A lost Native masterpiece is republished


PENOBSCOT, Maine - When Klose-kur-beh, the Penobscot people's culture hero known also as Glooscap, lived with the first people, he taught them many useful things - how to make: stone tools; medicines from plants; fast, lightweight canoes; and pouches to carry fire safely. But his overarching lesson was a simple principle about how to live on Earth with other people: ''The Great Spirit did not make the land for brothers to fight for; he made it for love's sake.''

That teaching is at the heart of an exceptional book called ''The Life and Traditions of the Red Man,'' written by Penobscot Joseph Nicolar and published in 1893, a year before his death.

A new edition was published last year, edited and annotated with a history of the Penobscot Indian Nation and an introduction by Annette Kolodny, University of Arizona College of Humanities professor emerita of American literature and culture. Nicolar's grandson, Charles Norman Shay, wrote the preface; and Bonnie D. Newsom, the nation's director of cultural and historic preservation, wrote the afterword.

The book intertwines stories of Penobscot history with ancient memories and detailed descriptions of traditional material culture in the Northeast Woodlands before the European invasion. It includes descriptions of shamanistic practices, the uses and abuses of spiritual powers, and prophecies about the coming of the white man.

Klose-kur-beh's advice about the creation of the land ''to me sums up one of the major messages of the book - that this world was made for people to respect and love and honor, and live peacefully on, not to fight over,'' Kolodny said.

''Written three years after the tragedy at Wounded Knee, when Native peoples were increasingly forced to leave their lands and lifeways and white people were nervous about Indian prophecies, writing a prophetic text was a courageous act.''

But Nicolar was urgently concerned about preserving the knowledge handed down in oral tradition through time.

''What Nicolar does is collapse many, many periods of time, because he's interested in tradition and passing on to his people a culture that is increasingly at risk of disappearing. He isn't interested in linear time, but in certain major themes, so that's what organizes the book. The major themes are how to live ethically in the world in relation to one another and to your landscape, and how to remember always your own distinct cultural heritage.''

The book includes, among other things, stories about Klose-kur-beh's creation from ''nothing,'' his journey, the first family, married love and ''the end of all wars among the red people.''

Some of Klose-kur-beh's prophecies, spoken in the first person, are in hindsight. He talks of ''the awful day coming'' when the white man will arrive and ''will not rest until he finds the land the Great Spirit gave unto you.''

He warns the red man against being used as human shields by white man, ''because he shall have the way that he can put you in front of him, and you shall receive all the blows and be slain for his gain, and the two brothers shall make peace between themselves over your body that has been slain for the land because you have forgotten my teaching.''

Other prophecies are relevant now, such as predictions that the white man will destroy the earth until it's ''like an empty hornet's nest'' and destroy himself.

Kolodny was guided to the book when she was in Maine in 2000 researching materials for a forthcoming book about the first contacts by Vikings who explored the northeastern shores around 500 years before Columbus and the European invasion.

Long out of print - and largely out of people's memories - the book wasn't all that easy to find. Kolodny finally tracked down a copy to a library in Canada that was willing to lend it to her. It shook her world.

''I was blown away. My first question was, 'how did this amazing book get lost? Why hadn't I heard of it? Why is it not being taught? Why isn't it a part of the major canon of Native American and American literature?'''

Kolodny, a widely published and renowned scholar whose career has combined political activism in the civil rights, women's and environmental movements with a scholarly scrutiny of American culture and its discontents, describes the book as ''a lost masterpiece of 19th century literature.''

''It is the only book of its kind - a 19th century sustained narrative that is totally coherent and integrated about Native people and their traditions written by a Native person in English without the aid of outside scholars and anthropologists, and the only book to come out of the Wabanaki people of this time. It was unique and had some very powerful writing in it. I thought it can't stay hidden anymore. It has to become known to people because it is such an extraordinary piece of literature.''

In his preface to the text, Nicolar writes that only a ''red man'' like himself can ''give the public the full account of all the pure traditions which have been handed down from the beginning of the red man's world to the present time.''

His subtext is about representation and who could be trusted as custodian of indigenous traditions.

''In Nicolar's view, only a true descendant steeped in the ways of his people possessed both the knowledge and the right to control the interpretive process through which Indian cultures were invested with meaning,'' Kolodny said.

In keeping with Nicolar's view, Kolodny, a non-Native, worked closely with Shay and other community members to gain their trust and their blessing for the project.

Shay, an honored World War II hero, said he was the only person who initially supported the republication of his grandfather's book.

''I was the only living grandson, and therefore my support of this project carried the most weight. I saw this as an opportunity to introduce this book into universities and schools across the country or, better put, on a national basis as it had been laying dormant in the state of Maine for over 100 years.

''At the time, I proposed to Annette that she include as part of the introduction a short history of the Penobscot Indian so that people reading this book would know who we were, where we came from and our role in the history of this country. Up until this time, people knew only of Indians who rode horses. We had no horses in the state of Maine. There were to be no alterations in the writings of my grandfather.''

When he held the republished book in his hand, he said, ''It was a vision come true.''

Kolodny said she would like ''The Life and Traditions of the Red Man'' to become required reading in American history and literature from the eighth grade on.

''The man who wrote it had an eighth-grade education. He wrote it both for Native and non-Native audiences, and he's asking them to keep honoring and respecting the culture they come from. I think if young people have a chance to read this, we might have a chance of honoring Nicolar's own ethical precepts.''