HUNTING AND GATHERING
WRITER BUNNY MCBRIDE HELPS
UNEARTH THEIR LOST HISTORY.
Author: By Edgar Allen Beem Date:
Edgar Allen Beem is a freelance writer living
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
her home in
spring day to gather materials about
Archambaud, a famous Penobscot dancer. Under the name Molly Spotted Elk,
Archambaud performed all over
decades of the 20th century. The moccasins in question are ones she wore
when she danced. McBride met
research for a biography of Spotted Elk.
the roughly 2,000 members of the Penobscot tribe live on this rather suburban
315-acre island reservation in the
homes on the island run the gamut from rundown cottages and trailers to
modest modular homes and expansive contemporary tract homes.
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
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.
few minutes, the curator of the
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 (
Still missing are the moccasins.
"I've looked everywhere," says Mc Bride. "In the closet, in the attic. They've
taken a walk."
friends tell me they are definitely in the house."
Moore, 67, grew up on
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
Spotted Elk: A Penobscot in
"In our Indian culture, ancestors are very important. Within our tribe and our
people, our ancestors are spirits," says
to learn from them, not only in oral history but now with written history as
write the biography. Other researchers had approached her over the years
seeking access to her file of letters, photographs, and
declined. Shortly before McBride telephoned her in 1988,
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?"
McBride called. After that initial phone call,
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
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
That she can hunt all over another woman's house for missing moccasins is a
measure of how accepted McBride is on
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
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
American women rediscover their heritage and tell their stories.
was designated The Year of the Native American Woman in
and Bunny Mc Bride was honored by a special commendation in the state
"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
of native women in
McBride's first encounter with Maine Indians came in 1981, shortly after she
earned her master's degree in anthropology from
Dutch anthropologist Harald Prins, and had holed up to write about African
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
A friend called up: Would Bunny and Harald do the necessary research?
"The idea of moving to the cold wilds of northern
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
McBride and Prins did, however, take on the job as co-directors of research
and development for the Association of Aroostook Indians in
"On Monday morning, we'd get up at , 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
that of their
In 1991, Congress passed the Aroostook Band of Micmacs Settlement Act,
granting the tribe federal recognition and $900,000 with which to purchase
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
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
Sanipass, one of
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
writing that initially translated into journalism - something of a birthright, since
her father, Bob McBride, was the news director of the CBS affiliate in
After graduating from
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
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."
was an experience in
calls "solution-oriented journalism."
In the winter of 1978-79, while doing research on nomads in the
fever, and hepatitis. She was delirious when friends brought her to a hospital
"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
who have turned broken hearts and near-death experiences into a new
resolve about life," she says, "I started down a new road."
new road led to a divorce, to
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."
Bunny McBride is bringing
of their lives.
exhibition, which will inaugurate the
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
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
glamorous entertainment capitals of
In the 1920s and '30s, Spotted Elk was a featured Indian performer with a
traveling show, danced frequently at a posh nightclub in
in The Silent Enemy, a 1930 docu drama of traditional Ojibwe life, and
After Archambaud's death in 1941, Spotted Elk suffered a mental breakdown
and retreated to
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
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
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
"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."
1990, Bunny McBride and Harald Prins left
regularly to continue their work with local tribes.
After seeing the Molly Spotted Elk artifacts off to
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
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
"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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