Sustainable Music


Monday, May 31, 2021

Sustainability and the Indigenous Americans

     The revelation that at least 215 students had died at the Kamloops (B.C.) Indian Residential School, in the news because of the discovery of unidentified children’s bones below the soil on the campus of this institution no longer in use, made me ask how widespread were these boarding schools for Native Americans in the US, and whether conditions in them were as bad here as in Canada. The answer is that there were hundreds in the US and that thousands, likely tens of thousands, of children died, whether by abuse or neglect, suicide or diseases such as tuberculosis, measles, influenza (the 1918-1919 flu took many of them), and others. 

I thought then of Thoreau who, almost alone in the 19th century when the schools were coming into existence (purportedly to “civilize” [i.e., Christianize] the Native American children, while extracting their language and culture), felt that there was much of value, and much to be learned, from American Indian languages and these cultures. He was intensely curious about how they had lived. “Some have spoken [so] slightingly of the Indians,” he wrote, “that they hardly deserved to be remembered”; but Thoreau wrote two thousand, eight hundred pages in his “Indian Notebooks” filled with his personal observations as well as quotations from historians and travelers. 

Thoreau found the “indigenous man [sic] of America” inexhaustibly interesting. Because, he wrote, they “inhabited these shores before us, we wish to know particularly what manner of men they were, how they lived here, their relation to nature, their arts and their customs, their fancies and their superstitions. They paddled over these waters, they wandered in these woods; and they had their fancies and beliefs connected with the sea and the forest…” Thoreau insightfully links indigenous ways of being and knowing with “place” (“these waters… these woods”). 

Joseph Polis
Among his notes he took pains to jot down words in the Penobscot language from his Indigenous guide in the Maine woods, Joseph Polis. Polis, who lived in Bangor, was fluent in both Penobscot and English. Aged 14 he had learned to write in English from a schoolmaster who taught on Indian Island (near Old Town). He also wrote in Penobscot; according to the research of historian Pauleena MacDougall, former director of the Maine Folklife Center, there are at least three extant letters from Polis in the Penobscot language; and besides providing words and translations for Thoreau, he wrote down a list of words for a priest named Vetromille in 1854.[1] Thoreau believed in the importance of words not merely as signs of natural facts, but as a medium between the natural fact and the truth that lay within it. In an Appendix to his book The Maine Woods were included several pages of Penobscot words and their translations, some with his own comments appended. While it would be a stretch to call him an anthropological linguist, there is a path from his ideas about words, natural facts, and the beliefs they signify to the ideas of Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf (the so-called Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), and a kinship in the cultural relativism common to their approaches to language, thought, and reality. 

[1] Pauleena MacDougall, "Some Observations on the Penobscot Writing of Joseph Polis (1809-1884)," paper delivered to the 32nd Algonquian Conference, Montreal, Canada, Oct. 27-29, 2000. Accessible via the Digital Commons at the University of Maine, Papers on the Penobscot Language.

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