Tappan Adney's Maliseet Studies: More Than Canoes

Presented at the 34th Algonquian Conference, Language and Linguistics
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 jww@siterrific.com.)

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:

  • 1868 - 1883 Boyhood in Athens, Ohio and Pittsboro, North Carolina
  • 1883 - 1887 Art Studies in New York City
  • 1887 - 1896 Travels to New Brunswick, writing/illustrating in New York
  • 1897 - 1898 In the Klondike for Harpers' Weekly
  • 1900        At Cape Nome for Collier's Magazine. Publication of The Klondike Stampede by Harper Brothers.

Flyer for lecture tour about the Klondike and Cape Nome -- Tappan Adney in New York, 1890s
(photo from Provincial Archives of New Brunswick)

  • 1901 - 1906 Business interests in New York City
  • 1907 - 1915 Promoting the Sharp orchard business in Woodstock, NB
  • 1916 - 1919 Kingston, Ontario, service in the Canadian Engineers during WWI
  • 1920 - 1933 Montreal, creating heraldic art, consulting to McCord Museum on canoes, researching canoes via Hudson's Bay Company contacts, etc.
  • 1934 - 1950 Upper Woodstock, NB, researching canoes and the Maliseet language

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.

As he walked down through the woods, for example, and I've done the same thing with my own family, he named every tree, and every piece of moss, and every flower that was there. And first would come the Latin name, which didn't mean a thing to me--I didn't even know what Latin was, I thought it was just a jargon that he was saying--and then he would come out with the common, garden-variety name. He was an amazing man, there's no question about that.Note 3.

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.

In the following list the writer regrets that he cannot give a translation in every case that represents the meaning of the name with precision as absolute as our language permits, but the difficulties of translation, while not eliminated, have been greatly simplified by reason of the excellent knowledge of English possessed by many Indians of the Milicete tribe.

The spelling is that recommended by the United States Bureau of [American] Ethnology. It should be borne in mind that there is frequently no distinction between the sounds k and g, p and b, s and z, and tc and dj. In many instances the sound is intermediate. Indians themselves in writing their language in English characters, express either the hard or soft sounds with indifference, more so at the beginning of a word.Note 8.

Adney's whimsical sense of humor comes to the fore in his description of the Saw-Whet Owl (Kupkamis)* on page 26. He says:

Kup, pitched in a high key, is the sound uttered by the owl. It is the "whetting" sound that sometimes, as we read, leads travelers, lost at night in the forest, to hunt for the saw-mill and the workmen, who in filing their saws make the sounds that come with such suggestiveness out of the gloom of the lonely woods.

No Indian hunter, if he is sane, thinks of injuring or mocking Kupkamis. Nor should anyone imitate that diminutive sorcerer, for something about your camp will get a good scorching, and if anyone kills him he will as certainly get hurt himself. A pair of moccasins, owned by the writer and blistered before the camp fire, was witness to the truth of this. Had not one of those common mishaps, in which the writer endeavored with success to put the blade of an axe through his foot, occurred after instead of before his first tragic encounter with Kupkamis (whose pelt was afterwards removed without bewitchment), the evidence would have been conclusive to the Indian. But with all his witchcraft he is a harmless wohantosis, little devil, who would rather prescribe for his small patients, the unwary mouse, and sipsis, small bird, the medicine of magic claws and sharper beak.Note 9.

*The web font will not reproduce the accented characters as published in Adney's paper.

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.

I have gone far in an analysis of the Malecite Language making new discoveries about early groupings of the Algonkian peoples such [as] an Eastern Division in which L is incorporated as a verb to go, which the Central Algonkian does not have nor Masschusets, though Lenni Lenapi, Cree and Blackfoot [do], but in none so extensively incorporated as in the Malecite Abnaki group. About everything grammatical in the language is explained. Beothuk also has the L-verb.

I am getting along with the Canoe, which has first call on my time.

The Natural History and the Language Analysis are valuable contributions, important works, and will add considerab[ly] to linguistic science as well as to the life of the Indian during the formative period of his language that particle analysis reveals in a very remarkable way.Note 12.

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 man who generalizes too readily, "shingling out on the fog" beyond the rafters, would come under the censure of Bacon's continual and repeated warning (Novum Organum) against the age-old pernicious and unscientific habit of man, who jumps at conclusions from insufficient observation of facts. From instilled habit of close examination of facts of nature, from a thorough basic training as an artist with association when younger with scientific students (the ornithologists), I find the details are so fascinating, so much is revealed, that I have found difficulty in generalizing at all, and that is a fault.

I labor here under a certain handicap. I accumulated an immense amount of material on the canoes, together with enough else to explain other uses of the canoe other than mere navigation, that have affected constructional details and forms. But I have not had access to the larger libraries, as I came down here some seven years ago with an invalid wife as, after the depression came, I was unable to care for any place but here where I have property. I have not kept track of many publications in the broad field of anthropology - even my researches into the canoes, in the field, museums, and libraries, was stolen, in a way, from my regular work. Now, since my wife's death three or four years ago, I find this the ideal place in which one can concentrate without outside disturbance and under no "pressure of immediacy," as William James has put it. What has been missing is the stimulating contacts with like-minded enthusiasts.Note 15.

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.

They give out a call when they hear my back screen door slam. If I answer back, one comes threading his way along limbs to the roof of a low woodshed, stops. I move my lips, giving at the same time a smacking sound. Sciurus instantly makes the same lips gesture, repeating it each time after me. Both understand, have come to understand that the subject is eating, apple, butternut, etc.

I was in my rear room of my bungalo "suite" lying on a couch reading. I had lifted a small board in the floor so squirrels could enter. When I heard or saw them I gave the mouth signal, then gave them some apple or other food. This time I heard a squirrel enter, and gave the usual signal which meant eating (I had never lied to them), and went on reading. The squirrel, finding no apple anywhere, came up to the couch, at my shoulder, then he ran up and touched my lips with his, jumped back, and repeated the act. Now, he had not seen my lips moving. But he had heard the accompanying vocalization now clearly associated with eating, and plainly had said to me, in effect, "You just spoke of eating. What about it?"

What had occurred was the process which I call translation of visual terms into vocal terms, and the same process runs through all language, forms its very basis. First there is visible, tangible phenomena of one kind or another, then a concept. First a visible action or gesture of the mouth leading to the concept of eating, given expression in the vocal field as an element of language. I did not give the M sound, but another obvious "mouth-sound." Our vocal organs are too dissimilar for each to imitate the sounds made by the other. We stood on no common ground on that, but we did so stand in the mental field.

Apply this to one primary particle "L." Trilled ellllllllllllll, at a certain pitch, it closely imitates the sound of a mallard, or a black duck in flight. Its going is self-evident, obvious to anyone who can see. Therefore, the el sound becomes available as a vocal element in the language makeup to express "going," taking the grammatical form in Malecite, ul-i-eh, he is going. Many, many other instances [are] revealed by our particle analysis. We need go no further for "beginnings" of ordered speech. The same principle holds good in the animal world as in the human. There was never the time when man did not have a true language. If limited on the vocal side, there was gesture, expression always to reinforce it, always was, and always will be, in well-spoken speech.

My little Mi-ko ("eats cones") has shown me his ability to observe, to make comparisons via what James calls his "stre-house [store-house?] of memory;" his cerebellum, then to observe differences in the nature of such phenomena as concern him, as he is interested in, as well as resemblances. He has thus established a basis in his little cosmos of classification, and the same faculty and identical mental processes lie at the base of human language and of every system of classification that can be said to be based in nature. It is all matter of extent and degree, not of kind.

The Indian himself, after all the years of depression and misunderstanding, has revealed a persistence in ways of thinking that gives a certain validity to the Indian's tradition. I never ask a Malecite about the meaning of anything, but "Did you ever hear the old people say (such and such)?" Then I do not get his guesswork, but true tradition. All the Indians' knowledge was passed on by word of mouth. His speech most faithfully passed on with exactness. It should be so with ideas that his speech has expressed. It is only surprising that with change of his native environment so much should have been preserved. But, as in my conversation with little Mi-ko, one must establish a basis of confidence and understanding, and that you must have established. The white man has never understood, nor seemingly cared to understand.
E. T. A.Note 16.

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.)

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