Tappan Adney's Maliseet Studies: More Than Canoes
Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario
October 24-27, 2002
by James W. Wheaton
(In my absence, the paper was read by Nicholas N. Smith. Information presented here is based on my research for a biography of Tappan Adney tentatively titled: Birchbark Canoes and Klondike Gold: The World of Tappan Adney. This web version of the paper has illustrations inserted in the text. I welcome comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Tappan Adney: A Brief Review
Before getting into the details of my presentation, I'd like to mention that Kingston, Ontario is a significant location in Tappan Adney's life. It was here, at the Royal Military College, that he spent most of his World War I career as an engineering officer, constructing scale models of fortifications for training purposes. Shortly after the war, he created a set of three-dimensional shields of the Canadian provinces that adorned Currie Memorial Hall for about the next 40 years. They still exist, and perhaps will be restored to their original condition.
Crest of New Brunswick created by Tappan Adney
for Currie Memorial Hall, Royal Military College, Kingston, ON
In a gathering of specialists such as here at the Algonquian Conference, the name "Tappan Adney," if recognized at all, is that of the man most famous as the author of The Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America, with Howard I. Chapelle. It was actually edited by Chapelle from Adney's typescripts and notes, and published in 1964 by the Smithsonian Institution, 14 years after Adney's death in 1950. In his 1975 book, The Survival of the Bark Canoe, John McPhee presented a brief recitation of Adney's contribution:
When he was twenty, Adney made a birch-bark canoe, under the guidance of a Malecite builder. Writing down the methodology as he learned it, he began the central work of his lifeĞmaking sketches, making notes, and traveling to Indian outposts to absorb and record both the basic craftsmanship and the differences in tribal styles. He understood Indian languages. The material he assembled, over decades, had not been gathered in anything like such detail and scope before, nor could it ever be again, for in Adney's lifetime the number of makers of bark canoes declined from the thousands to a scattered, vestigial few. Alone, Adney preserved this immemorial technology... Note 1.
While McPhee considered the canoe work the "central work of his life," Adney himself thought, as he wrote to Frank Speck in 1942 (quoted below), that "even my researches into the canoes, in the field, museums, and libraries, was stolen, in a way, from my regular work." His regular work, then, must be defined as a complete and comprehensive study of Indian culture, with emphasis on language as it represented the Indian's view of Nature and himself as part of Nature. In a letter to Diamond Jenness (Chief, Division of Anthropology, Victoria Memorial Museum, Ottawa) dated February 28, 1940, Adney wrote, after discussing the departure of his canoe model collection to the Mariners' Museum at Newport News, Virginia, "I shall not be neglecting the Malecite Note 2. Natural History. One of my ways of 'resting' is the change of the work."
Adney's life had many parts, geographically and in terms of his major occupation. However, his fundamental interest in the Native culture never diminished, and he took every opportunity to extend his studies, no matter where he was or what he was doing. In the biography I am preparing, I divide his life into these chronological stages:
This brief chronology omits many details, such as the fact that he was the founding Treasurer of the Explorers Club in New York. He always described himself first as an artist, and then as a writer.
Tappan Adney and Nature
There are still people who remember Tappan Adney and his devotion to Nature and the Indian culture. Leon Thornton of Canterbury, NB, as a young boy, visited Tappan's Upper Woodstock "bungalo" in the middle 1930s. He said, in concluding his narrative of this adventure:
...and Tappan put his hand on my shoulder and he said, "Now, would you like to go around the outside of the building - I've got some nice little trails down through the lot here." And I don't think there would have been any other place within miles where you would have seen as many birds that were totally fearless, as there were there. Absolutely fearless. And he seemed to be able to emit these queer little whistles and other sounds, and he had those birds literally twittering around his head, or land on the top of his head. He had the complete and utter trust of all wildlife. It seemed like that. Another thing I was surprised at was that when they seemed to be timid of me, why he would again repeat these little sounds, as if to say, well, don't be afraid of him. And the birds-- they'd never land on me like they did him, but they'd flutter around me and whatnot, twittering away and talk. I think that he was the instigator of my love of nature. I think that that was the first instilling that wildlife wasn't to be indiscriminately slaughtered or shot at or maimed or whatever, and that you should learn to appreciate it and live with it.
Tappan Adney and the Indian Culture
Adney referred to his first acquaintance with Indian culture as follows:
When we first came to Upper Woodstock in 1887, Peter Jo or Joseph, on the Point, was living in a house with walls and roof entirely of birch bark, and in summer his old mother did cooking out of doors, and some of their dishes were neatly made of birch bark also. We built birch bark canoes, tho the Indians now were fastening the gunwales together with nails and no longer with wrappings of split spruce roots in the ancient manner. Even this little which remained of the old manner of living we found fascinating. It seemed to me then as it has ever since from contacts with the Indian in his primitive life untouched by the white man's culture, that the Indian had attained, that which the Japanese possessed not so much a low standard of living so much as a high standard of simplicity, which under the same conditions the white man has not essentially improved upon. (emphasis added)Note 4.
This illustration appears on page 57 of The Bark Canoes...
Adney's immersion in the Indian culture is obvious from his voluminous writings, but perhaps is most aptly indicated by this quotation earlier this year from Erwin Polchies, a Maliseet living in Woodstock, who had visited Adney in his bungalow as a teenager in 1947. He said, "He seemed to be nine feet tall...and all of a sudden he was speaking to me in my own language."Note 5. In that same year Adney wrote to Charles LaPorte:
What has come over the Tobique Indians? I am afraid to go there now. My old and valued friends - Ambroise Lockwood, old Peter and Charlie Bear, Joe Alexander, Joe Ellis, and there was Peter Joseph that I knew and hunted with fifty years ago who came from Tobique. They are all dead. I'm scared I'll step on A-Bik-chil-u....Note 6.
(Some sketches of his Indian friends from the early days survive in the Adney Collection at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA. Here are three, previously reproduced by Roger B. Ray for an article in Archaeoastronomy Volume VI (1-4), 1983, and scanned from poor copies of his paper.)
John Sollus, 1888 - Sabatis Solis - Sapiel Joseph
Tappan Adney's researches into the Maliseet culture of New Brunswick produced two magazine articles about birchbark canoesNote 7. and many others based on his experiences in the Yukon and in the New Brunswick wilderness, but only two published scientific works on the Maliseet language, separated by many years. In the first bloom of his abilities in the late 1880s, and based on his continuing relationship with a number of Maliseets, he compiled a list of the Indian names for the local birds and mammals that was published by the Linnaean Society of New York in 1893 as "Milicete Indian Natural History." That Society was associated with the American Museum of Natural History, and its members were among the founders of the American Ornithological Union. The Society's President at this time was J. A. Allen, and Frank M. Chapman was Vice President. Theodore Roosevelt was a corresponding member. A few years later, Adney provided 150 pen-and-ink drawings for Chapman's Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, first published in 1895. He later provided some illustrations for Theodore Roosevelt's Good Hunting.
Original copies of the Linnaean Society paper are rare, and the copy I managed to acquire is very brittle. It is worth inspecting, however, because Tappan Adney reveals so much of his personality in the course of presenting the English, Latin, and Maliseet names for 89 birds and 25 mammals. In his introductory remarks, he indicates his discomfort with "authority," an attitude quite typical of him:
The meaning, too, [of the names of birds] and the reason why, are likewise difficult to get from most Indians, although it is alleged by those in high authority among us that every name in an unwritten language must carry its meaning with it, so as to be instantly taken apart and understood.
Adney's whimsical sense of humor comes to the fore in his description of the Saw-Whet Owl (Kupkamis)* on page 26. He says:
Adney's comment about the alphabet employed to represent the sounds of the Maliseet language is a theme repeated throughout his life. He preferred to use Powell's Bureau of American Ethnology (BAE) alphabet of the 1880s. He had no use for the German-trained linguists who used special alphabets to represent the sounds. There was a practical reason for this: he wanted to be able to use his typewriter to write about the languages. Moreover, not being connected with an academic institution, there was no printer in his vicinity who had the fonts necessary to print those special alphabets.
Early in the 20th century many of the older Upper Woodstock Indians died, and the rest dispersed. In the late 1930s Adney began a routine of walking the six miles to the lower Woodstock Reserve once a week, where the old men such as Dr. Peter Polchies,Note 10. Noel Polchies, Noel Moulton and many others would gather to answer his questions. Adney's particular source for the "truth" of Maliseet word pronunciation and meanings was his long-time collaborator Peter Paul.Note 11. Peter Paul had spoken Maliseet at home, and learned English later. He and Adney worked together until Adney's final illness confined him to his bed.
Dr. Peter Paul as photographed by Mike Saunders for
George Frederick Clarke's 1968 book Someone Before Us
On October 3, 1941, Adney wrote to Jenness (one of a series of letters beginning as early as 1925) and described the present status of his research activities:
I am getting more and more remarkable results from my linguistic analyses. A Natural History of the Malecites, which naturally embraces more than we mean by that word, now is completed save [for] some editing and condensation. Words are analyzed, and it is more than just a list of names.
In these statements lie a hint of the frustration that Adney felt throughout most of his life; that his work was not taken seriously by the academic community, and he had to promote it himself. Despite his continuing theme that his work was accepted by various ethnologists with whom he corresponded (often at great length), in fact nothing he wrote on linguistics was ever published in a professional linguistic journal for peer review.
The second paper he did publish appeared in May 1944 in The Acadian Naturalist, edited by Herbert Habeeb and published by the University of New Brunswick. It was titled "The Malecite Indians' Names for Native Berries and Fruits, and Their Meanings." Copies of this are available from the University of New Brunswick and also the University of Maine. Adney's personal copy found its way somehow to the Smithsonian archives. On the cover he made the following comment: "Not very satisfactory. The Editor, Professor of Physics and an amateur Botanist decided identification of species for himself; did not submit manuscript for questions on doubtful points, nor send proofs. My manuscript was hurriedly prepared from an urgent request to contribute something to the new publication." Throughout this personal copy, Adney has marked additional accent marks and made a number of corrections.
Tappan Adney had extensive correspondence with many ethnologists, anthropologists, folklorists and museum people of his time, including Frank Speck, Diamond Jenness, Edward Sapir, Clark Wissler, Ernest Dodge, Wendell Hadlock, Douglas S. Byers, Louise Manny, J. C. Webster, and Fannie Hardy Eckstorm.Note 13. He was in frequent touch with Mrs. Eckstorm from November 1945 until her death in December 1946, and he and his Indian associate, Peter Paul, visited Mrs. Eckstorm in Brewer, Maine in December 1945. In her report of this meeting to a friend on December 12, 1945, she remarks, "We talked. And talked. And talked. At the end of eight hours the first day, I gave out..." Mrs. Eckstorm found in Tappan Adney a kindred soul. She had written to him on November 28, 1945, "But in your first letter you gave me the 'high sign'. It was the sign of the woods, the old old welcome of our woods where the invitation was, 'Stranger, draw up and eat', and there was no asking of names or of the business in hand. You were willing to share your stuff..."
Fannie Hardy Eckstorm was a collector of Indian place names and folklore,Note 14. the myths of the origins of man, and Tappan Adney was equally interested, which led to his documentation of a number of them, along with a dissertation on "Stories and the Art of Story-Telling." These were discovered by Edward D. Ives of the University of Maine in the Adney Collection now at the Phillips Library of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Ives published these and other tales collected by some enterprising students of his under the title "Malecite and Passamaquoddy Tales" in Northeast Folklore, Volume VI, 1964.
His introduction explains the circumstances of the collection of these tales, and contains a brief biography of Adney, taken from The Bark Canoes..., which had just been published the same year. We are fortunate that this entire publication has been put on the internet, and is available at Tales. Ives's Introduction (at /NFI.htm) includes the following paragraph that is worth quoting here:
Thus the present collection of tales grows out of the lives and personalities of two people; one a tale-teller too shy to face a microphone directly, the other a self-educated scholar too busy to pay attention to his health or his poverty. They meet on the common ground of Malecite life, the former living it from within, the latter observing it from without. They believed in its worth, and this booklet is gratefully dedicated to them both: Viola Solomon and E. Tappan Adney.
During his early visits to New Brunswick in the 1880s and 1890s, Adney was especially interested in the traps and deadfalls used by the local Indians. He sketched these for his journals, and wrote a short article titled "Some New Brunswick Traps" that was published in the January 5, 1893 issue of Forest and Stream. In Montreal in the 1920s, he made a series of models of traps and deadfalls, some of which he later deposited with the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John.
Tappan Adney's Approach to Indian Languages
Two letters to Frank Speck from 1942 and 1944 illustrate his philosophy and approach to the immense task he had set for himself.
What I sat down particularly to say is how completely I find myself in agreement on the intelligence of Primitive Man and the thoroughness of his adaptation to environment, when we can scarcely say so much of Civilized Man. My analysis of the Malecite dialect extending back to the unvocalized reactions of the Indian to the various familiar objective phenomena that are the bases, the true "roots" of his organized speech, permits synthesis, reconstruction, so to speak, of the language along mental lines of the original makers. Most marvelous has been the result, an ingenuity that is scarcely believable, powers of observation of the keenest and most discriminating, and a general intelligence of what I would almost say the highest order. Men like Wells, whose Outline I won't take the trouble and time to read, has a low opinion of primitive man judging no doubt from the extreme simplicity of his material culture.
The second letter:
By the way, I am discovering "origins of language" through observation of some friendly red squirrels that I have been regularly feeding. I chose the subject of eating as one upon which I felt we could arrive at mutual understanding in spite of speech limitations on both sides.
Edwin Tappan Adney at work in his "bungalo" in Upper Woodstock, NB, March 1944. This photograph was published in Time Magazine.
(Continued on Next Page.)