Great Beaver Tale Evolves

The ancient, indigenous Great Beaver Tale about the origin of Deerfield’s Pocumtuck Range has changed dramatically since 1890, when East Charlemont antiquarian Phinehas Field’s 105-word, 1871 description was published in Volume 1 of History and Proceedings of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (1870-79).

Soon after that bare-bones account by a white Christian man of deep Puritan persuasion appeared in print as the ninth of 12 Stories, Anecdotes and Legends Collected and Written Down by Deacon Phinehas Field, two rapid-fire embellishments of his Algonquian earthshaping creation tale were published. The first hit the street in 1895, crafted by venerable Deerfield historian George Sheldon. Then a slightly different version was presented in 1915 by Montague historian Edward Pressey. Sheldon, who apparently was not familiar with the landscape tale before Field brought it to light, increased the word-count to 120 and introduced a few new elements. Pressey upped it to 156 words, adding his own unique spin.

And there you have it in its entirety: a white man’s tale; that of Sugarloaf’s Great Beaver, which stood till the dawning of our 21st century.

In recent years, new life has been pumped into this deep-history oral tale by scholarly, professional, Abenaki storytellers, Marge Bruchac and Lisa Brooks, among other Native contributors who continue to come forward with their own little tweaks and twerks to an alluring tale. They’ve added vivid color and detail to a foundational sketch.

It’s appropriate that Native storytellers have revived this ancient earthshaping tale and molded it into a modern narrative that fits contemporary norms. Even thousands of years ago, Pocumtuck storytellers would have had the liberty to employ poetic license by shaping a deep-history tale to the times – say, for instance, folding it into narrative about natural disaster, such as a flood or drought, perhaps a devastating human epidemic, maybe blight or insect infestation of important plant foods. In the Native American cosmos, natural phenomena, good and bad, happened for a reason. Natural occurrences were seldom if ever viewed as simple coincidence, and could always be related to familiar, ancient tales known for millennia and told around cozy winter fires capable of stirring creative juices of storyteller and listener alike.

A tale like that of the Sugarloaf beaver could last an hour or two, extend through the night, or even go on for more than a day, depending on audience receptivity. The longer versions would have been great theater, the full Monty, so to speak, introducing song and dance, the heartbeat of drums and chants, flashy costume and hushed drama – suspense that could strike fear or rapture into an entranced gathering.

Fidgety children likely heard the short version of such stories around the spring fires of Peskeompskut (now Turners Falls) fishing camps, or in association with a Green Corn Moon festival. The full performance could have been reserved for promontories on the eastern or western horizon from which the Pocumtuck Range’s beaver profile could be clearly deciphered; maybe even from atop Mount Sugarloaf itself – the beaver’s head, its eyes, its brain. What better place to perform ritualistic theater?

Tales that introduced dark, dangerous, underworld spirits – maybe snakes, giant snapping turtles, horned serpents, underwater panthers or even revered black bears – were reserved for winter, when such dangerous creatures were hibernating or unresponsive under dense ice, where they couldn’t hear and thus wouldn’t retaliate. If, however, such powerful forces were alert to the telling and insulted or disrespected, they could and very likely would strike back at disrespectful gatherings.

Eastern Woodland villagers had great respect for everything in their three-layered cosmos consisting of Grandmother Earth floating between the Sky and Under worlds. Theirs was a holistic universe, where plants and animals, springs and swamps, rivers and streams, mountains and valleys, caves and remarkable stones were all community members at council fire. Most everything had a spirit – even inanimate objects like the Pocumtuck Range, which local indigenous people believed had once been a troublesome giant beaver bludgeoned to death by the giant culture-hero Hobomock for flaunting rude, uncooperative behavior, in its case, hoarding and greed. Selfishness was not tolerated by Native Americans, who valued community sharing and charity.

In Algonquian culture, Hobomock was a creator, a transformer, and a mischievous, humorous trickster known by many spellings and names, including but not limited to Koluskap, Gluscape, Glooscap, and Maushop along the Northeastern coast, as well as Odziozo, Nenabozho, Nanabozho, and Nanabush to inland Natives extending through the Great Lakes. Many indigenous tales recounted classic battles between this culture hero and Pleistocene megafauna like the giant beaver, comparable in size to today’s black bear.

Algonquian legend credited Hobomock with reducing the giant beaver and squirrel to today’s more-manageable, less dangerous and destructive size. In the case of the Sugarloaf beaver, the culture hero punished an unruly, antisocial beast and left for eternity a petrified landmark in the form of its carcass.

Today, this abrupt, twisted landform we know as Sugarloaf – for millennia a visual reference for travelers and an observation point for residents – continues to challenge storytellers to conform the Beaver Tale to the times. Bruchac and Brooks have done just that, using the tale as the centerpiece around which to build their very own Western Abenaki narrative about our middle Connecticut Valley. It has become the peg they hang their hat on, an enticing tale that draws listeners.

In the process, place names of geographical features recorded in the extinct Pocumtuck language on our first deeds are being converted to Abenaki words, while distinctions between the ancient New England neighbors are blurred. The truth is that the Pocumtuck and Western Abenaki people occupied different territories, practiced somewhat different lifeways based on climate, and spoke barely mutually intelligible dialects of the base Eastern Algonquian language.

Because of a shorter North Country growing season, Native communities situated there clung more to their “Old Ways” of hunting and gathering than their southern, agriculturist cousins, who adopted Three Sisters farming of corn, beans and squash as their foundational food source. Yes, sure, these people often intermarried, congregated, traded, and united as allies in times of conflict. But, no, they were not one people before Europeans arrived in our valley – though the Sokoki had, by the turn of the 17th century, established their southernmost physical presence in new villages on the northern periphery of Pocumtuck territory. Those villages existed in an area now occupied by Northfield, Hinsdale, New Hampshire., and Vernon, Vermont.

By the late 17th century, the diaspora of southern New England Natives brought them west to the Berkshires and upper Hudson Valley, north to the upper reaches of Lake Champlain, and as far west as the Upper Great Plains, where they assimilated into the dominant societies. Not only did many displaced, homeless Pocumtuck, Nonotuck, Agawam, and Woronoco villagers ultimately wind up living in Western Abenaki villages along the northern shores of Lake Champlain. By 1750, and probably a generation earlier, they had, according to late, great anthropologist Gordon Day, adopted the language of their Sokoki hosts, many of whom had previously lived around Northfield. Simply put, the Sokokis comprised the largest slice of their Champlain villages’ ethnic pie, so their version of the language ruled.

Bruchac and Brooks have many tendrils reaching into those upper-Champlain Native communities, and thus understand the melting-pot dynamics dating back hundreds of years. Though Bruchac, 66, is almost a generation older than Brooks, they both began their college careers in the 1990s. Actually, the younger Brooks, 49, completed each step of her degree path a little earlier than Bruchac, earning her BA from Goddard College in 1993, her MA from Boston College in 1998, and her PhD at Cornell in 2004. Bruchac completed her undergraduate BA at Smith College in 1999, before earning her MA (2003) and PhD (2007) at UMass-Amherst. Brooks is now a professor of English and American Studies at Amherst College, and Bruchac, assistant professor of Anthropology, is Coordinator of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

So, both women are highly capable, articulate scholars and storytellers working at prestigious colleges. Their insights into Northeastern indigenous cultures and their understanding of the Native cosmos are top-shelf, yet not entirely unimpeachable in my eyes. Why? Because, although their interpretation of oral history, such as Sugarloaf’s Great Beaver Tale, is framed in scholarly wisdom, interpretation is not and never will be fact, no matter how cleverly nuanced.

Unfortunately, there is no 19th-century, wax-cylinder, Native-tongue recording of the Great Beaver Tale collecting Smithsonian Institution dust. Thus, the deep-history tale told thousands of years before what late historian Francis Jennings calls the European invasion will never be known. End of story. Period. Instead, we must rely on clever and creative storytellers to give us their best recreations, shaping the narrative to fit their own perspectives.

Bruchac launched the Beaver-Tale resurgence with her own evolving oral presentations in Old Deerfield and elsewhere during the last decade of the 20th century, not unlike Sheldon crafting his pre-History of Deerfield narrative in the Greenfield Gazette and Courier. Hailing from a Greenfield, New York storytelling family that includes older brother Joseph Bruchac and his sons, James and Jesse, Marge Bruchac was the perfect Beaver Tale-rebirth vehicle. She had it in her blood, so to speak. Brother Joseph is a card-carrying creative writer and performer, with many books about Native and colonial folklore to his credit.

Another creative contribution was made by North-Country Western Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau, who dedicated her poem about the beaver, At Sugarloaf, 1996, to Marge Bruchac, suggesting to me the likelihood that Bruchac had introduced her to the tale. The two writers are close in age, travel in the same circles, and are from the same bolt of cloth.

Bruchac’s first publication of the Sugarloaf tale was in the essay “Earthshapers and Placemakers: Algonkian Indian Stories and the Landscape,” which appeared in the 2005 compilation Indigenous Archaeologies: Decolonizing Theory and Practice. Describing the evolution and function of indigenous landscape tales, she stuck to the documented Pocumtuck-language place names for Mount Sugarloaf (Wequomps on a 1672 deed; now more commonly Wequamps, which she translates as “the place where a hill drops off”), the Pocumtuck Range (Pemawatchuwatunck), and the Connecticut and Deerfield rivers, as they appeared in the earliest deeds.

Eleven years later, in her 2016 PVMA online essay “The Geology and Cultural History of the Beaver Hill Story,” she still used the documented Pocumtuck names for landscape features and locations.

Then along came the articulate, younger Brooks, who threw her creative hat into the ring to assist in the reshaping of a pre-Columbian oral tale. Brooks chose to hike a separate path in her excellent, acclaimed The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast, which hit the market in 2008. This historical work of literary non-fiction views our slice of the Connecticut Valley, homeland of the Pocumtuck, through a Wabenaki lens, adopting the same Wabenaki place name Savageau had introduced for Sugarloaf in her poem. That name, Ktsi Amiskw, means “The Great Beaver,” territory encompassing not only the Pocumtuck Range but also the fertile shelf it sits on. Never has the Pocumtuck name for this Great Beaver ever surfaced, so it will be forever unknown. Ktsi Amiskw apparently extends south from the foot of Mount Sugarloaf to the Holyoke Range, which is split by the Connecticut River (Kwiniteku) narrows exiting Northampton Meadows.

Now, as we enter the fourth decade of the new Great Beaver Tale paradigm, additional disciples have appeared from the Nipmuc and Narragansett nations, and local newspapers are singing praise of the refreshing new narrative employing Western Abenaki place names. The reporters say it’s long overdue, about time, for local schoolchildren to learn of their valley’s ancient, indigenous past. How better than by introduction to the indigenous tales of the land? Think of it: How better to arrive at an accurate sense of place than through a Native lens? Simply put, there is no better way.

Even so, it remains true that the new paradigm should never be accepted as the one told 2,000 years BC. At this point, we can only try to accurately re-create an extinct oral tale and the lessons its landscape carcass display.

Sadly, Pocumtuck DNA is scattered far, wide and thin, their language is extinct, and the creation tale of their homeland has faded to a ghost of what it was. We can now only rely on scholarly interpretation and literary intervention, which is fun and captivating indeed, but not the real deal. Sad but true, there is no other way to spin that stark reality.

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