Dandelion Spirit

One of the boxes from Boston: “Political Groups/Resources/Issues/Conferences”

So, after sorting and winnowing all winter, I have finally finished with the boxes from my years living in Boston. I managed to go from 11 file-drawer-size boxes down to 4! The four that remain include, loosely: 1. lesbian theology and creative writing, 2. GLBT & social justice activism, 3. Native solidarity activism, and 4. files from my non-profit, RESPECT, Inc. (Responsible Ethics for Spirituality: Project to End Cultural Theft.). There are more boxes in the basement still, but it feels good to reach the end of this large section, the years from 1986-1996 or so.

I am also in the process of archiving blog posts from this site to my laptop, and I happened upon the photo of the Boston box above, which I took during our move from North Yarmouth to Portland six years ago. At that time, I was asking myself whether or not to toss all this paper–just get rid of it, unopened. But ultimately I decided to pack up all the boxes to sort later. I think that was a good decision. I am enjoying revisiting these times of my life as I have gone through each folder. I was optimistically calling it my winter project, but I still have seven more boxes to go, from years prior to Boston, and subsequent.

I actually still have one more box with Boston stuff, related to my journey into UU ministry, but that seemed to fit better with later years. It was a big shift in my life, to go from being a free-lance activist, with a “community ministry,” into my more formal association with Unitarian Universalism and ordained ministry. I loved those years in Boston, but it was incredibly difficult to translate my passions into work that could also support my basic needs. All of it was ministry! But later, as a formally ordained minister, I became able to devote myself to the work, without also doing other part-time labor to pay the bills.

One of my attempts to translate those passions I called “Dandelion Spirit.” I hoped to combine feminist therapy, spiritual and justice consulting, workshop leadership, and ritual, into the work I could offer the community. It was a little bit sad to see the files in which I had worked on that, when I knew that it never really made if off the ground officially. On the other hand, my life in Boston really was in the spirit of the dandelion–who knows how many seeds I might have scattered? A workshop here, a ritual there, an article in some lesbian periodical, all small actions, but with hope and intent to transform the world. I can still resonate with a dandelion spirit.

Dandelion blooming in our back yard.

The Mystery Seed

On March 14th, at 1 p.m. Queer Spirit will broadcast an interview with me, done by Revs. Marvin Ellison and Tamara Torres McGovern. Queer Spirit is a regular feature of OUT Cast, a forum for LGBTQ+ issues broadcast on community radio every Monday. WMPG 90.9 FM from 1:00 – 1:30 p.m. (Livestream: WMPG.org) One of the questions they asked: “What do you think has been your generation’s unique struggle with sexuality and spiritualty – and what would you say is your generation’s contribution to these matters?” I thought about what I had written in my book, Finding Our Way Home, in a chapter called “The Mystery Seed.” I want to share an excerpt with you today.

Bean seeds

Do you remember the fairy tale of Jack and the Beanstalk? When he and his mother are in desperate straits, Jack trades their cow for some magical bean seeds. The bean seeds grow overnight into a vine that reaches up to the sky. He climbs the vine and encounters an evil giant, who eats human beings, but Jack is able to escape with a magical hen that lays golden eggs, and a golden harp that plays by itself. He learns from a fairy that the giant’s castle is actually his very own—he is really a prince whose father was killed by the giant. In the end, he kills the giant, and recovers his hidden inheritance.

So what does this have to do with us? The bean seeds enable Jack to connect with who he truly is, and with a larger reality beyond the small cabin he shares with his mother. Within each one of us is something like those magical bean seeds. We are so much more than we can imagine. We might say inside each of us is a Mystery seed, a seed of what we might become. This Mystery seed is our potential to connect with the larger Mystery of which we are a part; it is the Divine within us that connects to the Divine beyond us, it is the fractal pattern of life and love and creativity. This seed is not only in some of us, not only in fairy tales or kings or saints, but in every one of us.

What evidence do I have for this seed of divinity within each human being? How have I personally experienced this might be so? Ironically, it has been illuminated when I faced situations where people were treated as if they had no dignity or value at all. But something within and between people transpired to bring forth a light that could not be extinguished.

When I went to college, one of my best friends slowly revealed to a few of us that he was homosexual. This was a great torment for him and for all of us who loved him, because we were very devoted Catholics. According to Catholic teaching, homosexuality was against the laws of nature. Tom would try hard to live celibately, and then crash, and go out and “get debauched.” He was depressed and often despaired of his life. I felt a painful contradiction in all of this—I knew he was a deeply spiritual person, so why should he suffer in this way? But I didn’t have an answer at that time.

Before I met Tom, in the reality of my youth, it was as if gay people did not exist. When I was growing up, during the 1950s and 60s, I never even heard the word lesbian, and gay only meant happy. I never saw gay people on TV, read about them in a book or newspaper, or learned about them in school. As a girl in a Catholic family there were two possibilities for my life path: I could become a wife and mother, or I could become a nun. I never even imagined the possibility of lesbian.

Tom’s dilemma introduced to me a whole category of people who were considered unworthy of sacredness. Gay people were not supposed to exist. And if they did exist, they were identified as unnatural, disordered, a mistake, a problem. African American lesbian poet Audre Lorde writes, “We were never meant to survive.”[i]

At that time it never even occurred to me I might have something in common with that group of people. I didn’t come out as a lesbian until years later, at the age of thirty-one, after a five-year process of struggle and transformation… Gays and lesbians have often been excluded or disparaged even by those who are closest to us. After I came out, one of my sisters refused to let me stay in her home because she didn’t want her children to know about gay people. I received a letter from another sister. She wrote, “I pray for you night after night… Homosexuality is wrong! And as your sister I don’t want to lose you to the devil.” Her words were those many of us have heard from parents or siblings, or from the institutions of our society.

How much guilt, despair, and shame have gay people carried in our hearts because we were not welcome in the reality defined by our culture and religion? Because we could not see the sacredness within? How many gay people have killed themselves in the pain of that reality? How many gay people have been killed, through the violence and hate of a society that has refused to include us in their definition of reality?

But so much has changed. Now it is hard to imagine I didn’t know about the existence of lesbians or gay men. Now gay people are in prime-time television. There are supportive high school groups for Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, and Straight youth. My friend Tom eventually was able to embrace his sexuality, and share his life with a long-time partner. In 2004, Massachusetts became the first state in the U.S. to allow same sex couples to be legally married, and in the years since, marriage has been won throughout the whole country.

Even language became transformed. Words like lesbian, or queer—once painful putdowns—were reclaimed as words of honor. I remember we young activists marching and shouting, “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”

So much has changed. For me, it seems like a miracle—in fact, two miracles. First, I still can be amazed I exist as a lesbian at all. How did I cross over into a whole new reality? It is as fantastical as Jack climbing a bean stalk into a castle in the sky. Second, it is remarkable that we who are queer can celebrate being queer. How did we go from being outcasts, to celebrating and believing in ourselves? How did we go from being outcasts, to demanding that reality make a place for us? To celebrate ourselves as queer we often have had to risk every other valuable thing in our lives. We’ve risked family, friends, jobs, safety. Yet this thing which was considered a problem became the “pearl of great price,”[ii] as the gospel says. This heavy burden became the hen that laid golden eggs. And it has been incredible to see!

What happens within people that they can claim the power to celebrate themselves? …What happens inside people when they refuse the rejection of society, and claim the right to name themselves valuable. When people who have been told all their lives “You are no good,” find within themselves a different voice that says, “You are sacred.” To me, this is powerful evidence of the divinity within us. And this is the premise of the work of those of us who call ourselves Liberation Theologians: the Divine is revealed in the struggle of oppressed people for liberation.[iii] It is the Mystery seed within us growing like a vine into the sky.

…That is what happened for me, too. Within a community of women, I experienced a new reality coming into being. With women who were celebrating lesbian existence, I encountered the Divine in a new way. Sometimes we called it the Goddess. Sometimes we had no name to describe it. But we felt a sacred and holy power when we seized the courage to embrace the body of another woman. Everything shifted. It no longer mattered whether we were welcome at the table of the society that excluded us. We were in a new reality and could no longer be denied.

Me and Rev. Marvin Ellison, back in 2009, as co-leaders of the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry, getting ready for the public hearing.

[i] Audre Lorde, “A Litany for Survival,” The Black Unicorn: Poems (New York:  W. W. Norton, 1978), 31.

[ii] Matthew 13:45-46.

[iii] Liberation Theology was first articulated in 1971 by the Catholic Peruvian priest Gustavo Gutierrez, in his book, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, Salvation (1971 in Spanish, English edition Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1973).

Healing Turtle Island

Two deer browsing in the trees behind our yard.

Tonight I feel grateful to participate in the virtual opening ceremony for the Healing Turtle Island gathering. Songs, prayers in Indigenous languages, stories of grief, woundedness, devastating loss, and yet, gratitude. How do we bring healing, bring back balance in our relationships, with each other, with the earth, with spirit? This weekend will be filled with many speakers… (anyone can join on Facebook, or on Zoom, just follow the link). I don’t have a lot of words right now but one of the strange blessings of the pandemic is that because this gathering is virtual, I am able to participate. I was present for the very first gathering here in Wabanaki land, the eastern door. There will be 21 gatherings all together.

This photo is of two deer whom we sighted in our backyard on Tuesday–there were four all together. They were a gift in the midst of a painful week. I found myself just sitting on the back porch watching as they took their time amidst the trees and brush. Sitting still and watching. I feel the presence of such a compassionate Spirit through these visitors from the natural world.

Winter Winnowing

At work in the basement with shredded paper, photo by Margy Dowzer

Every couple days I go down into the basement, to sort through my old boxes. I cover up with an over-shirt and apron, cotton gloves and mask, to protect me somewhat against allergies to dust and old paper. I pull out a box and open it up to reveal treasures and trash, scribbled notes and carefully typed poetry, cherished memories and forgotten moments. I have no idea when I might finish, but it helps to think of this as my Winter Project.

Sometimes I think of it as death cleaning, as in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, a method of organizing and decluttering your home before you die to lessen the burden of your loved ones after you’ve passed. But I am not following any methods put forth in this book. What connects is that I am weighing everything against the question “What value might these things have, after I am gone?”

When I became a feminist in 1979, I became aware of how women were hidden from history, how most written history prioritized the deeds of white men in power. Wonderfully, feminist historians, and those of other marginalized communities, have been bringing to light these hidden histories/herstories for several decades. Along the way, I internalized the belief that our own lives are part of history, too. My life is part of history.

As a childless lesbian woman, I won’t have descendants that would value my writings. But that makes it feel even more important to preserve my stories, especially those of lesbian activism, lesbian community, lesbian spirit. And so I have been thinking about what might be valuable for an archive, and in fact, I have already communicated with an LGBTQ archive that expressed interest in my papers. So this becomes an important measure for what to save, and what to shred.

But beyond what value these papers might have after I die, it has also been so valuable for me as a method to reflect on my life as a whole, revealed in what was saved, deliberately or accidentally, during various parts of my life. So far I have been going through boxes from the time I lived in Boston, from 1986 to 1999. I guess I started in the center of my life. There is a lot of shredding-I reduced the first three boxes to just one. I think after I finish with Boston, I will likely go back to the earlier boxes, and only then return to the more recent ones. Perhaps then it will be easier to put it all in perspective.

I don’t know why it has taken so long to begin this project. I don’t know why now seems like the time to do it. But in the middle of winter, in the midst of a pandemic, in this liminal time after retiring, my spirit feels called to this remembering, this winnowing, and so I keep going down into the basement to see what I will find.

Courage

Photo: Female cardinal at feeder, with three smaller birds nearby.

I am finally embarking on a project to go through all of my papers, now in boxes in the basement. These range from files that I brought from my office when I retired 3 1/2 years ago, to boxes that I have carried around since college. This week I have been going through a box of writings–poems, essays, and an almost book, dating from about 1986 to 1996. During those years, I lived in Boston, surrounded by lesbian community, making a living in what today might be called the gig economy, while focusing my time and energy on activism, writing, feminist spirituality, and social change.

It was a scary time, financially, just getting by with no safety net, no health insurance, moving from rented apartments to other rented apartments in an increasingly difficult housing market. It was also, for a while, a joyous and exhilarating time, creating chosen family through collective living with other lesbians, wrestling with issues like classism, racism, and sexism, all the while imagining justice, mutuality, and queer beauty.

Reading the many words I wrote brings me back there, and I am impressed by the creativity which filled those pages and filled my life and the lives of those around me. But there was an undertow that sometimes threatened to drown me–a shift when housing got harder to find, when joyful cooperative situations became uneasy roommate situations, when loneliness began to plague me. Still, poetry and Spirit sustained me even then. I found this poem that seems worth sharing as 2021 comes to an end, and 2022 is about to begin. May you find the courage to follow the road where your heart leads you!

1/13/93

If there can be power in a word
the word “courage”
gets me out of bed
surrounds my heart in hard times.

There are many poverties.
Each moon waning, as I just get by
financially, I find my true despair
lurks in the isolation
which has covered the walls of my days
like some asphyxiating new paint
and I feel I can’t breathe
and I feel I don’t belong here.

I remember when I set out on a path
to transform the world.
We sang then, the joy of our
meeting filling our mouths
like lovemaking, our visions
changing us into new beings.
We laughed at how we didn’t fit
our chains anymore, and big as life
we set about to craft a new home.

There are many poverties.
Loneliness is the unforgivable sin.
I have always felt I could survive
the insanity and cruelty of the world
any poverty or hardship or struggle
if only I had companions to share it.

But here I am.
Loss and need my only mothers.

If there can be power in a word
the word courage
gets me out of bed.
Courage rests her cheek against my heart.
Courage squeezes my hands into her pockets.
Courage plants her feet into the prints
of my solitary steps
as if of course this is where the road
must go and I am still
that traveler.

Climate Catastrophe in Disguise

Wild pansy purple and yellow, blooming in December

A climate catastrophe sometimes shows up as the fragile beauty of a wild pansy blooming in mid-December in Maine. I took a photo this morning, before the snow arrived this afternoon, our likely first plowable snow of the season. Very late for us. The unseasonably warm days feel bright and pleasant, nothing dangerous. But I am thinking of the deadly storms that blasted through the midwest last week, tornadoes killing dozens of people in an unprecedented long trail of destruction. I am thinking of giant raging wildfires in the west, and monster hurricanes in the Atlantic. Sometimes the change feels like nothing much at all, unless I stretch my eyes to take in the bigger picture.

We arrived at our current house and yard six years ago after a 4 month search to find greener housing. We were able to downsize, to add insulation, to cover the south facing roof with solar panels, to install energy efficient heat pumps, to create a garden. Our actions fit the best choices we could make at that time, to align with our love for the earth and all her creatures. In that, they were like a prayer, like a magical spell to further the possibilities of earth community based in mutual respect. On a spiritual level, I have to hope that our small choices can ripple out for good.

But these individual actions don’t make a dent in the greater physical scheme of things. The giant polluters of greenhouse gases continue to ignore the limits of earth to push for expanding profits. We, as a planet, have already exceeded the hopeful atmospheric carbon dioxide goals of environmental organizations like 350.org. Now we’re at 415 parts per million. We’re on the way to unmitigated disasters that we can no longer walk our way back from. Scientists can make some predictions, but no one really knows how the increase in global temperature will play out in the next years and decades.

From where I sit, I can feel overwhelmed and helpless. I don’t have the energy to be out in the streets anymore, an activist like in my younger days. I don’t have the money to donate to activist organizations like I used to when I was working. Many activists I respect talk about the coming collapse of economies and civilizations, even within the next decade. I don’t imagine that I have the physical capacity to survive such a collapse, given my age and health. So what is there to do?

What helps is to recognize my limitations, to take in the very smallness of my being. What helps is to see young activists in the street, sharing their anger and love with loud voices. What helps is to remember that Indigenous people the world over have already experienced the collapse of their economies and civilizations. Pay attention to their advice. What helps is to recognize the smallness of my being, and yet remember how I am interwoven with the ancestors and all the interrelated beings of earth. What helps is to keep on loving the trees and birds and frogs and even the squirrels of this small place we are lucky to share with them. What helps is to offer bird seed as a prayer in the morning. What helps is to imagine the unimaginable largeness of the Earth, our mother, and her mysterious powers that we cannot measure or predict.

Our pond, frozen, with light snow cover.

Marie Madeleine Napeteiashu

Innu embroidery on a leather bag from Lac St. Jean

“Even if you don’t know who your ancestors are, your ancestors know who you are.”

@drxicana Dra. Vanessa M. Bustamante

I think I am coming to the end of my intensive search for the family of my Innu third-great-grandmother Marie Madeleine. I have found the most likely Marie Madeleine of the many that I researched, though I cannot have conclusive proof of any connection. Here is what I found.

Marie Madeleine Napeteiashu was baptized June 6, 1803 at Îlets-Jérémie. She was at that time about 7 years old, “or even more,” so her birth would have been 1796 or perhaps a bit earlier. By that time, the priests started recording the father’s Innu name as a surname for the children, so she does not have her own personal Innu name listed. Certainly, she would have had an Innu name that she used for the first seven years of her life and beyond. Her brother Simon Napeteiashu was also baptized at the same time, and said to be about 4 ½ years old, so born in late 1798 or early 1799. Their parents were Napeteiashu, who did not have a Christian name, and Catherine Mitiskue. Their godparents were Simon Tshinapesuan & Marie Madeleine Iskuamiskuskueu, elders in the community who were also parents or godparents to other Marie-Madeleines I researched. Both brother and sister were named for their godparents.

I was able to find an older brother as well, Jacques Nahabanueskum (later also called Jacques Napeteiashu), who was baptized 6/19/1786, at 2 years old, at Îlets-Jérémie, his parents listed, with a slight variation as Nepiteiashu and Catherine Matshiskueu. I think the name Napeteiashu might mean “male fox” if you stretch the spelling a bit—napeiatsheshu. Mitiskue seems a combination of bead/mitish, and woman/skue, so “bead woman.” Matshiskueu means “ugly woman.” I’m not sure about Nahabanueskum. Sometimes the Innu names changed over time.

Sadly, I did not see any further clearly identifiable records for Marie-Madeleine’s parents. Today I spent hours looking at earlier records to see if I could find Catherine. I found many Catherines, but none with her Innu name or a clear link to identify. Unlike for some of the other families I researched, there weren’t multiple prior generations in the baptism accounts; I could open the mystery no further. Perhaps this family’s connection to the priests at the trading posts was more tenuous, at least prior to Jacques, with the father Napeteiashu unbaptized, and the children not baptized until they were 2, 4, or 7 years old. I would have thought there might have been more children between Jacques 1784 and Marie Madeleine 1796, but I could find no record of them. Perhaps might this family have been more tied to their own Innu culture in the forest, and warier of the trading posts?

However, I did find many other records for Marie Madeleine’s brother, Jacques Nahabanueskum. In May 14, 1804, he was married to Monique Peshabanukueu at Îlets-Jérémie, (with his parents identified as Napeteiashu and Catherine Mitiskue.) They had several children baptized through the following years, with their father’s Innu name listed as their surname: Agnes, 1809, Rose, 1810, Marie, 1812, Charles, 1814, all at Îlets-Jérémie, then Jacques 1818 at Riviere Godbout, and an unnamed child who died 1821, then Monique, 1822, at Îlets-Jérémie. Jacques died before 1824, when his widow remarried to Jacques Tshiuteshish, widower of Marie des Anges Tshimatshueu. The children of that Jacques and Marie des Anges would also have been part of an extended family: Simon, Beatrix, Christine, Hélène, and possibly more.

I also found a possible later link for Marie Madeleine’s brother Simon, as Simon Napitaietshun with Marie Catherine Tshiatshe, parents of a daughter Marie, baptized in 1819, and a son Simon, baptized in 1821, both in Mingan.

One clue that led me to identify this woman as the most likely choice is in the record for the baptism of my own Marie Madeleine’s son Simon, in 1833, at Îlets-Jérémie, where she is identified as “sauvage du dit poste,” which means, translating the racist imagery, “Indian of said post.” And so it seemed to me it might be identifying her place of origin. Of the women on my list of possibilities, within the right time frame, she was the only one who was baptized at Îlets-Jérémie. Now, on the other side, I know that her husband Peter McLeod was a clerk of that post in 1833. But she, along with two other Indian couples baptizing their children were all identified as Indians of that post.

Another reason I find her a compelling possibility is her age. Born about 1796, that would make her about 50 years old at the birth of Marie Madeleine’s last child of record, Marie Sylvie, born in 1846. Late age, but possible. It also means that she would be 53 at the time of her death in 1849, where she was identified as “about 60 years old.” Close enough. I also thought about the fact of her father being unbaptized—and whether that might make it more likely that she would partner with a Protestant man, quite a divide in those days between Catholic and Protestant, but perhaps not unlike the divide between Catholics and the non-baptized. Until the year of her death, when it was conducted in a Catholic ceremony, her marriage to Peter McLeod was not considered a “legitimate” marriage.

A more ambiguous reason I am drawn to her has to do with the network of relationships she seems to be embedded in. My Marie Madeleine named one of her sons, Simon, at Îlets-Jérémie. This would have been the name of her brother, but also another Simon. When her daughter Angèle was baptized in 1836, her godparents were listed as Simon and Angèle, who possibly match a couple named Simon Utshinitsiu and Angèle Neukapne. (No godparents were listed for Simon’s baptism.) This couple appears often in the records, and this Simon is the son of Jacques Tshiuteshish, (whom Monique married after the death of Marie Madeleine’s brother Jacques).

There were several instances of people being in the same place for ceremonies at the same time. Here is just one example. In 1812, on the day after the baptism of Jacques and Monique’s child Marie at Îlets-Jérémie, Simon and Angele’s child Charlotte Utshinitsiu is being baptized there.  It is hard to articulate those connections, but to see the names again and again, led to a feeling of interconnection between the families, that might have followed through into the baptisms of my Marie Madeleine’s children Simon and Angele.

The unfortunate thing about this Marie Madeleine is that there is little information about further ancestors. But with her there is a definite link to a place and a community. Might I be related to the place called Îlets-Jérémie/Jeremy Islets? In Innu, it is called Ishkuamishkᵘ, which one source said means “where you can find polar bears” but is also similar to the word for a female beaver ishkuemishkᵘ. Now, to further clarify, generally speaking the Innu went into the woods in fall, winter, and spring to hunt, and came to the posts only in summer, to trade and to connect with the priests who did the baptisms, marriages, burials, and such. And they didn’t necessarily just go to one post, while avoiding others, but they usually were found at ones that were close to each other. So there definitely seemed a connection to Îlets-Jérémie, over many years.

I feel a strange sort of sadness as I let go of further hunting. The records are so sparse, so much is unknown. And yet I have learned so much, I have a sense of the community that I had no awareness of before this search. All I had was her baptismal name, really, and the place where she lived the last few years of her life. And now I have this sense of visiting her world of 200 years ago, learning the places of the trading posts, which were first of all gathering places for Innu people before colonization. I glimpsed the multiple inter-relationships, I scanned hundreds of Innu names, I observed the seasons of gathering and then going into the forest, the births and the deaths. I could see that she was born into a world of mostly Innu people, and by the end of her life in 1849, the increasing number of settlers outnumbered the Innu. But in that world, one joy was she was able to bear many children, and to live to be in her 50s, which was old for that time. My imagination is now richly populated with all of these people I have glimpsed through the strange window of the scratchy French handwriting of the missionary priests.

I come back to the message I received in the middle of this journey. It was like all these women whispered in my ear, “We are all your relatives! As you search for us, and find our stories, we are pleased, and take you under our wings. We are all your relatives.” So I welcome them all now. And remember, “Even if you don’t know who your ancestors are, your ancestors know who you are.”

Hidden Moon

Photo of the full moon, taken before the cloud cover and the eclipse

I’m starting to write this early in the morning. The clouds are covering the sky, and the eclipse of the full moon is happening now, invisible, but I can feel it in how dark the outside has become. A funny thing about aging—I saw the most amazing full eclipse of the moon when we lived on Cape Cod—October 28, 2004, the night the Red Sox won the world series after an 86 year “curse of the Bambino.” We were watching the game, and intermittently going to the front door of our house, to watch the passage of the eclipse right there. As it was covered by the earth’s shadow, the moon got full deep red. Then the Red Sox won. What a magical night! So back to the funny thing about aging—after that experience, and with an older tired body, I don’t have the same urge to watch eclipses of the moon—especially if it involves getting up in the middle of the night. Tired body, cloud cover, greater memories. Yet here I am awake.

And somehow, it does seem a fitting time to write about another of the Marie Madeleines I have been researching. I’ll start by saying I don’t think she is my actual ancestor, though there is no conclusive proof to rule her out. At first, she was just another name, Marie Madeleine Utsinitsiu, baptized in Chicoutimi July 16, 1805, at about 4 years old, “fille naturelle” of Alphonse Utsinitsiu and Marie Kukuminash. “Fille naturelle” means she is the daughter of parents who are not married, at least by the church. At first when I began to research her, nothing seemed to fit together. But now I think I do have a picture, and I am not sure what to feel about it.

Her father Alphonse, in other records also called Alphonse Ukuinigsiu, was born in 1745 in Chicoutimi, so he was about 54 when she was born. I was able to find six of his other children, with 3 different mothers, only one of whom he was married to. Then he had one more marriage to Marie Louise Utshisk, in 1797, the record indicating it was “rehabilitated” which implies that there was something irregular about their union, and the marriage made it right.

But then it got weird to me. Because Marie Louise Utshisk is the mother of Marie Kukuminash. This means that Alphonse had a child, four actually, with the daughter of his last wife!  I will come back to that. Marie Louise Utshisk has her own interesting series of marriages and children. Born in 1746, she was married to Jean Tshinupesuan, and with him had five children, four before Marie was born around 1781. In 1784, she also had a child with Bernard Pilote, who was French, a trading post clerk.  She was 51 when she married Alphonse in 1797.

Her daughter Marie Kukuminash was herself married in 1793, at the age of 12, to Andre Tshinusheu, who was then 40 (and a widower with a child, Margaret Kukuminash, five years younger than Marie). Marie had a child with him, Marie Josephe Enukesh, in 1795, at 14, and then Andre died in 1796. The following year, her mother married Alphonse Ukuinigsiu. Then, about 1801, Marie Madeleine was born, the daughter of Marie Kukuminash at age 20 and Alphonse Utsinitsiu at age 56. Ironically, Kukuminash means “old woman” in the Innu language.  Later they had three more children, Protais, Pierre, and Agathe, still unmarried, all these children baptized in 1811, but ages not given. I found a record of the death of Agathe in 1816, where she is listed as 10 years old, and the daughter of Alfonse and Marie Louise. But perhaps this was a cover-up of her actual mother.

This family is kind of the opposite of some of the others I researched, who seemed upstanding members of the Innu Catholic communities of the trading posts. Part of me wants to set aside my judgements and see them as people living in extended family community, freer about sexual relationships than the priests would like, having children, and finding partners in arrangements that enabled the group to function for hunting and trapping and gathering. People couldn’t be “single”—everyone needed a group to belong to, and when a partner died, it was necessary to find a new one, or your family couldn’t survive. And marrying young was not unusual either at that time.

But, I also feel creeped out about Alphonse having those four children with the 20-year-old daughter of his 54-year-old wife. Is it just an example of male creepiness, familiar to us in our own time? Or is there something that is hidden by the passage of time and the inadequacy of any records? The death of Alphonse “Ukunikushu” was May 12, 1813, 68 years old, recorded July 15, 1816 at the ceremony of his burial. (Note: these ceremonies did not happen usually at actual burials, but were a religious ceremony to account for the death.)

But, you see, I don’t really know what happened to most of these women and children. Not all deaths were recorded, and scrolling through the records year after year, I eventually notice that people don’t appear again. I didn’t see any further records for Marie Kukuminash. Into the later 1800s, the priests often recorded only first names of people, and it gets harder and harder to identify them. It is still possible that this Marie Madeleine could be my ancestor. A chaotic family life with many marriages and liaisons would certainly fit with her getting together with Peter McLeod, a Protestant clerk of the posts, without benefit of marriage. And Peter and Marie Madeleine later lived in the Chicoutimi area after 1844.

However, more likely, I think I might have found this Marie Madeleine, in the marriage record of Marie Madeleine Kukuminu to Joseph Akamkash, 06/25/1821 in Chicoutimi, with no other details given. Marie Madeleine “Utsinutsiu” would be about 20, and perhaps she adopted the name of her mother? Also it is in Chicoutimi, the same community. There weren’t other Marie Madeleines that I found in that community. These are the only real clues I have about this. This Marie Madeleine and Joseph appear clearly two more times, with the baptism of their children, also named Marie Madeleine and Joseph, and then appear with just their Christian names with possibly 5 other children, some being baptized, some being buried, and Joseph being married in 1839. All these records are in Chicoutimi or Tadoussac, nearby. So, I think it might be the same person, which is why she couldn’t be my own ancestor Marie Madeleine.

I learned a lot by hunting for this family, sparse though the details were. It raised so many questions for me too, all the important information that was never recorded. Surely some of the Innu people and their relationships were broken by the impact of colonization. I wonder about alcohol, I wonder about disease. I wonder about sexual predation by the clerks or priests. And yet, also, I feel heartened by the possibility of Marie Madeleine Kukuminau and Joseph Akamkash making family once again, and caring for children through many years in the place they called home.

Another realization…

The pond with falling leaves in autumn.

After being away for a day, I have a new realization to share in my hunt for Marie Madeleine. Because, after 1802 or so, priests started recording names using the father’s Innu name like a surname, it occurred to me to look for Marie Madeleine Katshisheskueit as Marie Madeleine Tshinushiu, using her father Antoine Tshinushiu’s name.

Then I noticed that I had already made note of a marriage of a Marie Madeleine Tshinushiu on the 26th of July, 1815, father listed as Antoine Tshinushiu. However, the mother was not listed as Anne Kukuminau, her actual mother, but rather Genevieve Matshiskueu. Coming back to that, I realized that Marie Madeleine might be living with her aunt Genevieve, and that could be a reason for her name mistakenly appearing, albeit with a different Innu name, as her mother. In fact, it made sense that this was her: right name, right father. Also, it took place in Ilêts Jérémie, where so many other events have taken place.

She was married to Protais Atikurnu, widower of Catherine Kaskamisku. The day before, there was a marriage for Christophe Atikurnu, Protais and Catherine’s son, with Elizabeth Prituttekan. I also found listings on the same page of the deaths of two children of Protais and Catherine, at Tadoussac, Martin age 8 and Angelique age 5. Many losses that year, but life goes on.

So then I started searching for records after that time for any of those names. In 1817, there was a child Dominique, age 10 months, son of Protais Atikuriniu and Marie Madeleine Uashbanukueu. I had read that sometimes Innu people changed their Innu names, and though I hadn’t seen many examples of that, I think it is reasonable to conclude that this was the same Marie Madeleine, since her husband was the same. In 1818, Protais Atikuiniu & Marie Madeleine Pashabanukueu are listed as godparents for a child’s baptism in Portneuf. Again, that is a very slight difference in the name, that might even be a misspelling. In 1820, there was a child Prisque, age 9 months, son of Protais Attikurnu and Marie Madeleine (no Innu name given), and that same day, a child of Christophe and Elizabeth was also baptized at Portneuf. That might indicate that they were all living together as an extended family group. Continuing through the records through 1833, I didn’t happen to see any further mention.

Since she has this husband and these children, I think what it means is that I need to let go of Marie Madeleine Katshisheskueit/ Tshinushiu/Pashabanukueu in my hunt for my own great-great-great-grandmother. The process of elimination is the path forward, so this is a big step. Still, it is a bit hard to let go, after spending so much time and energy learning about her and her family. She has a big family! I guess that is why I wanted to blog about her today, to share this path of clues, to feel gratitude for the life she lived, and all of her relatives. And to remember the message I felt a while back, that all of these ancestors are my ancestors in some way.

And thank you to all of you who read these musings–these last several posts have been so personal to my own life, to my search for my own matrilineal ancestors. I don’t know for sure why I feel so pulled to do all of this searching, but I am trying to follow the path that my heart leads me, to trust the intuition that guides me through these days of our COVID solitude. I am remembering a line from one of my favorite authors, Linda Hogan, from her book, Dwellings, [p. 40], “The ceremony is a point of return. It takes us toward the place of balance, our place in the community of all things.” Finding my ancestors helps me to understand my place in the community of all things.

Two Marie Madeleines

Cedar bundles from our cedar tree.

In the search for my matrilineal ancestor Marie Madeleine, I am feeling the need to summarize where I’ve come to so far. If you’ve been following along, you know that I’ve been searching through hundreds of images of records from the Postes du Roi on the north coast of the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. With all of those names and dates, I believe now that there are two women who are the most likely to be my own Marie Madeleine. The first characteristic that I am counting on is the year of her birth, and her age at the birth of her last child. In her death record of 1849 she was described as about 60 years of age, but those estimates are notorious for being inaccurate. (Her last child was born in 1846, which would give her the impossible age of 57.) Assuming that her child-bearing years could not realistically go much past 50, that would put the earliest year of her birth at about 1796. But also assuming that she would likely not be younger than 50 at her death, the latest year of her birth would be about 1799.

One of my frustrations these last several days has been how as the years moved along, the priests who were keeping the records were writing less and less, until in the 1820s and 30s, for example, they would often record marriages with first Christian names only, no parents listed, and baptisms with first names only. For example, in 1820 at Rivière Godbout, there was a death listed as “Marie-Madeleine” with no further information. The racism seemed to increase as the years went by. Instead of an Innu name, they started attaching the word “sauvage” to the names, “savage.” So it has become increasingly difficult to hunt for clues. At least the earlier priests took the care to spell out both Christian and Innu names, and parents full names.

But with all of that, these are two women who have emerged as the most likely to be my ancestor.

1. Marie Madeleine Katshisheskueit was born in the forest either Nov 11, 1795 or April 18, 1796. (Today could be her birthday!) In Feb 1846, she would have been either 50 or close to it. At her baptism on 6/28/1796 at PortNeuf, her records were mixed up with Anastasie Kamatshiskueuit. Because of later records for Anastasie, I determined that Marie Madeleine’s parents could only be Antoine Tshinusheu, born 11/20/1778, baptized in Chicoutimi 7/4/1779, and Anne Kukuminau, born and baptized in 1779 in Manicouagan. (They were listed as Anastasie’s parents but see my last post for untangling all that.)

I can’t determine for sure which parts of the baptism record went to which child, so her godparents were most likely Simon Tshinapesuan & Marie Madeleine Iskuamiskuskueu, or possibly Jean Baptiste Assini (sibling to Anastasie’s mother Veronique) & Marguerite Tematseu. Both families have interrelationships through the years.

She had two younger brothers I could find:  Ambroise Kanatsheshiu, baptized Jul 2, 1801 in Chicoutimi, born in the forest around 3 years prior, 1798. And Thomas Mishtapeu, baptized Jul 2, 1801, born in the forest around April 1801, who died and had a burial ceremony at PortNeuf, 23 July 1803, age 2 year, 3 months and 27 days. Both Ambroise and Thomas’s Christian names were after their godfathers, so it is possible that Marie Madeleine’s was after her godmother, another reason to point to those godparents.

There are records going back to her great-great grandparents in certain lines, meaning that her relatives had become Christian and were regular frequenters of the trading posts, in Chicoutimi, Manicouagan, and Îlets-Jérémie for many years previously. Her grandparents were Ignace Pikuruish & M. Jeanne Menastatshiku on her father’s side, and Pierre Rene Mishtapeu & Anne Mok on her mother’s side.

In the summer of 1805, sadly, her parents had burial ceremonies in PortNeuf, having died in August and October of 1804, when she was 8 or almost 9, and Ambroise was 4 or 5. After her parents’ deaths, all her grandparents had already died, but each came from large families, as did her parents.  I looked for aunts and uncles she and her brother might have lived with. The one I found listed the most was Antoine’s sister Genevieve Ushitasku who was married to Francis Xavier Uabushuian. They are in the records for the births/baptisms of six children. It is likely that Marie Madeleine and Ambroise would have lived with their relatives, though I can’t determine who that would have been, but maybe it was these two.

2. Marie Madeleine Napeteiashu was baptized June 6, 1803 at Îlets-Jérémie. By that time, the priests started recording the father’s Innu name as a surname for the children, so she does not have her own Innu name listed. She was at that time about 7 years old, “or even more,” so her birth would have been 1796 or perhaps a bit earlier. Her brother Simon Napeteiashu was also baptized at the same time, and said to be about 4 ½ years old, so born in late 1798 or early 1799. Their parents were Napeteiashu, who did not have a Christian name, and Catherine Mitiskue. Their godparents were Simon Tshinapesuan & Marie Madeleine Iskuamiskuskueu, (the same as for the other Marie-Madeleine!) and both brother and sister were named for their godparents.

(Note: for a while I thought these parents might be the same as Stanislas Mishtanapeu and Catherine Mistiku, but further records made that not possible.)

I was able to find an older brother as well–Jacques Nahabanueskum (later also called Jacques Napeteiashu with several spellings), who was baptized 6/19/1786, at 2 years old, at Îlets-Jérémie. In May 14, 1804 he was married to Monique Peshabanukueu at Îlets-Jérémie. They had several children baptized through the following years from 1809 to 1822, most at Îlets-Jérémie and two at Riviere Godbout. Jacques died before 1824, when his widow remarried. I did not see any further identifiable records for Marie-Madeleine’s parents or brother Simon.

This family’s connection to the trading posts was more tenuous prior to Jacques, with the father Napeteiashu unbaptized, and the children not baptized until they were 2, 4, or 7 years old. There weren’t records of their prior generations in the baptism accounts. There might have been more children between Jacques 1784 and Marie Madeleine 1796, but I could find no record of them. Perhaps this family might have been more tied to their own Innu culture in the forest, and more recently come to the trading posts.

So here I am with these two. It was a major breakthrough for me to search for family members along with the Marie Madeleines. No one was isolated outside of community. I have discovered parents and siblings, aunts and uncles. I have also been drawn to the godparents Simon Tshinapesuan and Marie Madeleine Iskuamiskuskueu. Their names reappear again and again like wise elders to their community, along with the records of many of their own children. I am not finished going through records, but I have reached 1833, in which the birth of my own Marie-Madeleine’s son Simon is recorded at Îlets-Jérémie, with her spouse Peter McLeod.

Today I feel the need to reach out in a spiritual way once again, not that I will find THE ANSWER, but that I find a way forward in this search. I feel the grief of the racism that hides their names and details from those of us who search for them. I have grown to love all of these people whose names I have learned. I made some more bannock, and burned cedar. As I reach out to them I listen for them reaching out to me.