Family Matter in Montagnais-Naskapi Land

My overstuffed December woodshed has been hollowed out by now, leaving a tall, thin reminder along the back edges that the happy sound of spring birdsong is near.

“Don’t let the frigid mornings fool you,” I have many times told myself in recent days, looking up at what’s left. “It’ll soon be over.”

That’s obvious, with daylight lengthening and the sun creeping higher in the southern sky. Before long the backyard brook will roar to the accompaniment of lusty daybreak gobbles from the nearby ridge as eager shad migrate up valley to their June spawning beds.

Keeping a good fire is a primitive skill. I pride myself in being a good firekeeper, tending the soapstone woodstove around the clock during the cold months. To me, there’s none better than wood heat. Nonetheless, I can’t say I don’t look forward to the last flame reduced to cold, powdery, dead ash.

Likewise, I can’t lie. No, I don’t eagerly await the sound of the fall dump truck dropping next year’s fuel supply in front of the woodshed door. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s good exercise for a battered old man trying to remain relevant. But still, it’s an annual chore that only masochists welcome. Why? Because it’s hard friggin work, no matter how you view it.

Plus, one must be cautious. Working a woodpile has been the final act for many an unfortunate man trying to do his part, and that includes a few personal friends.

But why fret it? I can think of many worse endings, some of which I have witnessed. There are worse ways to meet one’s maker than by experiencing a sudden onset of weakness or dizziness, a peculiar twinge in the chest, shortness of breath and a sweaty face-first swoon to the next kingdom. We should all be so fortunate. My sons weren’t. They died in hospitals – no place I want to exhale my final breath.

Sorry. Didn’t intentionally drift off to that place. Sometimes it just happens.

What’s nicest to me about spring’s approach is increasingly longer days and earlier daybreaks. Now that I’m retired, I rise daily to the first grey twinkle of morning light. Such early starts provide several uninterrupted hours of blissful silence. I can read, write, research or fire off emails seeking answers to vexing mysteries of the moment. It seems I’m always chasing for answers to something. It’s just another form of hunting and gathering – another primal chore, like fire-keeping, for which I’m wired.

A man on such a mission can accomplish a lot before the midday distractions of television, phone calls, and surprise visits, even those that are welcomed, not to mention unforeseen household problems that demand immediate attention. I savor early-morning stillness, in my world better than that of late night, when I may be tired but can usually rally for engrossing topics.

In recent days, my reading has taken me on an adventure to the north coast of Canada’s St. Lawrence Seaway. I was taken there by iconic, early-20th-century American anthropologist and University of Pennsylvania academic Frank Gouldsmith Speck (1881-1950). An expert in Eastern Algonquian and Iroquoian culture in northeastern North America, Speck preferred to study native people who were still practicing their old ways when governments and missionaries were committed to expunging them. The chic term activists today use for that cultural cleansing is “erasure.”

By reading Speck classics like Penobscot Man or Naskapi, about Eastern Algonquian people of the Northwoods, we get a glimpse into the lifeways of the indigenous Connecticut Valley people here before they were driven north and west by 17th– and early 18th-century colonizers lusting for their best land and forcing heartless diaspora upon them.

Even after native people here were forced onto reservations or fled to the hinterlands, the goal of their foreign oppressors was to erase their culture, religion, and language, a task instituted and enforced by uniformed officials of church and state.

By exploring the old ways by which Eastern Algonquians of the Northland were still living when he observed them, anthropologist Speck opens a window into the way of life of the indigenous people who lived here long ago.

Many years ago, I bought and read Penobscot Man: The Life History of a Forest Tribe in Maine (1940), and I still often pull it from my library as a fact-checking reference. The book focuses on Maine’s Eastern Abenaki Penobscot people, coastal cousins of the Western Abenaki of northern New Hampshire and Vermont, and also related by marriage and Eastern Algonquian custom to central Massachusetts’ Nipmucks and the native people from our neck of the woods referred to as the “Pocumtuck Confederation” by Deerfield historian George Sheldon.

My latest Speck read, Naskapi: The Savage Hunters of the Labrador Peninsula (1935), came to me by way of the University of Oklahoma Press’ annual Christmas sale. Because Naskapi were Eastern Algonquian, their cosmos was closely related to that of genetically and linguistically related people from our lower Connecticut Valley. We’re talking about shared customs like ceremonial hunting, butchering, and feasting of bears, fishing for and preparing salmon, trout and sturgeon, and even their nomadic seasonal hunter/gatherer travels and villages.

A peculiar new paradigm shift wants to designate as Abenaki the indigenous people native to this place. The Confederation that Sheldon described was comprised of Pocumtuck, Norwottuck, Waranoke, Agawam, and maybe even Nipmuck people, with longstanding marriage ties to the Abenaki and Pennacook to their north as well as the Mohicans who lived west to the Hudson River.

Not until very recent years has anyone tried to designate them as Abenaki. In fact, experts like Eastern Algonquian linguist extraordinaire Ives Goddard hold that based on language, they represented distinctive groups whose dialects would have bordered on unintelligible.

The current confusion may originate with a band of Abenakis known as Sokoki, who showed up to populate the area of present-day Vernon, Vermont and Northfield before 1640. They are believed by most experts to have come here from southern Maine to flee European plagues brought by sailing ships, though others hypothesize that the Sokoki were from the Wabenaki north.

Is this recent shift being used to buttress a thus-far-unsuccessful effort by Wabenakis from Champlain Country to gain federal recognition as a “tribe,” by linking Abenakis to Historic Deerfield? It’s a hot and divisive topic.

Nevertheless, the Native people who lived here and their cousins from the distant north may have eaten different diets, worn slightly different skins and furs, and built different dwellings dictated by climate, but at their spiritual and ritualistic core they were similar, and thus worthy of comparison.

Something else that caught my attention appeared in a bibliographic Speck footnote naming Life and Sport on the North Shore by Canadian naturalist N.A. Comeau as a source of information about Naskapi custom. Published in 1909 and reprinted in 1923 and 1954, the book is still in print.

What interested me most was the author’s surname Comeau, my maternal grandmother’s Acadian French family from Nova Scotia. When cursory online investigation found a direct link, as I suspected it would, I had skin in the game, always an added enticement.

My grandmother Adele Marie Comeau, was born and raised in Comeauville/Clare County/St. Mary’s Bay, Nova Scotia, at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. Her people were fishermen, mariners, merchant marines, farmers, seamstresses, actors and who knows what else. She and the author were indeed from the same Bay of Fundy roots and neighborhood.

I’m confident that, had I discovered author N.A. Comeau before my grandmother died many years ago, she probably would have recognized him as kin. She was still a young girl living in Comeauville, N.S., when Life and Sport on the North Shore was published.

Napoléon-Alexandre Comeau (1848-1923) was the son of a Hudson Bay Company employee. As a result, he grew familiar with Native villages and customs, eventually living with native hunters in hunting and fishing camps. He was also fluent in five languages, three of them Native languages of the Northland, including Montagnais-Naskapi. French was his native tongue, and he learned English as a teen sent by his father to a school in Trois-Rivières, Quebec. His Comeauville grandfather had moved his family across to the Bay of Fundy’s western shore in Trois-Rivières during the final quarter of the 18th century.

The author Comeau bore witness to and participated in hunting and fishing customs that few white men capable of coherently writing about it have experienced. He knew the ins and out of setting ingenious snares and dead falls to capture furbearers as well as the trapping, spearing, cleaning, preparing and storing fish reserves.

What he wrote more than 100 years ago is still an important window into Naskapi culture, which, when reduced to the lowest denominator, is not much different than that of the Connecticut Valley’s Pocumtucks.

So, there you have it – another day, another log on the fire, another winter reading adventure – all to the faint trickle of sugarbush sap-lines dripping toward another glorious budding of spring.

It never gets old.

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