HUNTING AND GATHERING

WRITER BUNNY MCBRIDE HELPS

MAINE'S NATIVE AMERICAN WOMEN

UNEARTH THEIR LOST HISTORY.

 

Author: By Edgar Allen Beem Date: 06/03/2001 Page: 16 Section:

Boston Globe Sunday Magazine

 

Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer living in Yarmouth, Maine. His last

article for the magazine was on Waldorf schools.

 

BUNNY MCBRIDE IS LOOKING FOR SOME MOCCASINS. And she's

scouring another woman's house to find them. The anthropologist, author,

and Native American rights activist has flown to Indian Island, Maine, from

her home in Kansas. She's at Jean Moore's yellow ranch house on a raw

spring day to gather materials about Moore's mother, Mary Alice Nelson

Archambaud, a famous Penobscot dancer. Under the name Molly Spotted Elk,

Archambaud performed all over the United States and Europe in the early

decades of the 20th century. The moccasins in question are ones she wore

when she danced. McBride met Moore in 1988, when McBride was doing

research for a biography of Spotted Elk.

 

Indian Island is the home of the Penobscot Nation. Between 350 and 500 of

the roughly 2,000 members of the Penobscot tribe live on this rather suburban

315-acre island reservation in the Penobscot River in Old Town, Maine. The

homes on the island run the gamut from rundown cottages and trailers to

modest modular homes and expansive contemporary tract homes.

 

This wet morning, Moore sits at the breakfast table while the 51-year-old

McBride goes from room to room gathering artifacts - a passport issued in

1931, a battered album containing photographs that Spotted Elk took on

location in northern Ontario in 1928 and '29 while starring in a silent film, a

pair of leather Indian dolls that Spotted Elk made to sell to tourists after she

returned to the reservation, the leather drum she used when performing, and a

fringed medicine bag that was part of her costume.

 

In a few minutes, the curator of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor will be

arriving to pick up the memorabilia for an exhibition in September based on

Bunny Mc Bride's 1999 book about the lives of Maine Indian women,

Women of the Dawn (University of Nebraska Press).

 

Still missing are the moccasins.

 

"I've looked everywhere," says Mc Bride. "In the closet, in the attic. They've

taken a walk."

 

"Yes," agrees Moore, "they've taken a walk. But I've had several psychic

friends tell me they are definitely in the house."

 

Jean Moore, 67, grew up on Indian Island but returned only eight years ago

after living away for 40 years. She is the keeper of her mother's flame, but she

says she knew little about Spotted Elk's show business career until after her

mother's death. McBride's 1995 biography of Moore's mother, Molly

Spotted Elk: A Penobscot in Paris (University of Oklahoma Press), helped

Moore fill in the gaps in her family history.

 

"In our Indian culture, ancestors are very important. Within our tribe and our

people, our ancestors are spirits," says Moore. "We bring forth our ancestors

to learn from them, not only in oral history but now with written history as

well."

 

Moore says she was guided by her mother's spirit in choosing Mc Bride to

write the biography. Other researchers had approached her over the years

seeking access to her file of letters, photographs, and diaries, but Moore had

declined. Shortly before McBride telephoned her in 1988, Moore had been

having trouble keeping a picture on her wall straight. The picture was a

painting of the Indian saint Kateri Tekawitha, for which her mother had posed.

"Mother, what are you trying to tell me?" Moore asked out loud the day that

McBride called. After that initial phone call, Moore says, the painting hung

straight once more.

 

So that means that Molly Spotted Elk, too, approves of the book Bunny

McBride wrote about her? "I think if my mother disapproved, she'd whack

me in the head," says Moore. "She's around."

 

And Moore clearly approves of Mc Bride. "Bunny is not digging at you with

questions all the time," she explains. "She is absorbing what you are talking

about. She just lets you talk; she retains it and writes it down. I'm very

comfortable with her."

 

But McBride isn't altogether comfortable being profiled. She is accustomed to

being the storyteller, not the story. "This is not a story about a tall, blond

woman who goes into Indian country," she says, an implied "Is it?" in her

inflection. "This is just about me participating in a great opportunity to work

with groups of Native American people, telling their story. They've told me

these stories."

 

That she can hunt all over another woman's house for missing moccasins is a

measure of how accepted McBride is on Indian Island and elsewhere in

Maine Indian circles - no mean feat in the touchy arena of identity politics. For

20 years, McBride has been working with and for Maine Indians on a variety

of fronts, including helping the Micmac tribe tell its story to the US

government in order to win federal recognition and helping tribe basket

makers tell their stories and find new markets. More recently, in two books

and the forthcoming museum exhibition, Mc Bride has helped Maine's Native

American women rediscover their heritage and tell their stories.

 

2000 was designated The Year of the Native American Woman in Maine,

and Bunny Mc Bride was honored by a special commendation in the state

Legislature.

 

"What I saw that was special is that Bunny actually looked at the lives of

native Penobscot women," says Donna Loring, a Penobscot tribal

representative to the Legislature who introduced the commendation. "She

looked, she studied, and she wrote. I don't think anyone else has done that.

For me, she was the only one who chose to look at the lives and

accomplishments of native women in Maine."

 

McBride's first encounter with Maine Indians came in 1981, shortly after she

earned her master's degree in anthropology from Columbia University in New

York City. She was living in Hallowell, Maine, with her second husband,

Dutch anthropologist Harald Prins, and had holed up to write about African

cultures.

 

In 1980, the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet tribes had signed the

Maine Indian Land Claims Settlement, a move that gained them federal

recognition and $81.5 million with which to buy back 300,000 acres of their

native lands. The Aroostook Band of Micmacs, a small tribe living along the

Maine-New Brunswick border that also sought funding to buy back their

ancestral lands, was left out of the settlement. McBride says it was primarily

because "no one had done the ethno-historical research necessary to

substantiate their claim" that their tribe had lived in Maine as well as in

Canada.

 

A friend called up: Would Bunny and Harald do the necessary research?

 

"The idea of moving to the cold wilds of northern Maine to work as an

anthropologist for a group of Indians I'd never heard of was not on my

agenda," says Mc Bride. "I'd gone to grad school aiming to bring new

cross-cultural insight and research methodology to my writing, not to actually

do anthropology."

 

McBride and Prins did, however, take on the job as co-directors of research

and development for the Association of Aroostook Indians in Houlton, Maine.

 

"On Monday morning, we'd get up at 4 a.m., drive north, and arrive by 8,"

McBride recalls. "We'd stay for two or three days, working deep into the

night, sleeping on a foam mattress on the office floor. We each took home

$80 a week. We spent a lot of time with Micmacs in their homes, sometimes

overnighting with them." Later, they worked on a consulting basis. It took 10

years before their research established that the Micmacs, whose native lands

were largely in Canada, had actually ranged widely enough that their ancestral

territory overlapped that of their Maine neighbors.

 

In 1991, Congress passed the Aroostook Band of Micmacs Settlement Act,

granting the tribe federal recognition and $900,000 with which to purchase

5,000 acres of Maine land.

 

In the course of championing the Micmacs' cause, McBride became

convinced that "federal recognition would not be won without self-recognition

and a stronger sense of self-worth." Thus, she went looking for what she calls

"a position of strength" for the Micmacs.

 

"It turned out to be baskets," Mc Bride says. "For generations, Micmacs had

made an array of wood-splint baskets for harvest and storage and various

household uses. They were so poorly paid for them that few Micmacs still

made them for a living, but almost every Micmac had some family connection

to the craft. They took pride in these beautiful containers and in the skill it

takes to find and fell the right tree and to transform a trunk into smooth pliable

strips for weaving. Best of all, they felt comfortable talking about baskets. So

baskets literally became the containers in which Aroostook Micmacs took

their cause to the public."

 

They sold baskets at fairs and presented them to dignitaries and political

figures. The baskets became a focus for their public life outside of the Native

American community.

 

McBride worked with the tribal council to set up the Micmac Basket Bank.

She wrote a grant to obtain start-up funds, established quality-control

guidelines, persuaded Micmac basket makers to sign their baskets, designed

and wrote promotional materials, and helped identify prospective buyers.

Prins made a film and McBride wrote a book about the Micmac basket

makers, both of which are titled Our Lives in Our Hands.

 

"Bunny and Harald definitely laid the groundwork for national recognition of

Maine Indian basketry," says Theresa Hoffman, a Penobscot basket maker

and the executive director of the Maine Indian Basketmakers Alliance.

 

"Bunny and Harald brought us the recognition," adds Micmac tribe member

Donald Sanipass, one of Maine's best-known Indian basket makers, "then she

got the basket project going. I can never thank them enough."

 

 

Bunny McBride's life would seem destined from the beginning to become that

of a cross-cultural bridge builder.

 

She was born Carol McBride, but because she was born on Easter Sunday,

1950, she has never been called anything except Bunny. As an art and English

major at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, she discovered a love of

writing that initially translated into journalism - something of a birthright, since

her father, Bob McBride, was the news director of the CBS affiliate in

Detroit.

 

After graduating from Michigan in 1972, Mc Bride moved to Boston, where

she became the director of the Boston Forum, a center for low-income

children, and married Stewart Dill, a staff writer for The Christian Science

Monitor. Bunny also wrote for the Monitor, contributing articles, poetry, and

essays from such far-flung places as Africa and China between 1978 and

1988.

 

A lifelong Christian Scientist, McBride credits her often-misunderstood faith

with instilling in her a sense of social activism. "Most people just think of

Christian Scientists as the people who don't go to doctors," McBride says,

"but it's really a faith in which there is no separation between thought and

body, thought and experience. Your vision shapes your view of the world.

Christian Science teaches that there is a graceful fitting of all God's creation.

Our task is to live in that grace and to translate it into what we do. You start, I

believe, from the idea that there is an answer. There must be a graceful fitting."

 

It was an experience in West Africa that really propelled her toward what she

calls "solution-oriented journalism."

 

In the winter of 1978-79, while doing research on nomads in the

drought-devastated Sahel region of Mali, McBride contracted malaria, yellow

fever, and hepatitis. She was delirious when friends brought her to a hospital

in Dakar, Senegal; when she woke up, she found herself in what she called a

death ward.

 

"I became aware of other bodies in other beds, and my own body felt terribly

alien and frightfully ephemeral," she recalls. "I struggled to collect my thoughts.

I tried to pray but couldn't. Then a woman two beds over from me began to

moan and cry, an awful, hopeless wail. I heard myself speak and try to

comfort her. I think that was the answer to my unuttered prayer, because

every effort I made for her comforted me. For a long time, I'd known that we

grow stronger reaching out to others, but in this case it felt like it saved my

life."

 

That experience in Dakar changed McBride's life. "Like so many other people

who have turned broken hearts and near-death experiences into a new

resolve about life," she says, "I started down a new road."

 

That new road led to a divorce, to New York and to Columbia, where she

earned her master's degree in anthropology. She undertook these studies, she

says, in order to bring greater cultural understanding to her writings. She was

particularly intrigued by the problem of balancing objectivity and subjectivity

when studying another culture, the topic she chose for her thesis.

 

"For me," says Mc Bride, "the balance comes through collaboration, through

bringing to the fore the voices of the people I'm profiling - finding ways to talk

through them rather than about them."

 

 

Now Bunny McBride is bringing Maine's Native American women the stories

of their lives.

 

The exhibition, which will inaugurate the Abbe Museum when it opens in

September, will be called "Four Mollys: Women of the Dawn" and will include

artifacts from cradle boards to beads and tools to diaries. The native people

of Maine are collectively called Wabanakis (People of the Dawn), and the

four Mollys are the heroines of Mc Bride's Women of the Dawn. Molly

Mathilde (circa 1665-1717), the beautiful daughter of Chief Madockawando,

married Jean Vincent d'Abbadie, the French Baron de St. Castin, and

became a peacemaker during the French and Indian Wars. Molly Ockett

(circa 1740-1816) was a legendary medicine woman and healer in the

Fryeburg area. Molly Molasses (circa 1775-1867) was a well-known basket

maker and reputed witch in the Bangor-Brewer area. And then, of course,

there is Molly Spotted Elk (1903-1977).

 

Bunny McBride became interested in these women when she spotted a

newspaper photograph of the lovely Indian dancer. It piqued her curiosity

about the most recent of the Mollys, and from there her interest spread to the

other Mollys. (All four of the women were actually christened Mary, a name

that Indian pronunciation renders as Molly.) McBride's research revealed that

Molly Spotted Elk had lived a fascinating and conflicted life, one foot in the

small Penobscot reservation in Old Town, Maine, and the other in the

glamorous entertainment capitals of New York and Paris.

 

In the 1920s and '30s, Spotted Elk was a featured Indian performer with a

traveling show, danced frequently at a posh nightclub in New York, appeared

in The Silent Enemy, a 1930 docu drama of traditional Ojibwe life, and

traveled to Paris, where she danced at the 1930 International Colonial

Exposition. In Paris, she met and married French journalist Jean Archambaud.

After Archambaud's death in 1941, Spotted Elk suffered a mental breakdown

and retreated to Indian Island, where she lived in obscurity until her death in

1977.

 

Jill Shibles, a Penobscot woman and a distant relative of Molly Spotted Elk, is

a lawyer and the executive director of the new National Tribal Justice

Resource Center in Boulder, Colorado. Spotted Elk's story struck a chord

with Shibles. "Bunny has helped to raise our self-esteem, give us pride in our

heritage and hope for the future," says Shibles. "I found her book on Molly

Spotted Elk so gripping, because it mirrored a lot of my own struggles. What

is my place as a Native American woman?"

 

Even in the shifting ground of Native American-white relations, Mc Bride

manages to keep her footing. "What's remarkable about Bunny," says Marge

Bruchac, a Missisquoi Abenaki singer/storyteller from Northampton, Mas sa

chu setts, and a consultant on "The Four Mollys" exhibition, "is that she is able

to put flesh and bones on history. She really gets inside these women. For an

ordinary non-Indian writer to do that could come off as invasive, but a lot of

native women turn to Bunny's work for an understanding of their own history

and culture."

 

To "get inside these women," Bunny McBride blurs the line between

objectivity and subjectivity, writing an unusual blend of anthropological

scholarship, nonfiction, and historical fiction, often filling the voids in the lives

of the four Mollys with imagined detail based on her understanding of their

culture.

 

"My goal is to have my work pass muster among scholars," she says, "but also

to be accessible to the general public and useful to the people I'm writing

about. I'm writing in the cracks all the time, and it's tricky. I want honest

scholarship, but if it's not accessible, it's not useful."

 

 

In 1990, Bunny McBride and Harald Prins left Maine for Manhattan,

Kansas, to teach at Kansas State University, but they return to the Northeast

regularly to continue their work with local tribes.

 

After seeing the Molly Spotted Elk artifacts off to Bar Harbor (she did not

find the moccasins), Bunny McBride drives across the island and pulls her

rental car up a steep, muddy driveway to the mobile home where Penobscot

basket maker Caron Shay lives. Shay is the daughter of one of the last native

Penobscot speakers and the niece of the late Lucy Nicolar Poolaw, a

Penobscot activist who helped persuade the state to build the bridge to Indian

Island and who performed across the United States in the 1920s and '30s as

Princess Watahwaso.

 

Shay greets McBride with a split-ash basket she is weaving for her. Mc

Bride gives Shay a copy of the biographical essay about Poolaw she has just

written for an Oxford University Press book about Native American women.

During her last visit, McBride gave her an autographed copy of Women of

the Dawn.

 

"For non-Indians, this book gets rid of stereotyped ideas they have about

native women," says Shay, sitting in her living room, surrounded by baskets

that she has woven and boxes of ash splints waiting to be woven. "For

natives, it gives them more insight into what it was like back then."

 

With great excitement, Shay unrolls a vintage photograph she came across

since McBride's last visit. The 1919 photograph shows members of her family

in full ceremonial regalia as they wait in a canoe to greet visitors to Indian

Island back in the days before the bridge. As Shay identifies each of her

relatives, Bunny McBride smiles and nods appreciatively, absorbing images

and information that may one day find their way into her writings.

 

"As a woman, I gain strength from these stories, and surely that is all the more

true for native women, because the stories are their heritage," says McBride.

"I think the books help fill a certain blank spot, for native women in particular

but also for native men and readers in general.

 

We all suffer from a blatantly one-sided perspective on what happened in the

past. To make sense of the world in which we live and for which we share

responsibility, it's vital to understand the roles and views of all of the players."

 

 

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