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Winter 1999, Volume 16.2

Essay

 

Patricia Clark Smith    photo of Patricia Clark Smith.

The Fatness of It

For Michael RunningWolf
for all my family
ôelalen


Patricia Clark Smith’s most recent collection of poetry is
Changing Your Story. She and Laguna Pueblo writer Paula Gunn Allen coauthored As Long As The Rivers Flow: The Stories of Nine Native Americans. Smith and her husband, publisher John Crawford, live in Albuquerque.   

 

In the nineteenth century Native American relatives on both sides of my family left tribal life behind, back across the Canadian border, so far back that the name of our tribe—Micmac—seldom got mentioned. We were just "part Indian." But our being "part" explained why we were different from the neighbors—at least, that’s the story I told myself.

I’m remembering Nana, born in 1885, my maternal grandmother, Julia Larock Dunn. Bright as she was, Nana quit school after sixth grade, turning her back on the teachers who made her ashamed of her Quebequois accent, the way she said dese and dose instead of these and those. Until her early thirties, during the academic year she worked as a chambermaid at Smith College and in the summers did the same work in the grand hotels of Jamestown, Rhode Island. On her days off she flirted with British chauffeurs and strolled arm-in-arm with other domestics, enjoying sea breezes and gossip about the rich and those who waited upon them. By the time she married and settled down with my thoroughly Irish grandfather Jimmie Dunn, Nana knew how much larger and lusher life might be beyond the hills and milltowns of western Massachusetts.

But what really made Nana different was her easy relationship with nature. Our back yard weeds weren’t weeds to her. She knew the difference between peppermint and spearmint, how chewing sorrel is like eating pickles, how the tenderest young leaves of plaintain—chicken cabbage, to her—taste like lettuce. And she was weather-wise. She watched dawns and sunsets, rings around the moon, the different angles leaves assumed on branches as barometric pressure changed. She noted the width of black bands on fat woolybear caterpillars, when birds migrated, how hard the squirrels worked to store up food.

Sisip, says my teacher. That’s just our word for any small bird. A’dou’dou’ gwetj, he tells me. Squirrel. It means Chatter.

You mean like Chatterer? I ask.

No, he says, impatient with my failure to listen, just chatter.

My grandmother learned plants and weather from her father, my great-grandfather Joseph Larock. She was his favorite, the youngest of his seventeen children. He always took her along when he went frog-gigging because she could row so quietly no frog ever startled at their skiff’s approach.

In Micmac, my teacher tells me, there are three words for frog: Bobo, for bullfrog; bagawa, for regular frog; ableegamoutj for small frog. But all frogs are descended from the monster who once stole the people’s water. Glous’gap came to the rescue and squeezed and squeezed that creature in his mighty fist until he became the size frogs are today.

Joseph was born in Quebec north of the Saint Lawrence and raised in a logging camp by his full-blood Micmac grandmother. I have a photograph of him. He has a kind and intelligent face; he looks like a mixed-blood Walt Whitman. We don’t know why it fell to his grandma to bring him up. Her name, whether in Micmac, French or English, is lost. But of this thrice-great-grandmother, we know four things: she cooked for the loggers; she dressed in buckskin trousers belted with rope; she chopped wood as well as any man; she was said to be a mute.

I have been haunted by this report of her silence all my life. Was she really mute? Was she perhaps a Micmac speaker who shunned French and English, who was not listened to when she spoke her native language? Could her silence have been a choice?

Years after I first heard that story, when I was a new assistant professor at the University of New Mexico, an administrator who knew about my silent great-great-grandmother invited me to teach on-site on the Navajo Reservation in a program training Navajo speakers to run bilingual elementary-school classrooms. It was a big commute from Albuquerque to Sanostee and Toadlena, a big commitment of time and energy. I was not yet tenured, I had two small sons and a shaky marriage. I couldn’t say yes fast enough.

Spi’dunk, I repeat after my teacher. It’s the Micmac word for the sound of a small object falling into water. Think of an angler’s deftly cast lure, or a mating pair of dragonflies locked together and zooming around, descending at times to deposit their freshly fertilized eggs on the pond, the sound of her ovipositor stitching the surface.

Spi’dunk. When the two touch down, there’s a dimple, and small ripples begin to fan out.

By the 1860’s, Joseph made his way across the border and down into western Massachusetts, where there was ample work in the mills. He knew French and English and "Indian"—probably some sort of all-purpose pidgin Algonquin—and so he got on rapidly as a foreman, translating between the French and Algonquin-speaking millhands and the English-only bosses. One of his duties was to stand at the factory door and check off the workers leaving their shifts. There in 1863 he met my great-grandmother Melvina Scott, totally Francophone and Quebequois in culture despite her name and her pale cornsilk hair.

The French : win’ju’sem, or "The windy people," so named for their flatulence.

Joseph and Melvina moved their growing family back and forth across the border until they finally settled in Easthampton, Massachusetts. Despite their long and devoted marriage—Joseph died around the turn of the century from a gangrenous axe wound—there must have been cultural differences between those two. My mother remembers how when thundershowers boomed up the Connecticut Valley, her grandmother Melvina would sprinkle the house with holy water while her own mother, Julia, Joseph’s daughter, held her up to the windows, teaching her to exult in storms.

Thunder, gagtoug, "hard to listen to"; lightning, wetj’a’disk, "runs across the sky."

 

My paternal grandmother, Esther Donahue Clark Noffke, Essie, always said that her mother, Felicité Gignac Donahue, was "part," and my father carried a dim childhood memory of a dark-skinned grandmother in a circle of lamp light brushing out her long black hair. By the time I got around to asking questions about Felicité, the photograph of her supposed to be lying around someplace had been lost.

Essie seldom talked about her mother, probably because Felicité was bad-tempered, a drinker, likely abusive. Essie walked with a slight rolling limp because her mother dropped her when she was small, and the hip injury never set right. From the hushed-voiced way this story got told, it was plain to me that Felicité was drunk at the time.

A few years ago at my mother’s house I discovered that lost photograph of my great-grandmother, and I saw that she was almost certainly not "part" but a full-blooded Micmac. In some Holyoke, Massachusetts photographer’s palm-lined studio Essie and Felicité are surrounded by Donahue relatives with map-of-Ireland faces. My great-grandmother is dressed to the nines in lacy white organdy, posing with a parasol. Essie stands grimly behind her, her hand not resting dutifully on her mother’s shoulder, as one would expect, but apparently clenched behind her own back. Felicité appears at once exotic and twisted. Her features are lovely, classic Algonquin, but some awry energy seems to be pulling at her face and skewing her upper body into asymmetry. She looks anything but felicitous. Where and how my great-grandfather Patrick Donahue found and claimed her, how she got from Trois Riviéres in Quebec, her birthplace, to Holyoke, no one knows.

Ulno’eh, the Irish, "people like us," so named for their clannishness.

One thing that comes down to me through Essie is a very particular sense of history . Though my grandmother was a devout Catholic who identified strongly as Irish, she was clear about what injustices Indian people have suffered. Since she was not close to her mother, I am not sure how she came by this conviction, but God knows she had it, and she wished to pass it on to me.

She and my German-American step-grandfather were the ones who first took me on a Sunday drive to the little town of Montague, Massachusetts. We stood on the bridge looking upstream at Turner’s Falls (or rather at the hydroelectric dam that since the 1930’s has taken over that waterfall, once so mighty Algonquin tribes called this place Peskeumskot, "exploding rocks"). As we leaned on the bridge rail, they told me about the white colonists’ massacre of Algonquin peoples that took place there in the early morning hours of May 19, 1676, during the final spring of King Phillip’s War, when people were gathered at the falls as usual for the spring salmon run. English colonists stole upon the fish camp before dawn and opened fire into the wigwams. Between two and three hundred Algonquins were slaughtered, mostly women and children and the elderly.

There is no historical marker at Montague, but somehow my grandmother, no reader of history, knew this story. It is a part of my legacy from her.

Numbers: 1. nin 2. dabou 3. sist 4. neo 5. nan 6. asougoum, "more help" 7. eloin’ig, "sacred" 8. ol’go’motj’in 9. pe’ton’a’teg 10. neotisag, "the big one;" bouzhou’gol : "a whole lot" [from the French, "beaucoup"].

"Micmacs," says my teacher, demonstrating, "count from the little finger toward the thumb. At six you have to go to the other hand, so that’s why you call that number ‘more help.’"

Saganatj, the English, "Captains over us."

My imagination was caught by the Indian presence in my family. Someday, I told myself, I’ll go to Canada, and I’ll find our relatives. I had fantasies of being taken in, taught all the things I might have learned if my family had kept living at reserves like Restigouche or stayed in towns like Trois Riviéres, near enough so people might have been able to go home again.

Te ba’digan: Come in!
I’bah’say: Sit down!
Meese! :Eat!

The other parts of me always felt well filled-in. I grew up watching Saint Patrick’s Day parades, listening to polkas on the radio’s daily Franco-American Hour, hearing the brogues and the Quebecois accents that still lingered strongly in my family’s voices. I knew stories about how my great-aunt found a filthy old clay pipe on the strand of Cork harbor and got told that if she didn’t throw it away, the fairies would come to snatch her; about the mortality-minded Irish aunt of one of my mom’s girlfriends who lifted a bony finger and warned, "Loudly the banshee wails, gurrels!" every time my teenaged mother and her friends giggled about good times ahead. I know about my mother’s walking seven miles each Saturday afternoon from Northampton to the hospitable Easthampton homes of her French-Canadian relatives, where there’d be pea soup and boudouin and tourtiére, and they’d push back the furniture and dance to fiddles and accordions and palms beating time. I know how Melvina, my great-grandmother, would call my mom : not "Viens ici, ma petite!" but more like "vien’ci, ‘teet!" clipped even for Canadian French. When my mom imitates her, I feel I am hearing the voice of my lightning-phobic great-grandmother, born in 1845, dead nine years before I was born.

Nou’gou’mitj: elderly woman, grandmother; skou’da’moutj: the life-force shadow

But I have always had so many questions about the Micmac side of my family. I’ve lived my life looking for news of that world, trying to affirm in whatever way I can my connection with it.

I’m ten. I’m in sixth grade at Thomas B. Reed Elementary School in Portland, Maine, where we’ve just moved from Massachusetts. I’m excited partly because we’re closer to Canada, and we’re within an easy drive of the ocean, my deepest love. But my class contains a lot of tough rural Yankee kids. I’m the new one, and it’s already October, the term well underway. My pretty young teacher and my classmates all have such strong Maine accents I can hardly understand them: caah for car, kayuh for care. Today we’re studying homonyms, and Miss McGaughan writes examples on the board:

There Their
Father Farther
Way Weigh

All my short life I’ve had a big mouth and I know this is going to cost me, but my hand shoots up like some alien tentacle independent of me. "Yes?" asks my teacher, annoyed at questions that aren’t preprogrammed.

I say," How come FAHther and FARther are homonyms?"

She says, "Listen to me say the words: FAHthah... FAHthah!"

I say, "But when I say them it sounds like FAHther and FARther."

And she says brightly, turning to the class, "But she’s wrong, isn’t she?" and everyone laughs and agrees. And then it’s recess.

The other kids crowd around. "Why do you talk funny? What are you?" they demand. Whether in Northampton, Massachusetts, or Portland, Maine, in 1953 this last question means, "What ethnicity are you?"

I say what I know to say, the truth: I’m Irish, French, and Indian, and then they fall on me. They back me up to a big ventilation pipe that projects horizontally out of the school building, they boost me onto it, as though I’m riding a horse, they take rabbit punches at me, they spit, they yell, "Woo, woo, woo, Injun, Injun!" jumping around and fanning their hands over their mouths, until—not very quickly—the teacher on recess duty comes over and tells them to stop. I’m crying, I have a bloody nose, I’m covered with dirt and snot, and I’m feeling a kind of rage I have never felt before. A sentence forms in my mind: So this is what it’s like. What it’s like to be Indian, I think I mean.

Nin migam’a’goudum: I am Micmac.

 

On scholarships and loans, I get through Smith College and then Yale Graduate School and take my doctorate in English literature. I don’t often find any of my ethnicities in the literature I am told to read. No Canadian literature, much less French Canadian writing, though I recognize relatives in James Joyce, Frank O’Connor, and Harold Frederick. And there’s the Pocassets and Pocanokets of Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, real Algonquins, even though seen through an enemy’s eyes, who interest me a lot more than Cooper’s stilted characters. But that’s it, until 1969, when I begin a two-year teaching stint at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, close to the Tama reservation of the Mesquakie tribe. Bill Byers, a young white man who runs the Upward Bound program with many Tama kids in it, is actually teaching a course in American Indian Literature! He’s rounded up old copies of Darcy McNickle and Pauline Johnson, he’s dittoed off poems by Tama poet Ray Young Bear and Simon Ortiz of Acoma Pueblo, and there are starting to be new books to work with—notably, N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn. That’s it, for me. I’ll never stop reading this literature; my scholarship on Edgar Allan Poe pales beside it.

In 1971, I move to the University of New Mexico, where I mutate from the nineteenth century Ivy League Americanist the faculty thinks they’ve hired into someone who writes about American Indian literature and teaches part time on-site on the Navajo Rez, someone passionate to bring American Indian literatures into American Lit survey courses. The white-haired emeritus American Literature professor, I’m told, shakes his head at Friday night symposia he holds for favored graduate students and young faculty. "She’s gone native," he sighs.

No. I just want to learn and teach in native communities here in New Mexico in as helpful a way as I can. I’m not trying to be Navajo, Pueblo, Apache. Mostly, I don’t even say I have Indian blood; I just try to do my work. As for any chance at drawing closer to my roots, I’m a long way from Micmac country, with no clue about how to present myself were I to go to Quebec and try to find family. With my light skin, my blue eyes, my lack of language, what could I look like but a Wah’nah’be, even though I treasure a strong sense that I am Micmac?

Good things happen. I do get to teach on-site, commuting to small towns on the Rez: Sanostee, Toadlena, Ramah. I learn enough halting Navajo to help my students begin to work with Navajo kids writing in Navajo. For three years our students in UNM’s Title VII bilingual teacher-training program graduate with Bachelor’s degrees in Elementary Ed and become luminous teachers, until political finagling drains much of the federal money away, and the whole program is gutted.*  I run workshops in creative writing and southwestern literature at schools like Rock Point, Arizona, where the Navajo community is setting its own curriculum. Among the first dissertations I direct is Laguna Pueblo writer Paula Gunn Allen’s, which will turn into her seminal book The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in Native American Tradition. Under Paula’s direction, a number of us pool essays and syllabi for the Modern Language Association’s Teaching Native American Literature: Curriculum and Course Design. I teach others who go on to do fine work— literary critic James Ruppert, Navajo poet and scholar Luci Tapahonso, part-Apache poet Jimmy Santiago Baca; Maidu poet-scholar Janice Gould. All along I am blessed immeasurably by my native students and their families, who invite me to share in feast days, christenings, birthdays, weddings, graduations, divorces, funerals, new loves, achy-breaky hearts, political demonstrations, rez basketball games.

In 1988, I marry John Crawford, whose West End Press specializes in multicultural poetry, and I get to help out a little with bringing out books by Paula, Luci, Cheyenne writer Lance Henson, Paiute-Shoshone writer nila northSun, and Cherokee-Choctaw novelist and scholar Louis Owens, my colleague at U.N.M. Louis and I scramble to cover the demand as Native American literature becomes one of the two most popular areas in our department. After nearly a quarter century teaching here, I know I’ve done some worthwhile work.

Still, I am missing something.

It’s early November, 1995. I’m standing in Victor and Martha Garcia’s All Indian Nations Bookstore in Albuquerque, where Michael RunningWolf has just been telling Micmac stories, far from the Maine coast where we both grew up. I learned about him a year ago, when my younger son heard from a fellow preschool worker about a Micmac medicine man living twenty miles south of Albuquerque in Tomé. I didn’t try to contact Michael then, though I was sure he was for real. People don’t invent themselves or their ancestors as Micmac the way they come up with "Cherokee Princess" grandmothers. We’re not a name-brand tribe. I’m just too shy to approach him. It’s like thinking about taking a little trip to visit the burning bush, to hear the voice in the whirlwind, that kind of shyness. Long before we meet, I’m sure he’s a way back to what I need.

Now I learn that Michael is story telling at this bookstore a few blocks from my house, and I know I must go and present myself, whatever happens. I drag my old friend Tony along for courage. When we walk through the door of the bookstore, Tony tells me later, he thinks for a moment that he’s looking at my blood brother. Like Mike Clark, Michael RunningWolf is a big man—nearly six feet tall , then packing quite a few pounds, strong features, an especially formidable brow. Even as I stand and watch him one part of me is thinking, so that’s where my face comes from! He’s wearing a bright red shirt, a black velvet vest richly beaded in flower patterns, and breechclout trousers that expose his meaty flanks. In a commanding voice he’s telling a story I know from my reading, the one about Glous’gap reclaiming water for the People from the monster who stole it all. His voice thunders as the creature bellows ALL THE WATERS ARE MINE! The room is transformed. With Glous’gap, we all peer into the monster’s maw to see the moose and elk and pine forests and entire villages he has swallowed. My own mouth hangs open.

When the stories are over, the irrepressible Martha drags me over to Michael. "You guys have to meet," she cackles. "Tell him," she commands, poking me in the back.

"I’m part Micmac." These are the three hardest words I have ever had to say, and I say them shyly, not quite daring at first to look up into Michael’s face. I imagine him eying my Anglo complexion and thinking to himself sarcastically, "Sure you are". And if he does, I will not know where to go, what to do. Instead, he sizes up my forehead, my wide cheeks, and he grins. "You are!" he says.

I invite Michael to my Native American Literature class to tell stories the following autumn, and our friendship and trust of one another grow over the year. We come to know one another’s families. He brings me gifts: tobacco, bundles of sage, a tape of Micmac songs, a bumper sticker that reads Micmac and Proud; carefully written accounts of Micmac political organization and tribal sovereignty. Finally, in the spring of 1997, I ask him if he would be willing to teach me some Micmac in the coming summer. "I want to pay you for the tutoring," I begin, but his face looks so stern I stop short. "That’s white man’s thinking!" he says scornfully. "You don’t pay for your birthright!"

It turns out he’s already put a lot of thought into what I need, what he wants for both of us and what he wants for Micmac people, and he’s way ahead of me. He explains that for a long time he’s been thinking about how to get the hundreds of stories he knows into print, and he has been praying specifically for a Micmac woman writer to share that work with him: Micmac, so that the stories will be part of her heart as well as his; a woman, because the project needs a balance of male and female energy; a writer, because he is a storyteller, and lacking his body language and presence, the words may seem thin on paper. If we do a book together, I can be learning Micmac language and stories and values all at once, and together we’ll preserve something for our children. It’s the sort of plan the Creator would come up with, and it’s perfectly clear to Michael that Nigs’gam, Holy Grandfather, has brought us together.

My own prayer is that I’m up to this task. Michael adds that when he was smoking the ceremonial pipe and asking for guidance, Nigs’gam revealed to him one particular piece of advice. I steel myself for something about our heavy responsibilities. But Michael just grins, and closes his eyes, and says, "Okay, kid, here’s what he’s telling us: Have fun!"

We do. June, July, and August of 1997 spread out into the richest summer of my life.

Michael decides that the book—"our first book," he says—will be a series of connected stories about Glous’gap, Elder Brother, trickster-culture hero-spiritual champion of the Micmac, the one who got the People’s water back. Our routine quickly takes shape. Once or twice a week I drive south to his house on the edge of the llano that sweeps up toward the foothills of the Manzano mountains. Almost always, he’s standing in the doorway when I drive up. Inside, the house smells of tobacco and sage and whatever medicine he may be brewing up on a back burner. He makes coffee for himself, tea for me, padding around the kitchen in his soft moccasins while his little son Joseph plays at our feet, racing in and out to show me his newest Power Ranger. Michael’s written out many of the stories, some as far back as twenty years ago, when he himself was in his twenties—so I’ve already had a chance to read and think about whatever story we’re working on. Sometimes I’ll have heard him tell a story in performance; sometimes he’ll tell it to me there in the kitchen. Out come notebooks, typescripts, and before long New Mexico recedes. We’re walking through forests of spruce and larch and birch, we follow Glous’gap and Great Rabbit and Grandfather Turtle around the snowfields and swamps and the gray Atlantic coast of our childhoods.

The first story we work on is a very short one that takes place in the time of the universal flood. The mighty Glous’gap is sharing a floating log with Fisher-cat and the irascable Porcupine, who claims the best place on the log for himself and makes Glous’gap nearly drown. In this tale, Glous’gap chooses to appear meek and humble, like an angel in disguise, and Fisher fights Porcupine to make him give up his seat to Glous’gap. Then Glous’gap tenderly pulls the quills out of Fisher’s nose and tells him he’ll be the only animal who can always get the best of Porcupine in a fight.

Once I’ve had a chance to think about the story, I’m to ask questions . At first, stupidly, I think there’s not much to talk about, but Michael turns me back to the story again and again, showing how things aren’t always as they seem, how generosity and sharing are crucial to survival, how kindness is due everyone, how promises are to be kept, how courage is its own reward. Once he’s satisfied that I understand the story, I’m allowed to take it home and work on it. Then I bring my version back to him, and we go over it word by word, nuance by nuance until we’re both sure it’s right. Contrary to my fears, it’s the smoothest collaboration I’ve ever done.

And it’s good for Michael, too. Living so far from Micmac country, he’s had no one with whom to talk about these stories at length. One day we’re working on one about Glous’gap simultaneously hunting down Te’am’ous’eh ("He strips things off trees"), the giant moose who is ravishing the landscape, and a giant eagle who has taken to stooping down upon the Micmac and carrying them off to his nest atop bloody cliffs far to the west. After Glous’gap shoots the moose, in its death spasms the creature gouges out five enormous trenches in the earth with his antlers, with the directional orientation of each trench precisely described in the story. We realize simultaneously that this story is a map, and we haul out Michael’s Rand-McNally Road Atlas to confirm that it must be describing the formation of the Great Lakes; the bloody eagle-cliffs that lie beyond are the red formations of Pipestone National Monument.

"Do you know what Glous’gap does when he wants to travel by sea?" I ask my patient and fascinated husband, these summer evenings at dinner. "He sings the song no whale can resist, the whale-summoning song, and then a nearby whale swims close to shore, and then Glous’gap climbs onto her back, and whale-surfs over to Newfoundland or wherever, and his hair streams out behind him in the wind!"

"Guess what? When Glous’gap’s sidekick Pine Martin needs to send him a secret message, he leaves behind a birchbark bowl, and the markings on the bark always tell Glous’gap what he needs to know."

"Clams hate Glous’gap, for reasons that go back to the beginning of time, and they sing spiteful clam-songs about him, but most creatures don’t speak Clam, so those insults don’t get spread very far."

Under Michael’s teaching I fall entirely in love with the stories and the imaginative and moral world they embody. And then there’s the language, the Micmac language, the astonishment of it being spoken, not trippingly, but spoken at all upon my tongue. Words my ancestors spoke, words I hope my thrice-great grandmother spoke. Over and over I repeat words Michael has written out phonetically in his precise parochial-school handwriting. Deer: lentogk, "the true hearer." Whale: Boot’up, "water-friend." Cradleboard: a’ tikan’agan, "something fits inside something else." Tiny splash, with ripples: spi’dunk.

One day I ask him for the word for "life."

"Mem’atj’ou’ógan," he pronounces carefully, and I repeat it after him.

"Does that mean something besides just ‘life’?" I ask. "The way the cradleboard word talks about something tucked inside another thing?"

"Yeah," he says, smiling, "It means ‘the fatness of it.’"

"Oh," I say, remembering winters in Maine, imagining winter in Quebec, in the Maritimes, thinking about Tjinou, the ice giant who hunts down Micmacs, about north-dwelling peoples who appreciate grease, tallow, lard, oil. No low-fat regimes there.

It’s the week before UNM starts back, August, 1997. We’ve finished the book—"the first book"—and I’ve driven down to give Michael his copy of our manuscript, the manuscript I’ve just mailed off. I hate for this summer to end, the long leisurely talks at the kitchen table, those hours at the computer watching Glus’gap and Boot’up and Win’pe the terrible sorcerer doing what they will do before my very mind’s eye. Not that more wonders don’t lie ahead, but there will never be another first summer of learning Micmac words and stories, of being conducted into the presence of a heritage I feared I’d never find.

Michael looks mischievous, and indeed there’s something—two things—on the kitchen table for me, the way there is when Joseph leaves me a drawing he’s made, or Michael’s got a fresh story prepared. One is a hair clip made of a hawk’s feather, with a red felt base and dangling dentalium shells. The other object is a mag’ok, a small birchbark basket. When I went back to New England last summer and asked Michael what he wanted from the north country, birchbark was his sole request. My brother Mike gathered a big sheaf from a tree behind his New Hampshire house, and I brought it back wrapped up in a trash bag in my suitcase. This mag’ok is a perfect oval sewn with deer sinew that just fits in the palm of my hand, and Michael’s wife Kat has filled it up with hard candies—mag’ok are often used as containers at traditional giveaways. Michael explains how he softened the bark by dipping it into hot water to make it pliant, how delicate the timing of that process, the way the pattern gets cut out, how he prepares the deer sinew. I can’t stop tracing with my fingertip the seams of the basket. I’ve always thought birchbark’s beauty lay in the dramatic contrast of white outer bark and its black slashes; now I see how the inner bark carries those same dits and dashes, only in softer tones, sepia against russet. In these colors, I think, Pine Martin chose his markings and left behind his basket- code to summon Glous’gap.

I look up from the basket. "I’ve never had anything Micmac," I say. Of course, as Michael has been reassuring me these last two years, all my life I’ve had something Micmac. But today he knows I mean any physical object, anything I could touch, wear, carry. And he knows I am trying to thank him for the whole last summer, these words and stories and ways to think he has been teaching me.

"Uh-huh," he says, grinning, raising his big eyebrows as he nudges the brimming ma’gok across the table toward me.

 

* I have written about this experience at some length in my essay "Icons in the Canyon; A New Critical Memoir," in William Spurlin and Michael Fischer's Rethinking the New Criticism; Connections and Continuities (NY: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995) : 275-295.

 

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