenous nation at the Quebec settlement in 1620 (later, Quebec City) were the Montagnais (Innu.) I had thought they had been mostly living further downriver and inland. But the Quebec settlement was one of the summer dwelling places in their vast territory along the St. Lawrence, where they fished, gathered herbs and berries, and traded with their neighbors for corn and tobacco.

In the early days of the settlement, the Innu, along with the Huron (Wendat) from further west, and other Algonquin tribes, were the main trading partners of the French.  Beaver pelts were the primary export from the colony.  Interestingly, the French especially valued the used pelts–those having been worn for a few years–after the longer hairs had worn off, because the French used the shorter hairs to felt for popular hats back in Europe. So what a great opportunity!  The Innu could trade the pelts they were about to discard, for copper kettles, metal tools, firearms, blankets, and food.

In the early days of the settlement, hundreds of canoes would arrive each summer, bringing furs for the annual trade. The French settlers had become part of earlier trading patterns. (The French made the choice to ally with the Huron and Montagnais against the Iroquois, and those earlier rivalries were exacerbated by competition to control the beaver trade. The Iroquois had allied with the English and the Dutch.)

But beginning in the 1630s, as in so many other places on this continent, diseases from the Europeans proved decimating for the Native peoples who had no natural immunity to them. Measles, smallpox, plague. The Huron/Wendat lost 50% of their people, and losses were said to be similar among the Montagnais/Innu. That, combined with increasing hostilities with the Iroquois, caused the remaining Innu eventually to go further downstream or inland.

French colonization took a different shape from English colonization.  There was more interaction with–and valuing of–Indigenous peoples as trading partners and allies. But an underlying driving force of this colonization was the desire of French Catholics to convert the Indigenous people to Christianity, to “save their souls,” which for them was inextricably linked with their also adopting French customs and lifestyles.  The Jesuit priests and Ursuline nuns settled in Quebec with a special call to this mission.

Native people were seen as “savages” who must be “civilized.” The French colonizers would send a few people to live among the tribes to learn their languages and customs. They invited Native people to send their children to be educated, and a few did send their children to the Ursuline school. There were many positive connections between the two groups. The Indigenous people were interested in the French, they shared a love of pageantry and celebration, they valued the trade, but ultimately and unsurprisingly, most were unlikely to give up their own ways for the ways of the French during these years.

More later on their different cultural strategies to survive the hard winters…

Montagnais as seen by Champlain detail

Detail from the map–Champlain’s drawing of Montagnais/Innu people.

 

 

Ancestors & Colonization: Quebec

When I was exploring my German immigrant ancestors in the context of decolonization, I was struck by the feeling that they arrived after the major struggles of colonization in their part of the country.  For my dad’s family who arrived in the mid-1800s, it was a generation earlier that treaties were pressed upon the Indigenous peoples of those lands, who were forced to move further west or to Oklahoma.  In another branch of my family, my mom’s father was from Austria, and immigrated even later, via Canada, to Detroit in late 1915.

I wonder if these Germanic immigrants even thought about it, or if so, maybe it was like, “We just got here, we don’t have anything to do with those struggles you all had before.” Though, of course, the German farmers benefitted from those earlier actions, because now land was available for low prices. But it can leave a feeling of distant non-involvement, a sense that colonization wasn’t very much about my family.  My mom’s mother was also an immigrant to the United States, but her background is more complex, because she came from Quebec.

When I was younger, the very first ancestors I was curious about were those of my grandmother, born Yvonne Tremblay.  That intensified when I became a feminist, and wanted to learn about my motherline.  Plus, as I have written about elsewhere, she was “part Indian,” and I was curious about that. It turned out that Quebec province kept very good records, and I was able to learn a lot, even before the age of the internet.  But I wasn’t asking questions then about colonization or decolonization.  So this week, I decided to reopen that window of exploration, to see what I could find.

While the information available about my Scottish and Innu ancestors stops with Peter Macleod and Marie Madeleine Montagnaise, (my great-great-great-grandparents), the information about my French ancestors in Quebec goes back to some of the original colonizers.  Yesterday, I learned that one ancestor, Jean Guyon, my 11th great-grandfather, arrived in 1634. But not to get egotistical about it, they say three out of four Quebecois descend from him. And in fact, I am descended from him via four separate lines of ancestry. I am including this monument to the first Tremblays in Quebec, Pierre Tremblay and Ozanne Achon, who arrived in 1657.

Pierre Trembly Ozanne Achon

Today, in my family tree, I accidentally came upon the name Helene Desportes, my 9th great-grandmother. Her birth was listed as 1620 in Quebec, and it turns out she is said to be the first white child born in Canada, though she might have been born on the ship just before arrival. One of my methods is to do an internet search for any of these early names, and I learned there is a recent biography about her, Helene’s World: Helene Desportes of Seventeenth-Century Quebec, by Susan McNelley.

Suddenly, there is a whole new world to explore–okay that was the wrong phrase to use–in my decolonization understanding.