Bruchac, Joseph 1942- (Joseph Bruchac, III)
Bruchac, Joseph 1942- (Joseph Bruchac, III)
Surname pronounced "brew-shack"; born October 16, 1942, in Saratoga Springs, NY; son of Joseph E., Jr. (a taxidermist and publisher) and Marion (a homemaker and publisher) Bruchac; married Carol Worthen (director of a nonprofit organization), June 13, 1964; children: James Edward, Jesse Bowman. Ethnicity: "Native American (Abenaki)/Slovak/English." Education: Cornell University, A.B., 1965; Syracuse University, M.A., 1966; graduate study at State University of New York—Albany, 1971-73; Union Institute of Ohio Graduate School, Ph.D., 1975. Politics: Liberal Democrat. Religion: "Methodist and Native-American spiritual traditions." Hobbies and other interests: Gardening, music, martial arts.
Office—Greenfield Review Press, P.O. Box 308, Greenfield Center, NY 12833. Agent—Barbara Kouts Agency, P.O. Box 560, Bellport, NY 11713. E-mail—[email protected]
Keta Secondary School, Ghana, West Africa, teacher of English and literature, 1966-69; Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, instructor in creative writing and African and black literatures, 1969-73; University without Walls, coordinator of college program at Great Meadow Correctional Facility, 1974-81; writer and storyteller, 1981—. Greenfield Review Press, Greenfield Center, NY, publisher and editor of Greenfield Review, beginning 1969; Greenfield Review Literary Center, director, 1981—; musician with Dawn Land Singers, recording stories and music on Abenaki Cultural Heritage and Alnobak, Good Mind Records. Member of adjunct faculty at Hamilton College, 1983, 1985, 1987, and State University of New York—Albany, 1987-88; storyteller-in-residence at CRC Institute for Arts in Education, 1989-90, and at other institutions, including Oklahoma Summer Arts Institute, St. Regis Mohawk Indian School, Seneca Nation School, Onondaga Indian School, Institute of Alaska Native Arts, and Annsville Youth Facility; featured storyteller at festivals and conferences; presents workshops, poetry readings, and storytelling programs. Print Center, member of board of directors, 1975-78; Returning the Gift, national chairperson, 1992; judge of competitions, including PEN Prison Writing Awards, 1977, National Book Award for Translation, 1983, and National Book Award for Poetry, 1995; past member of literature panels, Massachusetts Arts Council, Vermont State Arts Council, Illinois Arts Council, and Ohio Arts Council.
Poetry Society of America, PEN, National Storytelling Association (member of board of directors, 1992-94), Native Writers Circle of the Americas (chairperson, 1992-95), Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, Hudson Valley Writers Guild, Black Crow Network.
Poetry fellow, Creative Artists Public Service, 1973, 1982; fellow, National Endowment for the Arts, 1974; editors' fellow, Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, 1980; Rockefeller fellow, 1982; PEN Syndicated Fiction Award, 1983; American Book Award, 1984, for Breaking Silence; Yaddo residency, 1984, 1985; Cherokee Nation Prose Award, 1986; fellow, New York State Council on the Arts, 1986; Benjamin Franklin Audio Award, Publishers Marketing Association, 1992, for The Boy Who Lived with the Bears, and Person of the Year Award, 1993; Hope S. Dean Memorial Award for Notable Achievement in Children's Literature, 1993; Mountains and Plains Award, 1995, for A Boy Called Slow; Knickerbocker Award, 1995; Paterson Children's Book Award, 1996, for Dog People; Boston Globe/Horn Book Honor Award, 1996, for The Boy Who Lived with the Bears; Writer of the Year Award, and Storyteller of the Year Award, Wordcraft Circle of Native Writers and Storytellers, both 1998; Lifetime Achievement Award, Native Writers Circle of the Americas, 1999; Independent Publishers Outstanding Book of the Year designation, 2003, for Our Stories Remember; Sequoyah Book Award, Oklahoma Library Association, 2004, for Skeleton Man; Parents' Choice Award; Skipping Stones Honor Award for Multicultural Children's Literature; Virginia Hamilton Literary Award, 2005; Young Adult Award, American Indian Library Association, 2006, for Hidden Roots.
RETELLER; FOLK-TALE COLLECTIONS
Turkey Brother and Other Iroquois Folk Tales, Crossing Press (Trumansburg, NY), 1975.
Stone Giants and Flying Heads: Adventure Stories of the Iroquois, Crossing Press (Trumansburg, NY), 1978.
Iroquois Stories: Heroes and Heroines, Monsters and Magic, Crossing Press (Trumansburg, NY), 1985.
The Wind Eagle, Bowman Books, 1985.
The Faithful Hunter and Other Abenaki Stories, Bowman Books, 1988.
Return of the Sun: Native American Tales from the Eastern Woodlands, Crossing Press (Trumansburg, NY), 1990.
Native American Stories, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1991.
Hoop Snakes, Hide-Behinds, and Sidehill Winders, Crossing Press (Trumansburg, NY), 1991.
(With Jonathan London) Thirteen Moons on Turtle's Back: A Native American Year of Moons, Philomel (New York, NY), 1992.
Flying with the Eagle, Racing the Great Bear: Stories from Native North America, BridgeWater (New York, NY), 1993.
Native American Animal Stories, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1993.
The Native American Sweat Lodge, Crossing Press (Trumansburg, NY), 1993.
(With Gayle Ross) The Girl Who Married the Moon: Stories from Native North America, BridgeWater (New York, NY), 1994.
Dog People: Native Dog Stories, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1995.
Native Plant Stories, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1995.
The Boy Who Lived with the Bears, and Other Iroquois Stories, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 1995.
Between Earth and Sky: Legends of Native-American Sacred Places, illustrated by Thomas Locker, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 1996.
The Circle of Thanks, BridgeWater (New York, NY), 1996.
Four Ancestors: Stories, Songs, and Poems, BridgeWater (New York, NY), 1996.
(Reteller, with son, James Bruchac) When the Chenoo Howls: Native-American Tales of Terror, illustrated by William Sauts Netamu'xwe Bock, Walker (New York, NY), 1998.
(With James Bruchac) Native American Games and Stories, illustrated by Kayeri Akwek, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 2000.
Foot of the Mountain and Other Stories, Holy Cow! Press (Duluth, MN), 2002.
(Reteller) The First Strawberries, illustrated by Anna Vojtech, Dial (New York, NY), 1993.
Fox Song, illustrated by Paul Morin, Philomel (New York, NY), 1993.
(Reteller) The Great Ball Game, illustrated by Susan L. Roth, Dial (New York, NY), 1994.
A Boy Called Slow: The True Story of Sitting Bull, illustrated by Rocco Baviera, Philomel (New York, NY), 1995.
Gluskabe and the Four Wishes, illustrated by Christine Shrader, Cobblehill Books (Boston, MA), 1995.
(With Gayle Ross) The Story of the Milky Way, illustrated by Virginia A. Stroud, Dial (New York, NY), 1995.
The Maple Thanksgiving, illustrated by Anna Vojtech, Celebration (Nobleboro, ME), 1996.
(With Melissa Fawcett) Makiawisug: Gift of the Little People, Little People (Warsaw, IN), 1997.
Many Nations: An Alphabet of Native America, Troll Publications (Mahwah, NJ), 1997.
Crazy Horse's Vision, illustrated by S.D. Nelson, Lee & Low Books (New York, NY), 2000.
Squanto's Journey: The Story of the First Thanksgiving, illustrated by Greg Shed, Silver Whistle (San Diego, CA), 2000.
(Reteller, with James Bruchac) How Chipmunk Got His Stripes, illustrated by José Aruego and Ariane Dewey, Dial (New York, NY), 2001.
Seasons of the Circle: A Native-American Year, illustrated by Robert F. Goetzel, BridgeWater (New York, NY), 2002.
(Reteller, with James Bruchac) Turtle's Race with Beaver: A Traditional Seneca Story, illustrated by José Aruego and Ariane Dewey, Dial Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2003.
(Reteller, with James Bruchac) Raccoon's Last Race: A Traditional Abenaki Story, illustrated by José Aruego and Ariane Dewey, Dial Books for Young Readers (New York, NY), 2004.
FICTION; FOR CHILDREN
Children of the Longhouse, Dial (New York, NY), 1996.
Eagle Song (chapter book), Dial (New York, NY), 1997.
The Arrow over the Door (chapter book), illustrated by James Watling, Dial (New York, NY), 1998.
The Heart of a Chief, Dial (New York, NY), 1998.
Sacajawea: The Story of Bird Woman and the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Silver Whistle (San Diego, CA), 2000.
Skeleton Man, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2001.
The Journal of Jesse Smoke: A Cherokee Boy ("My Name Is America" series), Scholastic (New York, NY), 2001.
The Winter People, Dial (New York, NY), 2002.
Pocahontas (young-adult novel), Silver Whistle (Orlando, FL), 2003.
The Warriors, Darby Creek (Plain City, OH), 2003.
Hidden Roots (novel), Scholastic (New York, NY), 2004.
Dark Pond, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2004.
Whisper in the Dark, illustrated by Sally Wern Comport, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2005.
Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War II (young-adult novel), Dial Books (New York, NY), 2005.
Wabi: A Hero's Tale (young-adult novel), Dial (New York, NY), 2006.
Geronimo (young-adult novel), Scholastic (New York, NY), 2006.
Bearwalker, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2007.
The Way, Darby Creek (Plain City, OH), 2007.
FICTION; FOR ADULTS
The Road to Black Mountain (short stories), Thorp Springs Press (Austin, TX), 1976.
The Dreams of Jesse Brown (short stories), Cold Mountain Press, 1978.
The White Moose (short stories), Blue Cloud Quarterly, 1988.
Turtle Meat, and Other Stories (short stories), Holy Cow! Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1992.
Dawn Land (novel), Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1993.
Long River (sequel to Dawn Land), Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1995.
The Waters Between: A Novel of the Dawn Land, University Press of New England (Hanover, NH), 1998.
Indian Mountain, Ithaca House (Ithaca, NY), 1971.
The Buffalo in the Syracuse Zoo, Greenfield Review Press (Greenfield Center, NY), 1972.
Great Meadow, Dustbooks (Paradise, CA), 1973.
The Manabozho, Blue Cloud Quarterly, 1973.
Flow, Cold Mountain Press, 1975.
This Earth Is a Drum, Cold Mountain Press, 1976.
There Are No Trees inside the Prison, Blackberry Press, 1978.
Mu'ndu Wi Go, Blue Cloud Quarterly, 1978.
Entering Onondaga, Cold Mountain Press, 1978.
The Good Message of Handsome Lake, Unicorn Press (Greensboro, NC), 1979.
Translators' Son, Cross-Cultural Communications (Merrick, NY), 1980.
Ancestry, Great Raven (Fort Kent, ME), 1981.
Remembering the Dawn, Blue Cloud Quarterly, 1983.
Walking with My Sons, Landlocked Press, 1985.
Tracking, Ion Books, 1985.
Near the Mountains, White Pine (Buffalo, NY), 1986.
Langes Gedachtnis/Long Memory, OBEMA (Osnabruck, Germany), 1988.
The Earth under Sky Bear's Feet, illustrated by Thomas Locker, Philomel (New York, NY), 1995.
No Borders, Holy Cow! Press (Duluth, MN), 1999.
Above the Line, West End Press (Albuquerque, NM), 2003.
The Poetry of Pop, Dustbooks (Paradise, CA), 1973.
How to Start and Sustain a Literary Magazine, Provision (Austin, TX), 1980.
Survival This Way: Interviews with American Indian Poets, University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ), 1987.
(With Michael Caduto) Keepers of the Earth: Native American Stories and Environmental Activities for Children, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1989.
(With Michael Caduto) Keepers of the Animals: Native American Stories and Wildlife Activities for Children, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1990.
(With Michael Caduto) Keepers of the Night: Native American Stories and Nocturnal Activities for Children, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1994.
(With Michael Caduto) Keepers of Life: Discovering Plants through Native American Stories and Earth Activities for Children, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1994.
Native Wisdom, HarperSanFrancisco (San Francisco, CA), 1995.
Roots of Survival: Native American Storytelling and the Sacred, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1996.
(With Michael Caduto) Native American Gardening, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 1996.
Bowman's Store (autobiography), Dial (New York, NY), 1997.
Lasting Echoes: An Oral History of Native American People, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1997.
Tell Me a Tale: A Book about Storytelling, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1997.
Buffalo Boy (biography), illustrated by Baviera, Silver Whistle Books (San Diego, CA), 1998.
Seeing the Circle (autobiography), photographs by John Christian Fine, R.C. Owen (Katonah, NY), 1999.
The Trail of Tears (chapter book), illustrated by Diana Magnuson, Random House (New York, NY), 1999.
Trails of Tears, Paths of Beauty, National Geographic Society (Washington, DC), 2000.
Navajo Long Walk: The Tragic Story of a Proud People's Forced March from Their Homeland, illustrated by Shonto Begay, National Geographic Society (Washington, DC), 2002.
Our Stories Remember: American Indian History, Culture, and Values through Storytelling, Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 2003.
Jim Thorpe's Bright Path (biography; for children), illustrated by S.D. Nelson, Lee & Low Books (New York, NY), 2004.
(With James Bruchac) Rachel Carson: Preserving a Sense of Wonder (biography; for children), Fulcrum Press (Golden, CO), 2004.
At the Edge of Ridge Road (memoir), Milkweed (Minneapolis, MN), 2005.
Jim Thorpe: The Original All-American (biography; for children), Dial (New York, NY), 2006.
Pushing Up the Sky: Seven Native American Plays for Children, illustrated by Teresa Flavin, Dial (New York, NY), 2000.
Also editor of anthologies, including The Last Stop: Prison Writings from Comstock Prison, 1973; Words from the House of the Dead: Prison Writing from Soledad, 1974; Aftermath: Poetry in English from Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean, 1977; The Next World: Thirty-two Third World American Poets, 1978; Songs from Turtle Island: Thirty-two American Indian Poets, [Yugoslavia], 1982; Songs from This Earth on Turtle's Back: Contemporary American Indian Poetry, 1983; Breaking Silence: Contemporary Asian-American Poets, 1983; The Light from Another Country: Poetry from American Prisons, 1984; North Country: An Anthology of Contemporary Writing from the Adirondacks and the Upper Hudson Valley, 1986; New Voices from the Longhouse: Contemporary Iroquois Writing, 1989; Raven Tells Stories: Contemporary Alaskan Native Writing, 1990; Singing of Earth, 1993; Returning the Gift, 1994; Smoke Rising, 1995; and Native Wisdom, 1995. Audiotapes include Iroquois Stories, Alnobak, Adirondack Tall Tales, and Abenaki Cultural Heritage, all Good Mind Records; and Gluskabe Stories, Yellow Moon Press. Work represented in more than a hundred anthologies, including Carriers of the Dream Wheel; Come to Power; For Neruda, for Chile; New Worlds of Literature; Paris Review Anthology, and Sports Shorts: An Anthology of Short Stories, 2005. Contributor of more than three hundred stories, poems, articles, and reviews to magazines, including American Poetry Review, Akwesasne Notes, Beloit Poetry Journal, Chariton Review, Kalliope, Mid-American Review, Nation, Poetry Northwest, River Styx, and Virginia Quarterly Review. Editor, Trojan Horse, 1964, Greenfield Review, 1969-87, Prison Writing Review, 1976-85, and Studies in American Indian Literature, 1989—. Member of editorial board, Cross-Cultural Communications, Parabola, Storytelling Journal, MELUS, and Obsidian. Translator from the Abenaki, Ewe, Iroquois, and Spanish.
Several of Bruchac's books have been recorded on audiocassette, including Keepers of the Earth, Keepers of the Animals, Keepers of Life, and Dawn Land, all released by Fulcrum; and The Boy Who Lived with the Bears, released by Caedmon/Parabola.
According to Publishers Weekly contributor Sybil Steinberg, Joseph Bruchac ranks as "perhaps the best-known contemporary Native American storyteller." Bruchac draws on his heritage for his critically acclaimed collections, including Flying with the Eagle, Racing the Great Bear: Stories from Native North America, and The Girl Who Married the Moon: Stories from Native North America. These stories also influence Bruchac's novels, such as Dawn Land and its sequels Long Land and The Waters Between: A Novel of the Dawn Land, a series about the Abenaki living in the American northeast prior to the arrival of Columbus. "His stories," Steinberg concluded, "are often poignant, funny, ironic—and sometimes all three at once." In addition to his original novels, picture books, poetry, and nonfiction, Bruchac's work as an editor and publisher has brought many other acclaimed Native American authors into the public eye. He published early books by Leslie Marmon Silko and Linda Hogan, whose voices have since become well known in the field of Native-American literature. He is also a nationally known live storyteller, and his performances have been recorded on audiocassette.
Dawn Land, Bruchac's first novel, introduces readers to the character of Young Hunter, and in 1995's Long River, Young Hunter's adventures continue as he battles a wooly mammoth and an evil giant. In Dawn Land and Long River, as well as the concluding novel The Waters Between, Bruchac incorporates actual myths from his own Abenaki heritage. His children's stories, like his novels, entertain and educate young readers by interweaving Native American history and myth. The biography A Boy Called Slow, for example, recounts the story of the Lakota boy who would grow up to become Sitting Bull. Bruchac's ability to "gently correct" stereotypes of Native-American culture was noted by Carolyn Polese in School Library Journal. In The Great Ball Game he relates the importance of ball games in Native-American tradition as a substitute for war, tying neatly together history and ethics lessons in "an entertaining tale," commented Polese. He combines several versions of a Native-American tale in Gluskabe and the Four Wishes.
Bruchac writes prolifically in several genres, including fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. Several of his nonfiction titles for adults explain the value of storytelling. In Our Stories Remember: American Indian History, Culture, and Values through Storytelling, he relates stories from many different Native-American nations to illustrate their core values and culture. Writing in School Library Journal, S.K. Joiner noted that, "Part cultural lesson, part history, and part autobiography, the book contains a wealth of information," while Booklist contributor Deborah Donovan dubbed it a "thought-provoking work, enriched with valuable annotated reading lists."
Bruchac's nonfiction titles for young people include several biographies of Native Americans and pivotal figures in the environmental movement. In Rachel Carson: Preserving a Sense of Wonder, he presents a biography of the author of Silent Spring, a book credited with inspiring the environmental movement in the 1960s. Writing in Booklist, Carolyn Phelan noted that "Bruchac writes lyrically about [Carson's] … love of nature, particularly the ocean, and concludes with an appreciation of her impact on the environment." The picture-book biography Jim Thorpe's Bright Path recounts the life of the famed Native-American athlete. School Library Journal contributor Liza Graybill noted that Bruchac's "theme of overcoming personal and societal obstacles to reach success is strongly expressed."
Not all of Bruchac's picture books are nonfiction; many of his books for the very young are based on traditional Native-American tales. The First Strawberries, his first picture book, is based on a Cherokee tale, while Raccoon's Last Race is a story drawn from the Abenaki tradition. The latter tale explains how Raccoon, once tall and fast, became the squat, slow creature he is today. Noting that Raccoon's Last Race is one of several collaborations between Bruchac, his son, James Bruchac, and husband-and-wife illustration team José Aruego and Ariane Dewey, a Kirkus Reviews contributor noted: "Readers will hope this foursome keeps on rolling." Horn Book reviewer Kitty Flynn noted that "the Bruchacs' well-paced retelling is alive with sound, … making the story well suited for reading aloud."
In The Dark Pond Bruchac revisits the genre he previously explored in Skeleton Man: thrillers for young readers. In The Dark Pond Arnie, a half-Shawnee student at an all-white prep school, is drawn to a mysterious dark pool in the woods. He senses that something is lurking there, and his fears are confirmed when he discovers that Native-American grounds-keeper Mitch Sabattis believes a gigantic worm lives in the pond and is determined to kill the creature. Arnie, remembering the traditional tales of his family, decides to do what he can to help slay this monster. "This is a creepy, fast-moving tale that will appeal to fans of horror stories, with a message about self-discovery neatly tucked in as well," wrote Paula Rohrlick in Kliatt. B. Allison Gray noted in School Library Journal that Bruchac's "eerie story skillfully entwines Native American lore, suspense, and the realization that people are not always what they seem." Whisper in the Dark wraps Narragansett legend around an all-too-real modern danger as Maddie confronts the mystery of a seemingly supernatural stalker. "Bruchac interweaves suspense with Indian folklore endlessly," commented Claire Rosser in Kliatt, while Wendi Hoffenberg wrote in School Library Journal that "Maddi's narration is swirl and spare, creating a mood of terror tempered by Narragansett words and chants of courage."
Bruchac draws on history for many of his novels. His young-adult novel Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War II, for example, gives readers an inside perspective on the role Navajo Marines played in sending vital encoded messages during World War II. Told from the perspective of sixteen-year-old Ned Begay, who is technically too young to be in the military, the story reveals how the Navajo language, once a tongue the U.S. government attempted to eliminate, was now valued highly by the U.S. military. "The narrative pulls no punches about war's brutality and never adopts an avuncular tone," noted Booklist contributor Carolyn Phelan. As Kliatt reviewer Paula Rohrlick commented, "readers unfamiliar with the fascinating story of the code talkers will come away impressed by their achievements." In Geronimo, Bruchac relates the story of the famous Native-American leader through the eyes of the man's adopted grandson. "Fans of history, or of themes of survival and freedom, will find it fascinating—certainly different from other fare about the man," wrote Nina Lindsay in School Library Journal.
Other novels by Bruchac draw solely on legend. Wabi: A Hero's Tale is the story of an owl who learns a secret about his people: he can shape shift and take human form. He falls in love with a local tribal woman, but her people banish him when they discover his true identity. In order to save his love's people, he must go on a dangerous quest. "Bruchac's storytelling skills are on full display in this tale," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Lisa Prolman, in School Library Journal, suggested: "Give this novel to … anyone who enjoys reading about journeys of self-discovery," while a critic for Kirkus Reviews maintained that "readers won't be able to turn the pages fast enough."
"I was born in 1942, in Saratoga Springs, New York, during October, that month the Iroquois call the Moon of Falling Leaves," Bruchac once told CA. "My writing and my interests reflect my mixed ancestry, Slovak on one side and Native American (Abenaki) and English on the other. Aside from attending Cornell University and Syracuse and three years of teaching in West Africa, I've lived all of my life in the small Adirondack foothills town of Greenfield Center in a house built by my grandfather.
"Much of my writing and my life relates to the problem of being an American. While in college I was active in civil rights work and in the antiwar movement…. I went to Africa to teach—but more than that, to be taught. It showed me many things. How much we have as Americans and take for granted. How much our eyes refuse to see because they are blinded to everything in a man's face except his color. And, most importantly, how human people are everywhere—which may be the one grace that can save us all.
"I write poetry, fiction, and some literary criticism and have been fortunate enough to receive recognition in all three areas. After returning from Ghana in 1969, my wife, Carol, and I started the Greenfield Review and the Greenfield Review Press. Since 1975, I've been actively involved in storytelling, focusing on northeastern Native-American tales and the songs and traditions of the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, and I am frequently a featured performer at storytelling gatherings. I've also done a great deal of work in teaching and helping start writing workshops in American prisons. I believe that poetry is as much a part of human beings as is breath—and that, like breath, poetry links us to all other living things and is meant to be shared.
"My writing is informed by several key sources. One of these is nature, another is the Native-American experience (I'm part Indian)…. I like to work outside, in the earthmother's soil, with my hands … but maintain my life as an academic for a couple of reasons: it gives me time to write (sometimes) and it gives me a chance to share my insights into the beautiful and all-too-fragile world of human life and living things we have been granted. Which is one of the reasons I write—not to be a man apart, but to share."
In an interview with Eliza T. Dresang on the Cooperative Children's Book Center Web site, Bruchac noted that he does not expect to run out of things to write about. He told Dresang: "The last thirty years of my life in particular have been blessed with so many … experiences and by the generosity of so many Native people who have shared their stories and their understanding of their land with me that I know I can never live long enough to share everything I've learned. But I'll try."
Joseph Bruchac contributed the following autobiographical essay to CA:
LISTENING TO A DRUM
A drum. That's one of my earliest memories. It was a present from my grandparents on my second Christmas. I remember carrying that red, white, and blue drum around the living room of their old house on Splinterville Hill where I grew up, beating on it with the two drumsticks that came with it. I sat down in front of one of my grandmother's many bookcases playing it.
Thump-thump, thump-thump. I was finding a rhythm that spoke to me. It was as soothing and familiar as Grama's heartbeat when she held me in her arms and I leaned my head against her chest.
Then someone snatched that drum away from me. Loud voices were talking, quarrelling. I was crying because I wanted my drum. A big hand came out of nowhere and slapped my face. It shocked me into silence and then I was in my grandfather's arms and being carried out of the room, out the back door and into the woods, away from the shouting that was still going on inside the angry house. I was sobbing so hard that I couldn't catch my breath, even though my grandfather was saying something to me that I couldn't understand, patting my back. Gradually, though, I stopped crying. It was winter and I could hear my grandfather's feet crunching in the snow as he walked. I wasn't cold. Grampa had taken off the pea jacket that he always wore, winter or summer, and wrapped it around me.
I was feeling safe now. It didn't matter that my cheek smarted where my father had hit me. But I still wanted something, I wanted that music I had almost found.
"Drum?" I said. Grampa nodded. But I never saw that drum again.
I know that some of my memories of childhood are only partially my own. Some have been built from not just my own recollections, but also the stories my
grandparents were always telling me about the things I did when I was small—such as the way I followed my grandfather everywhere as if I were his smaller, paler shadow. I never wanted to leave his side. I always felt safe when I was with him.
Grampa Bowman was strong as an ash tree, or so it seemed to me. His hands were gnarled and scarred from more than half a century of working as a lumberjack and a laborer. There were creases worn in his brown palms from holding the reins of horses as he drove a team or followed their hooves behind a plow. But those hands of his were always as gentle and patient as his voice.
And I know that the story of how I lost my first drum is one that my grandparents never told me. Just as they never told me why it was, when my mother and father moved half a mile up the road to the farmhouse my grandparents gave them, that I did not go with them. My younger sister Mary Ann went with my parents. But I stayed with Grampa and Grama.
I've never before written down this story about my first drum. Even when I wrote Bowman's Store, the book about my years with my grandparents, I didn't include it. Yet I have remembered it all these years, kept it hidden in my memory the way my mother's side of the family tried (with minimal success) to hide their American Indian ancestry. It is one of those experiences that is behind the stories I tell, experiences that helped shape the person and the writer I became. And although I have spoken at length about the way my grandparents and the Abenaki heritage that came to me most strongly through my grandfather shaped me, I haven't spoken as clearly as I might about the ambiguous and deeply important relationship with my father. As I grow older I realize how much that relationship taught me—sometimes in ways that were painful, but in the long run in ways that strengthened me and gave me a deeper understanding of myself, my heritage, and the world around me.
I learned early on in my life what it was to be afraid. My father's unpredictable anger taught me that. Yet I admired him. Who wouldn't have admired a man like my father? He was tall, dark-haired, and had the grace of a natural athlete. He'd never played high school sports, though, because he left school early, having passed all the tests for his diploma before his sophomore year when he had not yet "gotten his growth." It was a shame, because athletic ability ran in his family and I am sure he would have been a sports star. Even in his fifties, he could hit a baseball all the way out of the field, across the road and over the top of the Bokus's house on the other side, and he was known as one of the two best pool players in the county. His younger brothers Milt and Al enjoyed the fame of high school athletes, elite basketball players. But Dad chose another path. Times were hard then, during the Depression of the 1930s, and the money he earned running a trapline and selling muskrat pelts helped put food on the table. He also worked beside his own father, whose name was also Joseph Bruchac—just like mine and Dad's. Grampa Bruchac was a master mason and never lacked work, even during those years when almost everyone was poor. But getting work didn't always mean getting paid. My father could drive through Greenfield Center pointing out the brickwork the two of them had done decades ago saying, "We got paid a bushel of potatoes for that chimney," or "there's another job that we never got a red cent for doing."
Another reason that it was a shame that my father never went to school after he tested out of high school was that he was born to be an intellectual. His mind never stopped working and he was seized by new ideas evey time he turned around. Like so many self-educated (and self-conscious) people, though, he seemed to believe that higher education really had nothing to teach him. Educated people didn't know "the real world." I say "seemed," for his real feelings were made clear to me when I was thirty years old and he heard that I was no longer going to continue my doctoral studies at the State University of New York. He called me over to his house and sat there, with tears rolling down his cheeks, begging me to continue my education. "I'll pay for it," he said. "I don't care what it costs. There's never been a Bruchac with a doctorate before." When I did get that Ph.D., I gave him the framed diploma and it hung on the wall of his taxidermy studio until he died.
I have sometimes said that my grandmother was the one who nurtured my love of reading. Like me, she was always reading more than one book at a time. Volumes with torn pieces of paper for bookmarks in them could be found in every room of her house. But my father was just as devoted a reader. His house was equally heavy with books. However, while my grandmother's shelves held novels by Scott and Dickens and Kipling, volumes of Shakespeare, and collections of poetry by Tennyson and John Dunne and the English Romantics, his were heavy with volumes of natural history, true stories about animals by such writers as Ernest Thompson Seton. (My father would tell me in my adult years that Ernest Thompson Seton had changed his life, especially through his book Two Little Indians, a story of two non-Native children who try to learn and live the Indian way.) Somehow, though I don't recall his lending them to me, a good many of Dad's animal books ended up on the rough bookshelves my grandfather nailed to the walls of my bedroom. Dad also had seemed to have every book ever written about hunting and fishing and taxidermy, as well as ten-foot-tall stacks of Outdoor Life, Sports Afield, and Field and Stream, those magazines that were the bible of the serious outdoorsman. (And those stacks of magazines really were ten feet tall. As a true child of the Depression, Dad not only mistrusted banks, he also never threw anything away. Five years after he passed on, my wife, Carol, and I were still helping my mother shovel out—literally—the endless piles of moldered magazines he'd stacked in the leaky storage room behind his taxidermy shop.)
I know that my lifelong fascination with animals was encouraged by those books of my father's and by the hundreds of mounted birds and mammals and fish in his studio. He was an artist in his field, honored by others who followed his craft, and even the publisher of his own magazine, Modern Taxidermy. But taxidermy was never a path I wanted to follow. Rather than killing animals and mounting them, I wanted to watch them, know them, even protect them from hunters like my father. Some of the earliest stories I wrote in grade school were about animals. I don't have copies of any of them, but there was an ongoing theme in all of them. Some small creature—a Kaibab squirrel, a five-lined skink, a zebra swallowtail butterfly—is being stalked by a predator, but at the last minute, just when its doom seems certain, it gets away! Of course I was also influenced by the Disney True-Life Adventure films so popular in my childhood, films with a maximum of action but a dearth of death. None of those cute little rodents in The Living Desert ever ended up being devoured. Yes, I identified with them.
Of course, I knew that animals ended up dying. I got lessons in that almost every day. On the one hand, the gas station and general store my grandparents ran was right next to a busy highway, Route 9N. Every year, I would lose at least one dog or cat to the pitiless wheels. On the other hand, there was the reality of having a small farm, with not just a big vegetable garden but also pigs and chickens whose eventual destiny was to end up on our dinner table. I'll never forget the big black kettle where we scalded the huge pink body of the sow that tried to escape the pig-sticking and had to be chased through half the neighborhood by my grandfather and our neighbor Mr. Komada. And the dizzy dance of a headless chicken, spraying blood after its head had been cut off, which thirty years later turned into a poem of mine and will surely make its way into some future novel in which a child, as horrified and fascinated as I was, tries to make sense of those curving scarlet hieroglyphs painted on the brown earth of the farmyard.
It was hard to make ends meet. (So hard that the shirts I wore to school until I reached fifth grade were often ones that my grandmother made from chicken feed sacks. Back in the 1940s and 50s, when you bought chicken feed at the livery store, the sacks were made of patterned cloth that was actually meant to serve that dual purpose of holding the grain and then being fashioned into aprons or dresses or shirts.) So it seemed purely natural to us that half the meals we ate were either from our farm or wild. Some of it I helped
gather—dandelion greens, marsh marigolds, milkweed, cattails. But until I began fishing on my own, the majority of that wild bounty came from my father. Dad was always giving my grandparents venison, trout, pheasant, or even more exotic fare from one of his distant hunting trips to Anacosta Island or Newfoundland or North Dakota or Alaska. By the time I was twelve I had tasted just about every hoofed animal on the North American continent—from deer and elk and caribou to buffalo and moose and pronghorn antelope. It wasn't until I was in fourth grade that I realized how unusual it was that, while the other kids had peanut butter and jelly or baloney in their lunch pails, I had pheasant sandwiches.
My father was a good hunter—in the American Indian sense of that term. A good hunter is not just one who succeeds in bringing in game, but one who provides for others, especially those in the tribe too old or weak to hunt for themselves. My father's tribal roots were Slovak, not Native American. Both of his parents came from Turnava in the eastern European nation then known as Czechoslovakia. Even though they were European, they held onto what might have been called "tribal ways." In some ways they were as different from Americans of English heritage as were the aboriginal people of this land. I would learn years later, in correspondence with distant relatives still living in Slovakia, that the Bruchacs were known as a clan of hunters and foresters. "Ve Slovaks," Grama Bruchac told me more than once when I was grown up and old enough to understand, "ve vas the Indians of Europe." Although he was raised Catholic, my father never went to church. He practiced his religion as quietly and privately as had his own fatherbefore him—who prayed in the forest with the trees.
That Slovak heritage, half of my blood, is not one that I have ignored. Although I am best known for my work with American Indian themes, I have published many poems about that part of my heritage, have studied the Slovak language and the history of Slovakia and its wealth of traditional tales. I even recently wrote a short novel called "Janko and the Giant." Based on Slovak hero tales and proverbs, it has been appearing in newspapers around the country through the Breakfast Serials project that syndicates serialized stories by children's authors to newspapers. However, much more of my work has dealt with the Native side of things. For one, I am living on the Native land of this continent, not among the High Tatras. And, as it was true for my father, my heart has been touched most deeply by American Indian ways.
My father's marriage to my mother was not the only direct connection between my father and Indians. He was deeply influenced by the American Indians he knew. When he went hunting, his guides and friends were often Indian—like George Osgood, who was Abenaki. The more I have looked into my father's life, the more Indians I have found. Years after his death of a heart attack in January of 1986, I was leafing through some of his journals. In his journal for 1953 there was only one entry—written in dark ink:
Alice Papineau—Dewasentah Nedrow, New York Onondaga Reservation
It was the name of someone I knew well. Alice Papineau, whose brother Leon Shenandoah was the Tadadaho, or titular head of the League of the Five nations; Dewasentah, the head clan mother of the Eel Clan and the same person who shared so much with me about Onondaga culture. But my friendship with her had only begun in 1965 when I was a graduate student at Syracuse University and I would ride my old Harley out to the reservation to sit at her kitchen table and listen for hours on end. My father had known her before me, yet neither of them had ever mentioned it.
My father's life was not just affected by the many Iroquois and Algonquin men and women who came to his shop to buy deerskin leather for traditional crafts, but also by his first partner and mentor in taxidermy, an Ottawa Indian artist named Leon Pray. Whenever Dad talked about Mr. Pray it was with a reverent tone in his voice. He published Mr. Pray's books of drawings and essays about taxidermy and regarded him as his greatest teacher. Whenever a new book of mine came out, my father would always ask me to autograph it for Mr. Pray so that he could send it to him.
"I can really see the Indian in your father." I heard that many times from friends of mine—both Native and non-Natives—when (in my thirties and a successful writer, the old tension between us washed away) I introduced them to Dad. But of course the only "Indian" in my father was in his heart. His blood was pure Slovak. The Native American ancestry was entirely on my mother's side.
I wouldn't say that Dad wanted to be an Indian. There was nothing "wanna-be" about him. But I do know that he seemed most himself when he was away from the pressures of commerce and so-called civilization, following the tracks of a deer, fishing on a mountain pond where an eagle might flutter in to land next to our boat, or a family of loons might dance, or a mob of otters might come sliding and chattering in wild abandon down the clay bank next to us. I know that, for I shared those moments with him and saw the delight in his face. I know that he felt at home when he was furthest away from the home where his one son had not been allowed to spend his childhood. But I only learned that when I was an adult with children of my own, grandchildren my father treated with the kind of care and love he'd never been able to show to me—until then.
As a boy, I wanted badly to please Dad, but I was wary of him. Perhaps it was because of that wariness that I always seemed to do the wrong thing when I was around him. When he tried to show me how to use a spinning rod, I always did it wrong, creating a backlash of nylon line that was as tangled as a rat's nest. It was bad when it was just the two of us together, but he never hit me then. It was worse when I did something that embarrassed him in front of others. Then he might strike out at me. On those occasions in my childhood when I spent time with my parents and my sister, Mary Ann, without the protecting presence of my grandparents, I sometimes ended up getting hit, especially when my sister and I were squabbling in the backseat as siblings always do. After one of those Saturday rides that I both looked forward to and dreaded, I might come home to my grandparents with the red mark of my father's open hand on the side of my face.
Never pleasing my father hurt me more then being shouted at or hit by him. But it didn't destroy my spirit. I knew, thanks to my grandmother and grandfather, what it was to be loved unconditionally, what it felt like to be rescued. Their presence reassured and guided me and the feeling of their presence has never left me. And because of that, years later, I was able to look at my father, forgive him, tell him that I loved him and hear him say those words back to me.
What were the sources of his anger? Even before I was taken away from him by his wife's parents, even before he found himself watching me grow up as a nearby stranger? Part of it, I suppose, came from being a child of immigrants and being treated as a second-class citizen. Being an outsider in America is no easy thing. My own awareness of the difficulties of being "different" is certainly part of what that led me to become involved in civil rights, to be a volunteer teacher in Africa, and to work with prison inmates. My tendency to see and write things from something other than the majority perspective comes equally from my Slovak and my Indian roots.
But my father's anger was more than that of an immigrant boy who grew up being made fun of for his clothes, being called a "Polack" and a "brownhead," words he told me that were yelled at him and his brothers by the other boys. When he was in his twenties he rode a motorcycle until he had a terrible accident. There is a steep hill below the house where he was raised and near the foot of it there is a railroad crossing. He hit it going too fast, lost control in the air and crashed. He wasn't wearing a helmet—no one wore a
helmet back in those days before World War II. His head injuries were so severe they thought he would not survive and he lay in a coma for days. He recovered, but not fully enough for them to accept him into the Army when he tried—more than once—to enlist like Milt and Al did once the great war against fascism began. All he could do was work in civil defense as an air-raid warden.
A severe head injury can sometimes result in fits of anger, a sort of short circuit in the brain when you see red, say and do irrational things. So that may have been it. But I also know, for I am very much like my father in many ways, that I have some of that same capacity for anger in me. It has served me well as a writer, for I have channeled it into my work and into my understanding of even those characters I do not like. It helps me see more than one side. It helps me remember what my dear friend Dewasentah meant when she told me that all human beings are of two minds. One is the Twisted Mind, which is ruled and overcome by the emotions of anger, jealousy, and greed. The other is the Good Mind, Gah-ney-goh-he-yoh, which is kept straight by clear thought, generosity, kindness, and forgiveness. At any given time we may be thinking of acting with one mind or the other, but the person who is truly aware seeks always to turn to the Good Mind. One of the greatest honors I ever received was the gift of that name, Gah-ney-goh-heyoh, from Dewasentah. On a warm autumn day twenty years ago I was doing a writing workshop at the Onondaga Nation School when I received a message that she needed to see me. Her house was just a short way down the road from the school, and I started out to walk there. But she met me halfway and as we stood near the highway, an old maple tree arching its branches over our head while cars roared by, she held up a big envelope.
"We say that some people are given a special gift of words by the Creator," Alice said. "I've come to see that you are one of those people. The poems and the stories you write are a gift. And because you've done so much for our children, it is time you had an Onondaga name."
A wind started blowing then. Leaves painted scarlet with the blood of the Great Bear came whirling down from the branches of that giver of sweet sap which the Haudenosaunee call the leader of all the trees. I held out my hand to accept that envelope. Within it was a miniature lacrosse stick and an eagle feather. Neatly printed on the outside of that envelope, which still hangs on my wall, was the name meant not just to honor but also to guide me. Gah-ney-goh-he-yoh. The Good Mind.
"Niaweh," I managed to say, remembering at least that one word in Onondaga. "Thank you."
One brief moment can have an effect that, like the ripples sent out across the water by a single stone may touch distant shores.
Over the years, I've told the story of how I was given my Onondaga name many times. But I haven't always mentioned how significant that was to me, how many things were set into motion that day. Take naming. As many people know, it has been common practice for uncounted centuries among American Indians to be given more than one name during their lifetime. Nowadays, because of the requirements of government agencies, virtually every Native American has a name on their birth certificate that remains with them throughout their life on all their official identification documents. But the old practice still exists of giving children a sort of provisional name or a nickname that might change or be replaced by a more appropriate name as they grow to adulthood and show by their deeds who they truly are. Among the Haudenosaunee, every clan mother has a "handful of names" that may be given. Even further, there are certain names of traditional leaders that have been passed down through the generations since the founding of the League of the Haudenosaunee more than one thousand years ago. The first head of the League of the Iroquois was named Tadadaho and after his passing that name was passed on to the man of his clan, chosen by the clan mothers to take on that high office.
Naming and self-discovery are themes I have often explored in my writing since that autumn day when I stood in the place among the hills and was given another name of my own. Two of my picture books relate the stories of how the most famous of all the leaders of the Lakotas of the Great Plains gained their names. A Boy Called Slow is about how Sitting Bull gained his great name, Tatanka Iyotake. Crazy Horse's Vision tells how the one known as "Curly" became honored with the powerful name of Tashunka Witco. My book Jim Thorpe's Bright Path makes reference to the great native athlete's Indian name of Wa-tho-huck, or "Bright Path."
A few years ago I wrote a novel called Hidden Roots. It takes place during the time of my own childhood and Howard, the narrator, is a boy somewhat like myself. The story is about several things, including the fact that here in the Northeast many families have hidden their American Indian ancestry for fear of being badly treated. Grampa Jesse actually left school in the fourth grade, jumped out the window and never came back, because people kept calling him a dirty Indian. Another hidden truth that surfaces in the story is the Eugenics Project in Vermont. In the 1930s, there was a state-run project to purify the gene pool of the state by identifying and sterilizing Vermonters whose blood was seen as undesirable. Families with histories of retardation or mental illness ("idiocy" as the Eugenics Project described it), criminality, or such illnesses as epilepsy were targeted.
So, too, were Indians. Dozens of Vermont Abenaki families were documented and listed among those to be "voluntarily" sterilized. The work in eugenics in Vermont was praised and emulated by the German scientists of the Third Reich. A third hidden truth in the story, though, is very personal. It has to do with my main character's father whose anger leads him to physical abuse against his wife and the protagonist. After being maimed in an accident at the paper mill where he works, Howard's father asks forgiveness for the way he has treated his family. Howard and his mother then embrace him.
I have been accused by one critic of "taking it easy" on the father. I disagree. Things are never just "black and white." What is black to some may be white to others. Neither black nor white should ever be seen as an absolute. And in more than one cultural or literary context, black may symbolize the good while white symbolizes the opposite.
Seeing both sides is an important part of my approach to life and my writing. Another friend and longtime teacher of mine, a Santo Domingo Pueblo and Jicarilla Apache Indian elder named Swift Eagle, was always pointing that out to me. I first met Swifty when I was on one of those Saturday rides and my parents took us to a tourist attraction in the Adirondacks named Frontier Town. It was the recreation of a town from the Wild West. Swifty and his family had been hired to come up there and work the "Indian Village" part of Frontier Town, which included dancing, flute playing, storytelling, and running the archery range. "Listen," Swift Eagle said, "we are supposed to listen, for we all have two ears and only one mouth." And with those two ears you can hear more than one side of any story.
It's amazing how many things I've written have been related to my years of friendship with Swift Eagle. After three years of teaching in Ghana, Carol, our year-old-son Jim, and I returned to Greenfield Center, New York, to live with Grampa Jesse in the house where I was raised. I struck up a friendship with a young Pueblo silversmith who opened a shop in Saratoga Springs. His name was Powhatan Eagle and he was Swift Eagle's son. Our friendship (still going strong thirty-five years later) led to my reconnecting with his father. Swifty was still working at Frontier Town and I began visiting him there and at his home in the little village of Schroon Lake. My first book of Iroquois stories, Turkey Brother, which came out in 1976, shows Swifty's influence, for the trickster in the story of how Bear lost his tail is not Fox but Coyote, the Pueblo's favorite trickster. It was only after it was published that I realized the version I was telling and had written down had been influenced by the way Swift Eagle told it. When I began traveling around doing poetry readings and storytelling programs, Swifty often went with me. "Any time, Joe," he would say, "come on up and take me along."
One late spring evening, I had just picked him up and we were on the way to a performance in Raquette Lake. We were running late and it was starting to rain.
"STOP THE CAR!" Swifty shouted.
I stopped and watched as he got out and carefully picked up a frog that had hopped into the middle of the road in front of us. I waited until he got back in and we started out again. We didn't get a hundred feet.
"STOP THE CAR!"
This time it was two little toads, one of which proved a bit difficult to corral. Swifty's white hair was glistening with rain when he got back in again.
Oh boy, I thought, looking at my watch.
Fifty more feet and then…
"STOP THE CAR!"
The road was crawling with amphibians this time. Hopping, rather. Thirty frogs and toads later the road was clear enough for us to continue. But I knew where this was going and didn't even bother to shift out of first gear as I crept forward.
"STOP THE CAR!"
"Swifty," I said, "you can't save them all. We've got places to go."
That was when he did it. He turned and smiled at me and patted me on my shoulder. "They've got places to go to, too," he said. And this time we both got out of the car.
I forgot about time and accepted it. We made our way through that rainstorm at something slower than a snail's pace, filling our hands with life, not running over even one small toad. And, strangely enough, even though we'd been running late before we started stopping, we actually arrived ten minutes early. That should have been impossible, even if we'd averaged seventy miles an hour. Don't ask me how that happened. But it was a timeless lesson in more ways than one.
That night, back home before I went to bed, I told Carol the story. "Write it down," she said, kindly omitting the word "dummy." And I did, composing a poem that I titled "Birdfoot's Grampa." At last count, it had been reprinted in anthologies and school textbooks more than two hundred times.
I think I was ten years old when I met Swifty that first time. I'm pretty sure of that because I was ten when my grandfather gave me a cap gun that was an exact replica of a Colt .45, like the one used by such TV cowboys as Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke. I took that cap gun with me, hidden under my shirt. While we were on Main Street, before visiting the Indian Village, the sheriff of Frontier Town asked the kids who had brought their "shooting irons" with them to step out and take part in a quick draw contest. I disclosed my hidden persuader and stepped into the line—much to the displeasure of my sister who had failed to be heeled. I was the littlest kid in the line—nothing new to me since I was usually the smallest kid in my grade (and would be so through most of high school until a growth spurt between my junior and senior years shot me up to six foot two). Small as I was, I pulled my pistol and fired off a cap before anyone else and won my first award—a silver deputy's badge.
I was still wearing that badge—and Mary Ann was still smoldering—when we ran down the hill from Fort Custer and I heard Swift Eagle tell the Pueblo story of Kuo-hi-ya, the boy who was neglected by his father and then adopted by the bears. I didn't even know then that the two main clans of the Abenakis are the Turtle and the Bear, but I felt my first deep connection to the bears in that story, as well as understanding somewhere in some unspoken way that I was that boy, that the nurturing mother bear was my grandmother, and the neglectful father who learned from his mistake was also familiar.
Seeds are planted in your childhood. If you are lucky, the ones that keep growing are not the poison vines, but the trees that bear fruit. As I write this I look out the window and see the big maple tree that rises twenty feet taller than our house. It was planted as a sapling by my grandfather and me and it was a gift of Frances McTygue, my fourth-grade teacher. Miss McTygue believed in me and praised my writing. One hundred percent was usually the grade she wrote at the top of each of my essays. I think there is always at least one teacher whose kindness and awareness of your talent affect you as a writer and help set your feet on that path. In my case, it was Miss McTygue who loved all of my stories about animals, pinned them to the wall, and even had me read some of them to the class. From that point on I knew what I was going to be—a naturalist who wrote books about animals. That desire to be a naturalist led me to Cornell University where I majored in wildlife conservation for three years before realizing that I was enjoying my English and creative writing classes even more than the science courses required for my degree.
Miss McTygue had been at her job for a long time. She had been my mother's teacher, too, and remembered her with great warmth as a sweet little girl who tried so hard to please. Miss McTygue was also a good storyteller, who understood that a story is often the best way to teach an unforgettable lesson. Like my grandparents, she didn't tell traditional legends but stories from her own life. The one I remember clearest is about the day when she and her sister Dorothea were out picking berries and got lost. They wandered in the woods most of the day before finding their way to a little old farmhouse. By then they were tired and more hungry than they had ever been before. The woman there saw how hungry they were and gave them something to eat before walking them home. All that she had was bread and lard. She was too poor to afford butter. "But that brown bread spread with lard was the best food that we had ever tasted," Miss McTygue said. "It was so very good that we asked our mother to give us bread and lard the next day. But it just was not the same. It didn't taste good at all." She looked around our class then to see if we understood the point of her story. I know that I was one of the ones who got it. Even the poorest food tastes wonderful to someone who is really hungry. And we need to be thankful for whatever we have.
I went to visit Miss McTygue in the hospital near the end of her life. She had told her family how much she wanted to see me. Of all her pupils I had been one of her favorites. She had a picture of our fourth-grade class by her bedside. "Look at this, Joey," she said. "Do you remember all of those other children?" I did, but I remembered her most of all.
"You knew I was going to be a writer, didn't you?" I said.
Miss McTygue looked surprised. "Why no, Joey." She shook her head. "It has been a lovely surprise to read all of the things you've written. I never knew what any of my children were going to be." She reached out and grasped my hand. "But I did know that you were going to be someone special."
To be honest, Miss McTygue was not the first grade-school teacher whose encouragement started me on the path toward becoming a writer. That honor goes to my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Monthony. She had red hair and knew everything in the world—or so it seemed to me then. She could answer any question and was always giving me extra books to read because I usually finished the classroom assignments before the other kids. In fact, if she didn't have a book in her classroom she would let me go to the school library for "extra reading," where our librarian, Miss Collins (more about her later), always greeted me warmly.
I was in love with Mrs. Monthony as only a second grader can be in love. This was serious love, nothing at all like the crush I had on my kindergarten teacher whose name I no longer remember. I convinced myself at one point that when I was older I would marry Mrs. Monthony. True, she already had a husband, but he was so old I was sure he'd be dead by the time I was grown up enough. I knew how old he was because I had—oh so innocently!—asked her.
"Thirty years old," she'd replied.
Yes! One foot in the grave, I'd thought.
Mrs. Monthony inspired my first attempts at original poetry. I no longer recall any of those poems, the typical "roses are red, violets are blue" greeting card verses that kids wrote back then. But I do know that Mrs. Monthony read some of them to the class and praised me. A little too much, perhaps. It made some of the boys in the class so jealous that they beat me up after school and broke my glasses. My first experience with hostile literary critics.
I outgrew my crush on Mrs. Monthony, but I've stayed friends with her—and her husband, who was amazingly resilient despite his superannuated state. She still tells the story of her "precocious second grader" (moi!) who stood up in front of the class one day at show-and-tell with his new pencil box and declaimed, "If you will observe, by moving this panel I now disclose a secret compartment." Mr. Monthony, in fact, turned out to be one of my fans, though not as a writer. During my senior year in Saratoga High, when I experienced the amazing caterpillar-into-a-butterfly metamor- phosis that transformed me from a little geek into a major jock, I became the school's varsity heavyweight wrestler. When I won the regional tournament, a burly, smiling man came out of the crowd to shake my hand. "We're proud of you, Joey," he said. It took me a moment to recognize him as my old romantic rival.
But before I go any further into my earlier childhood years, I need to jump back in time to say a few words about librarians—some of the best friends I've ever had. I already mentioned that my grade-school librarian, in the big grey stone building that was School Number Two, was named Miss Collins. Although she seemed tall to me at the time, I realize now that she was of no more than medium height. Her dark brown hair always precisely permed, her conservatively-cut suit clean and pressed, her minimal makeup immaculate, she was as neat as the carefully shelved volumes in her library. She was not, however, a unique edition. Her identical twin, also Miss Collins, was the school principal. The two of them always wore the same outfits. If one arrived at school in a creme-colored suit, so did her sister. I think they actually had a color code that they followed, something like brown on Monday, purple on Tuesday, green on Wednesday, and so on. I imagined them putting on their makeup in the morning, looking at each other rather than at a mirror.
But even though they were identical twins, I could always tell them apart. Miss Collins, the principal, always had a look of concern on her face. Miss Collins, the librarian, always wore a smile.
It was Miss Collins the librarian, who suggested—after I had exhausted the school's supply of extra reading books—that I should go to the Saratoga Springs Public Library, which had a brand-new children's room in the basement. My grandmother took me there that afternoon after school. I walked in and looked around. It was a big space—so big that the arts center, which took over the library building a few years ago, divided that spacious children's room into smaller offices and workshop areas—and the walls were lined with more books than I had ever seen before in one place. This was before the days of big bookstores like Borders or Barnes and Noble. To find a store that sold children's books we had to drive fifteen miles to the one area bookstore in Glens Falls. Even there were only a few short shelves devoted to Thornton W. Burgess, the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, Uncle Wiggily, Tarzan, Albert Payson Terhune, Bomba the Jungle Boy, and Louisa May Alcott.
So that first glimpse of an entire collection devoted to books for young readers was an apotheosis, in the sense of it being "the ascension of a person [me] from earthly existence to heavenly glory." (Have I mentioned that I used to read Webster's Dictionary and memorize at least four new words every night?)
For a moment I was speechless. I felt like that conquistador in the Keats poem "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," who walked across the Isthmus of Panama and climbed a mountain to view the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean, "silent upon a peak in Darien." (That, by the way, is exactly the metaphor that came to my mind then, along with the self-satisfied knowledge that Keats had mixed not only his metaphors but also his brutal Spanish explorers, smug little know-it-all that I was then. It was not "stout Cortez with eagle eyes," the gold-greedy, implacable destroyer of the Aztec Empire, but Balboa, who followed his Indian guides to that high point.)
But, awesome as the sight of those waves of books was to me, I was never one to stay tongue-tied for long. "I am going to read every book in this room," I declared in a voice choked with emotion—stumbling forward with my arms held out like a man dying of thirst who has finally found his way into a desert oasis. Of course, I didn't do it all right away. I would gladly have remained there for the entire weekend, wanting nothing more than a few sandwiches and an occasional trip to the rest room. But I was forced to leave when the library closed its doors that night. My grandmother helped me carry the huge pile of books I had checked out. I read until it was time for bed and even then, using the flashlight I'd hidden under my pillow, I kept on reading under the covers.
I am sometimes asked when I do programs in schools where I first got my ideas as a writer. It is as easy a question to answer as it is complicated. I believe that, to be honest, an artist of any sort—writer, painter, composer—can never really know for sure what the exact sources of his or her inspirations are. The Greeks spoke about the voice of the Muse and I know that there are times when I feel as if I am not creating but taking dictation as I write. Instead of telling a story, I am letting the story tell itself through me. It's a mystery and not one that I care to solve. I'm just glad that I seem to have been written so firmly into the plot. On the other hand, I could answer that I get my ideas from everything—including the questions kids ask me when I visit schools. Or I could—as I usually do—just refer back to the two great sources of my inspiration: my ears and my eyes. Hearing stories and reading.
The person who explained the path of inspiration the best to me was a Mohegan elder named Harold Tantaquidgeon. The founder, with his sister Gladys, of the Mohegan Indian Museum in Uncasville, Connecticut, Harold painted a design on the outside wall of their museum, a cross with a dot in each of the four quadrants. It was so well known as his personal sign that as late as the 1970s—when I first visited Harold and Gladys—he sometimes received mail from as far away as Europe with no other address on the envelope than that design followed by the words Connecticut, USA.
It stood, like many of our seemingly simple traditional designs, for several things. The Four Sacred Directions. The Four Seasons. The Four Ancestors that every human has—two grandmothers and two grandfathers. The four stages of life—child, adolescent, adult, and elder. But the four things that it stood for which explain so much about the paths of learning, of storytelling, and of inspiration are these: Listen, Observe, Remember, and Share.
The first deep listening I did was to my grandparents. I was always listening to them. My bedroom was right next to theirs and the door between our two rooms was always kept open. "Good night," I'd say, waiting for their reassuring reply of "Good night."
"Sweet dreams." That was always the second phrase of a mantra spoken against the fears that crowded around me in the darkness.
"Sweet dreams," their two voices would echo back to me.
"I love you."
"We love you."
I don't remember how old I was when I stopped calling out those three phrases to them. I know that when I was very little I would run through our call-and-response refrain again and again until finally my grandmother would say, "Do you want to come in bed with us?" And I would always say, "Yes!"
Grama and Grampa. My whole world revolved around them to the point that even when I wasn't calling out to them I was still listening. I would lie awake in bed for hours, making sure that I could still hear them breathing. I knew they were old and I was afraid they might pass on before the return of the sun. By the sheer force of my will, keeping awake and counting every breath, I could make sure that they would survive another night.
They were the first people who told me stories. But I did not hear traditional American Indian tales from either of them. People sometimes assume that anyone who has Indian heritage grew up hearing "the old Indian stories, the myths and legends of their people." However, I grew up at a time when American Indian culture was still being suppressed. Many Native people of my age, including those who were not mixed blood like me, people who grew up in the middle of reservation communities, never heard traditional stories from their parents who had been told that such tales were useless, backward or, even worse, the work of the devil.
Even grandparents who had grown up surrounded and nurtured by the circle of stories were often reticent (or forbidden) to speak such stories to their grandchildren. Some families, some communities, stubbornly refused to give up traditional tales and practices—even if they had to pass them on in secret. However, more often than not, during my growing up years in the second half of the twentieth century, "Indian ways" were popularly seen as vanishing and traditional tales seemed to belong more to the ethnologists who had collected them from "the last storytellers of the (fill in the blank with whatever Indian tribe you choose) people."
Although I did not hear traditional American Indian stories from either Grama or Grampa Bowman, I was always being told tales of how things were when they were young. I would realize later in life how carefully chosen those tales had been. When my collie dog Lady was killed by a truck, my grandmother told me the story of how she had raised a baby fox that followed her everywhere she went and slept at the foot of her
bed, but it was still a fox and its nature as a fox led it to steal chickens from a neighbor's coop where it was shot. Animals have to go their own way. You can't always be there to protect them. When I was beaten up by some of the bigger boys in the fourth grade, Grampa told me about how he went to work in the woods for Seneca Smith when he was my age and how that work made him so strong that when one of the bigger boys "tried to take ahold of him" Grampa knocked that boy right into the mill pond. Grampa also told me that his own father never hit him.
"When I done wrong, he'd just take me aside and talk to me and tell me a story." Then Grampa laughed. "Sometimes I wished he would of hit me. Them stories was strong!" (But when I asked him what those stories were like and if he could tell me one, he'd always shake his head and say he couldn't remember.)
My grandparents' general store was also a gathering place for the working men in our neighborhood. In the winter time they'd sit inside around the old pot-bellied stove and swap yarns. Television was only a rumor back then and there were only two movie theaters in town and not every one wanted to spend the fifty cents it cost for a double feature. Making their own entertainment by just "settin' around and gabbin," as Grama Bowman described it, was the most popular evening pastime for Grampa and his friends. A good many of those men, like my grandfather, had worked or were still working in the woods as loggers and you might hear a tall tale or even a song such as "The Logger's Alphabet," sung by our neighbor from nearby Middle Grove, Lawrence Older, the Adirondack Minstrel. Even though it was past my bedtime, I'd sneak in through the back door and hide behind the soda machine to listen.
I was so stealthy in my creeping, sort of like Lamont Cranston in the radio serial The Shadow, that nobody ever seemed to notice I was there—not even when the old door creaked when I opened it or when I accidentally knocked over a stack of canned beans. Sometimes I listened so long that I fell asleep back there. Amazingly enough, it was only after I was asleep that anyone ever discovered my presence, for I would wake up in Grampa's arms as he carried me in to bed.
By the time I was old enough to go out on my own, I was well practiced in sitting quietly and listening. I was even comfortable—unlike most young people—with listening when nothing was being said. And I was more than comfortable to be in the presence of elders. So it was, from my college years on, that I would seek out Native elders wherever I went.
I never asked them to tell me stories. Instead, I made myself available to help out however I could—bringing in wood, driving them to the store, sitting around the kitchen table and sharing a cup of tea. I did tell them about myself, about the poems I was writing then, about how little I knew of my own Indian heritage. And then I stopped talking. And they started. And the stories came.
I didn't write down their words in a notebook or tape record them. I trusted my memory and also the fact that my relationship with them was not just a one-visit thing. I knew they would have the chance to share those stories with me again. I heard early on about
eager young white ethnologists and writers who befriended this or that elder, took down and recorded lots of stories, wrote their books, and then never came back, breaking the hearts of those old people who thought they had made a new lifetime friend. It always made me sad to hear such stories and a bit angry, as if it were my own grandparents who had been used and then cast aside in that way. I vowed that I would not be that way and I have tried over the past four decades to honor those elders and the gifts they've shared by never forgetting them, by always acknowledging them, and by keeping up my friendship with them and their families as best I can.
I'm proud of the fact that the stories I have retold have often been used in the Native communities they originally came from. In some cases, my versions of Haudenosaunee or Abenaki stories have been translated back into the Native language to use in classrooms. Or Native storytellers have drawn on my tellings to shape tellings of their own of a certain traditional tale, circling the stories back into their lives. I'm equally proud of the fact that our two sons, James and Jesse—who grew up surrounded by stories and an awareness of their Indian roots—have followed paths similar to mine that are uniquely their own. They both tell traditional stories and perform Abenaki music. Jesse's thesis at Goddard College was to create a syllabus for teaching the Abenaki language. Jim has created the Ndakinna Center, a Native outdoor education center based on the ninety acres of land left by my mother and placed in a conservation easement. (You can find information about it at www.ndakinnacenter.org.)
Mentioning our sons (not the plural possessive) reminds me that they did not come into being by way of either parthenogenesis or by springing fully formed from my head as Athene did from the brow of Zeus (ouch!). I have said nothing thus far about the person who has been the most important creative influence in my life—my wife of more than forty years, Carol. We met while I was a student at Cornell University and we were married in the summer between my fourth and fifth years as an undergrad. (That extra year was necessary to complete the requirements for a degree in English after I switched my major, thanks to those creative writing courses!) Carol was with me during my year and a half of master's degree study at Syracuse University, where I attended on a writing fellowship. Her patience and her good sense have made her the first reader and critic of everything I have written since we met. Not that it has always been that easy. We both smile (now!) about the autumn day when she stood quietly (and nervously) watching as I smashed my typewriter and burned all my manuscripts in the backyard after being told by my fiction writing teacher, Dan Jacobsen, that my writing was too lyrical and that I knew nothing about storytelling. She then handed me the thirty dollars I used to buy myself another typewriter.
The two of us spent three years together in Ghana, West Africa, at a secondary school where she worked so efficiently in the school library and bookstore that when it came time for us to leave, our headmaster, Mr. Matanawui, said that they were going to miss me because I had been such a fine teacher, but they were not going to allow Carol to leave because she had become indispensable.
My grandmother had passed on during my junior year in high school and I had not yet recovered from that loss when Carol first met me four years later—even though at first glance I seemed to be a strong young man with everything going for him, an A student at Cornell who was both the varsity heavyweight wrestler and an editor of the school literary magazine. Carol could have earned a degree in psychotherapy for the work she did in listening to me and counseling me toward real adulthood in the years that followed. (I still hope she was joking when, on our fortieth anniversary, she said, "Thank you for twenty wonderful years.")
When we returned from West Africa to my grandfather and the old house in Greenfield Center, Carol became my coeditor and copublisher of The Greenfield Review, a multicultural literary magazine that we published for eighteen years—and she is still the copublisher of The Greenfield Review Press. Anyone who stays married to any writer for more than a decade may be a candidate for sainthood. Carol deserves it four times over—or perhaps three times that, since she also has kept up that patient, clear-minded, and healing role in the raising of two charismatic, creative, and frightening physical sons. How physical we all are may be measured by the fact that I've been a martial arts instructor for over thirty years, Jim is a sensei and fourth-degree black belt, and Jesse is the co-owner of a mixed martial arts academy. But enough of that part of our family story. Just remember that the first heartbeat you hear is your mother's and that women are always at the heart of every family, especially a family of storytellers.
Now that we've come back to the drumbeat of the heart, the place where stories begin, this may be the best place to explain how I find and shape the traditional stories I tell. (By the way, I prefer—as do most American Indian storytellers—to refer to our stories as "traditional stories" rather than "folklore," "myths," or "legends.") My process of retelling has always been twofold. I begin with listening, but I don't stop there. I acquaint myself with every written version of a traditional story that I can find-sometimes (when I'm especially lucky) even a story that has been recorded in both the Native language and in English. I research more than one version of every story, because often when non-Natives have "collected" stories they've done so inaccurately or heard them from people who didn't know or tell the full story.
I then go back to combine my knowledge of the written versions with the story as I have heard it told to me by living members of that particular tribal community. But neither I do not stop there. A story doesn't exist in a vacuum. It comes out of the living breath of a people. Before I ever write down any traditional tale, I also acquaint myself with the tribal and community context in which it was told. For example, if a basket is mentioned in the story, I want to know what kind of basket and how it was used. Better still, I want to know how it was made or even learn to make such a basket myself. You cannot speak accurately about tracking an animal without going out into the forest in real life and following those actual tracks. It may take only a few moments to hear a story, but it may take many seasons to truly understand it. Nothing good happens fast. Life is not a weekend seminar.
Another question often asked me by young people is how long I researched a story before writing it—such as my recent novel Geronimo, about the great Chir-
icahua medicine person and resistance fighter. It's not an easy question to answer. I could say that I spent four years reading everything I could find about his life or that I made a number of trips to Arizona, Mexico and New Mexico, Florida, Alabama, and Oklahoma over the years to see the places where he lived and where he spent decades as a prisoner of war; that I walked through the graveyard at the Carlisle Indian School where too many graves bear Chiricahua names; and that I held his rifle in my hands. I could mention the guidance I was given by such Chiricahua writers and historians as Harry Mithlo and Michael Darrow, who read every word I wrote and corrected my mistakes. Or I could go back to my childhood when I first heard Swift Eagle tell a story about his Jicarilla grandfather who knew Geronimo. Or I could answer that my research began when I held an eagle feather, a lacrosse stick, and a name in my hands. Or when I saw that circle of the four directions on the wall of the Mohegan Indian museum. Or when I learned to listen to the living breath of my grandparents.
Or, I could say, all my life. Ever since I first heard and tried to repeat that heartbeat sound of a drum.
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Alaska, December, 1992, p. 74.
Albany Times Union, June 1, 1980.
Booklist, February 15, 1993, p. 1075; July, 1993, p. 1969; October 15, 1993, p. 397; November 15, 1993, p. 632; December 15, 1993, p. 749; August, 1994, p. 2017; September, 1994, p. 55; October 15, 1994, p. 377; December 15, 1994, p. 756; September 1, 1997, p. 69; September 15, 1997, pp. 234, 237; December 5, 1997, p. 688; February 15, 1998; October 1, 2002, Heather Hepler, review of Seasons of the Circle: A Native-American Year, p. 316, and GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of The Winter People, p. 322; April 15, 2003, Deborah Donovan, review of Our Stories Remember: American Indian History, Culture, and Values through Storytelling, p. 1444; September 15, 2003, John Peters, review of Turtle's Race with Beaver, p. 244, and Ed Sullivan, review of Pocahontas, p. 229; July, 2004, Carolyn Phelan, review of Rachel Carson: Preserving a Sense of Wonder, p. 1838; August, 2004, Todd Morning, review of The Dark Pond, p. 1932, and Stephanie Zvirin, review of Jim Thorpe's Bright Path, p. 1938; February 15, 2005, Carolyn Phelan, review of Code Talker: A Novel about the Navajo Marines of World War II, p. 1078; September 1, 2005, Holly Koelling, review of Whisper in the Dark, p. 131; November 15, 2005, Anna Rich, audiobook review of Crazy Horse's Vision, p. 64; March 15, 2006, GraceAnne A. DeCandido, review of Geronimo, p. 43.
Bulletin, April, 1995, p. 265.
English Journal, January, 1996, p. 87.
Horn Book, January-February, 1994, p. 60; March-April, 1994, p. 209; November-December, 1994, p. 738; March-April, 1995, p. 203; September-October, 1995, p. 617; January-February, 2005, Kitty Flynn, review of Raccoon's Last Race, p. 102.
Kirkus Reviews, March 15, 1996, p. 445; May 1, 1996, p. 685; December 1, 1996, p. 1734; January 1, 2004, review of Hidden Roots, p. 34; October 15, 2004, review of Raccoon's Last Race, p. 1002; January 15, 2005, review of Code Talker, p. 117; July 1, 2005, review of Whisper in the Dark, p. 732; September, 2005, Paula Rohrlick, review of The Dark Pond, p. 25; February 1, 2006, review of Wabi: A Hero's Tale, p. 128.
Kliatt, July, 2004, Paula Rohrlick, review of The Dark Pond, p. 7; March, 2005, Paula Rohrlick, review of Code Talker, p. 8; July, 2005, Claire Rosser, review of Whisper in the Dark, p. 8; January, 2006, Edna Boardman, review of Foot of the Mountain, and Other Stories, p. 26; March, 2006, Paula Rohrlick, review of Geronimo, p. 6.
Publishers Weekly, March 15, 1993, p. 68; June 28, 1993, p. 76; July 19, 1993, pp. 254, 255; August 29, 1994, p. 79; January 9, 1995, p. 64; July 31, 1995, p. 68; July 14, 1997, p. 83; September 8, 1997, p. 78; November 24, 1997, p. 75; May 31, 2004, review of Jim Thorpe's Bright Path, p. 76; May 1, 2006, review of Wabi, p. 64.
School Library Journal, March, 1993, p. 161; August, 1993, p. 205; September, 1993, pp. 222, 238; February, 1994, p. 78; November, 1994, p. 112; December, 1994, p. 96; February, 1995, p. 104; October, 1995, Carolyn Polese, review of A Boy Called Slow, p. 145; July, 2002, Anne Chapman Callaghan, review of Navajo Long Walk: The Tragic Story of a Proud People's Forced March from Their Homeland, p. 131; November, 2002, Rita Soltan, review of The Winter People, p. 154; July, 2003, S.K. Joiner, review of Our Stories Remember, p. 155; February, 2004, Alison Follos, review of Hidden Roots, p. 141; May, 2004, Sean George, review of Pocahontas, p. 140; June, 2004, Liza Graybill, review of Jim Thorpe's Bright Path, p. 124; August, 2004, B. Allison Gray, review of The Dark Pond, p. 115; December, 2004, Catherine Threadgill, review of Raccoon's Last Race, p. 127; February, 2005, B. Allison Gray, audiobook review of Skeleton Man, p. 75; May, 2005, Patricia Manning, review of Code Talker, p. 24; August, 2005, review of Code Talker, p. 50, and Wendi Hoffenberg, review of Whisper in the Dark, p. 121; October, 2005, review of Code Talker, p. S67; November, 2005, Alison Follos, review of Sports Shorts: An Anthology of Short Stories, p. 128; April, 2006, Lisa Prolman, review of Wabi, and Nina Lindsay, review of Geronimo, both p. 134.
Silver Whistle, spring-summer, 2000, p. 67.
Teacher Librarian, February, 2005, Betty Winslow, review of The Journal of Jesse Smoke: A cherokee Boy, p. 14.
Voice Literary Supplement, November, 1991, p. 27.
Voice of Youth Advocates, February, 2006, Tracy Piombo, review of At the End of Ridge Road, p. 508.
Wilson Library Bulletin, June, 1993, p. 103; September, 1993, p. 87; April, 1995, p. 110.
Children's Literature Web site,http://www.childrenslit.com/ (June 22, 2006).
Cooperative Children's Book Center Web site,http://www.education.wisc.edu/ccbc/ (October 22, 1999), Eliza T. Dresang, interview with Bruchac.
Joseph Bruchac Home Page,http://www.josephbruchac.com (June 22, 2006).