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Program 8: People of the Dawn

More Creation Stories : John Bear Mitchell


John Bear Mitchell,
Director of the University of Maine Wabanaki Center


Gluskabe the word in itself means a man from nothing. He kind of created himself from, from dirt left over from when the creator formed the earth. When the creator formed the earth he dusted his hands and the dust that fell from his hands landed in one spot on the earth and from that dust Gluskabe formed himself. For instance from that pile of dirt out came an arm. It reached over and grabbed some more dirt and formed another arm. Those 2 arms together created the body of Gluskabe and Gluskabe, the man from nothing.

The creator is just that what we call in our language Chametux or Caginneywesk, which means the creator of all or the father of all depending on how we are addressing him or the entity I guess. And the creator had decided it was time for or the, can we do that one again? Because this is a tough one cause it gets into kind of some things I don't really ever touch on. So I'm not well versed in it.

And that is the creator. We are addressing two different ways when we are either talking or praying. When we're talking about him we might talk about him as Caginneywesk which means the creator of all. But if we're praying we'll say Chametux, which means the father of all. And what he did was he created everything we have today and when he created the earth, which would give people and animals a place to live that's when Gluskabe was created because animals were created, Gluskabe was created and people where gonna come. And Gluskabe to learn the ways of the woods and Gluskabe had to learn the ways of nature, what to eat, what not to eat, how to survive in the winters and how to survive in the summers, where to hunt, where to fish. Gluskabe learned all these things, all the traits. How to make lodges, how to make birch bark canoes, how to do all these kinds of things that we needed in order to survive. He would then decide when people were gonna come. When Gluskabe felt he was comfortable enough so that he knew everything that he needed to teach to the people he could introduce people himself to the earth.

Gluskabe then at that time when he felt that he was knowledgeable enough and the earth was prepared and the animals were at a proper size or a proper way in which they could inhabit the earth with people. Gluskabe then took a bow and an arrow and shot it into a brown ash tree. The brown ash tree split and out from that tree came the women and children. People came from there. I guess when he shot the arrow into the tree the people came.

In looking at how we believe we came to this area I guess we have two different viewpoints. One through our stories, through our oral traditions tell us that we have always been here. That when creation came we were here. The archeological evidence goes back 11,000 years ago. Before that Maine was tundra or by that time Maine was completely a tundra region because when the glaciers went out it left nothing but a mess in it's wake. Small tributaries and deep gouges and they were beginning to become filled with water. And some of the water was receding out of some of them and draining to other places. And the people that were here at the time know as the archaic peoples inhabited high grounds. What we considered today to be mountains or hills. But at the time that was actually the shorelines when the glacier was receding. So we know that we've been here for a long time. Our stories go back about that far when you start looking at what our stories tell us about the land formations and how certain land came to be or was flooded out or certain land formations that actually don't exist any more that we find really do exist scientifically now. We find it existing under water so that we know we've been here for a long time and our stories take us back to that time.


This goes back again into looking at Maine as it's developing through getting soft woods and the first wood that grew here and then a hardwood came. About that time the trees were starting to really take hold in Maine and become abundant and people and animals started to slow down a little bit. What happens is this we started using those resources and we developed new stories based on those resources and one of the resources is the bark. And we also had tobacco. Tobacco was a very valuable commodity although it wasn't abused. Tobacco was used as a pleasure. Well the grasshopper who at the time was huge. Bigger then what we would consider bigger then a moose today. And what happened was the grasshopper really liked tobacco. Really liked the smell of it, really liked it. So stole it all. Went around collecting it, stealing it for a long time. Then there was the tobacco, the grasshopper obviously being a great hopper could hop long distances. So from the mainland and the shore to one of the far islands off the coast the grasshopper hopped holding all the tobacco. That particular island was for a long time was always completely surrounded in fog or smoke because it was believed the grasshopper was there just indulging in tobacco, smoking all the tobacco. And it was an abuse of the tobacco because tobacco was meant for a pleasure. Well Gluskabe he was really upset. He said he had to do something. So he didn't know how to get out there. He knew the tide was bad and he knew that there were probably it was too far for him to swim. So Gluskabe went and carved a canoe. He carved it out of stone and he put in the water and he was only able to paddle what they said was one look. So not too far. So he swam back to shore and made another canoe and he paddled it out again. This time he was able to go two looks. A little bit further then the first time, but still not far enough to go get the tobacco back. So he decided to go back and think about it and when he went back to think about what he was doing he decided that maybe the stone was too heavy. So he decided to use the bark from a birch tree. So he made a canoe from that. Basically what he did was he made a great big basket, a birch bark basket. But instead of putting soup or something like that in it he put himself in it and he was able to go out to the grasshopper and get the tobacco back. What Gluskabe was what we call magical. He could change the shape of animals. Well he realized that the grasshopper was too big and was not gonna survive very long or people wouldn't survive with grasshopper being that big. So he made the grasshoppers very small and before he left the grasshopper grabbed as much tobacco as he possibly could. Stuffed it all in his mouth and Gluskabe didn't care because he was small. Gluskabe went back to the mainland. Well to this day if you caught a grasshopper and you have him in your hand and hold him there for a little while and then let him go you'll notice he leaves a little bit of tobacco spit still in your hand. The story basically signifies a couple things really. The proper use of tobacco number one. And probably you're not gonna benefit too well by it by abusing it. Another thing that it talks about too is maybe the origin of the birch bark canoe.


There are a lot of stories about family life. And a lot of those kinds of things. Well in the stories about family life what you tend to look at most within those stories are the moral lessons that they provide. Let me think. One story I guess. Let me take a pause so I can think about it. Looking for a story that would maybe have some kind of daily activity in it or something?

Let me just tell you the story of the first storyteller. The story of the first storyteller starts out with one particular older man who always went to this particular stump to tell his stories. The stump had been there for a long time and the man had sat on that stump for a long time telling these stories. Even at the bottom of the stump there were two divots in the ground where the man's heels always went because when he told stories he laughed at himself and he laughed with the crowd. So he'd lean back and bury his heals into the dirt. And he lived real close to the particular story telling area kind of away from the village.

Well, people at that time had a lot of chores that they had to do. Their days were spent preparing for the winter. All summer you spent, all the warm weather you spent preparing for the winter and that was either by dry meat or by making clothes, getting things ready for the winter. You know, getting your canoes ready, getting your snowshoes ready, getting everything made in preparing for winter. But before they started this during their days, even in the summer time, they would go down and they'd listen to these stories. They'd go down to the first storyteller. He, one day they went down there and he wasn't there and people were, they kind of concerned about it. They were wondering what's going on? All their lives these adults, all their lives they had gone to hear him and their kids were enjoying him. They remembered him from when they were very young. So he'd been there for a long time and it was really unusual for them to go there and he wasn't there waiting to greet them.

Well this one particular morning you know the kids woke up and they grabbed their, their bread and they grabbed their things they were going to eat for the day and they ran down to the storytelling area. He wasn't there. But they sat down anyway and thought well maybe he'll come. But time went by and the sun was really low in the sky when they got there and everything was red in the sky. But the sun had come up a little bit more and things started to look orange-ish. And they waited a little while longer and the sun came up again and it became white and day was beginning. It was suppose to be the time that people had to be working and kids were gonna be playing and learning and doing what they had to do. He wasn't there. So one of the kids decided they were gonna go into the lodge and see what he was doing, see if he was in there and they went. And when they went inside the old man he was laying in bed. He looked at this boy and said son, I'm not coming. I can't come today. But you go out, you tell everybody to come tomorrow because I will be there in the morning I promise. But today no story. Just go about your day, do your work, gather your water, mend your net, prepare the canoes, prepare for the winter. That's what they spent a lot of time in the summer doing. So he did. The boy left and he informed all the other people of what was going on. They all left. They worried about it. They thought about it all day. It was almost a hush, a silence in the air that whole day. Evening meal was quiet and people slept lightly. They were wondering what was going on. What were they going to hear? It was odd. Never had experienced that before.

So they got up the next morning a little earlier then they normally did. It was still a little bit dark and they went down to the story telling place. Sure enough like he said the old he was there. And he had asked, did you do all the chores? Did you get everything done that you needed to do? Did you smoke some meat? Did you cut some fish? Did you smoke those fish? Carry your water, carry your containers, did you do what you had to do? They said, yes they did. He said, good. He said, then you go on doing that stuff day after day. You'll go on making the tools and you'll go on doing the hunts, raising the children, preparing the lodges. You're gonna do all this and I'm not gonna be here anymore because I've told you every story that I could possibly tell you because our stories teach us morals. They teach us lessons. They teach us about this earth. Why land formations exist, how they exist. Why the water is here. What we do with it. How to properly treat the fires. They teach us all our ceremonies. They're in our language. They're are in our songs. The stories are very important because they keep us alive.

But since I'm not gonna be here to tell them anymore you will tell them. You will tell them to your children. You will tell them to your grandchildren and I will go and you can call my name whenever you're lost for a story. You're gonna find out that in your life you're gonna gain a lot of experiences that will help you remember these stories. And with that the man, his name is Chabalock put his arms out to the side and left that stump and rose into the air. He comes in the form of what we call the white eagle, but it's a spirit not a real eagle and that's what that word Chabalocc means. And he's a storyteller. He brings you the stories. You can either take them or not. Learn from them or not. But they're out there. And that story teaches us a lot about our culture, our work ethic and what we have to do to survive at the time. Now it's very different but still that same work ethic and that same daily grind is still there.


The only winter story we have is how summer came. It only talks about one time winter was just hanging on too long and Gluskabe changed that. He fixed it. He tricked, tricked the winter spirit into going to sleep. That's the only story I know. I don't know any that talk about survive, oh yeah I do. That's the one I was telling you able how to store the birch bark canoe.

There's one story that we have about the families plight to survive a winter and this family, particular family lived on the coast in the summer and it was time now to go back inland up the river, across a few portages and across a huge lake to the other side where they had a winter lodge built. And they got out there and they emptied everything out of the canoe and that particular spot you didn't really need to be in the canoe. You could fish right from the shore. You could hunt right back in the woods. So they decided that they'd store the canoe. So the man put the canoe on his shoulders and he went to store it out back. But it was out by a part of the forest that had a lot of small fir trees. Some of them were bent over and they're real spiky when the branches are broken where the animals go over and break the branches and he fell back onto one of them with his canoe. He reached back and he felt his back and he didn't feel like he was bleeding or anything so he got back up. But he did feel a lot of pain and he put the canoe down on the ground and then he set a whole bunch of fir bows on the ground and put the canoe on top of that. Cut some more fir bows and laid them on top of the canoe. He put sheets of birch bark, which he had cut the previous year over those fir bows and he put some more fir bows over that and some more birch bark and pressed it all down with some heavy rocks and laid sticks across to weight it down. Birch bark canoes were very sacred, very much a part of people's lives and they needed to be protected. It took a long time to build. This was the only way to store them in the winter.

Well he went back to his house and his wife offered him something to eat but he just put his hands out, didn't say anything, didn't want anything to eat. So he sat outside by the fire and they went to bed. When she woke up in the morning she expected to see him laying there but he was gone. And from the looks of it he hadn't even been there. So she went outside and she looked. He wasn't there either. She started her morning cook fire and got her day ready. Later on in the day he showed up with a deer on his shoulders and he took it and cut the fur off and cut it up into pieces and he went again to go get wood for the fire. That whole day he didn't eat. The next day he wouldn't eat. He never came in the lodge to sleep. But he'd come in there and sit at night. He'd sit up all night awake the whole time. And he, he always brought wood. The winter went on. It was harsh and it was cold. But he always brought them firewood. He always brought them meat and what they needed resources that they needed, furs, fish. He was constantly bringing them food. And them, by them I mean his wife and his kids. This went on all winter and his wife was very concerned. He didn't talk, he didn't smile, he didn't eat, he didn't look anybody in the eye. When the kids would go to try to hug him he'd back off, shun away from them. They were concerned but after so much winter they were use to it now. That's the way he is. There were days where he'd just be gone and he'd come back and he'd have nothing. She didn't ask questions. She accepted it. He was doing his part to get them through the winter, very harsh, cold winter. Very different style of life then we have today.

One day spring came. Snow had melted. Days had gone by and the ice in the lake had melted and he spoke to his wife. He said, it's time for you to take the kids and go to the village. Come back after the spring celebrations and get me. I'll be here waiting for you. She said, well where's the canoe? He said, I made a new one. It's over there on the shore. So she went over and sure enough there was a brand new canoe. He hated making canoes. He hated it. He always stored his other ones so nicely. She didn't ask any questions. She got in the canoe and she went. It took her a while to get back but she got back and she joined in the celebrations and she came back to get him. When she got there he wasn't there. But everything else was stacked up on the shore waiting to be loaded into the canoe. So she loaded it and she hollered to her husband. He didn't come. The sun was high in the sky. They had a lot of daytime. But she wanted to get out of there that day. It took a couple of days to get down there so she wanted to start right off. Get back to her kids. She hollered and walked around and looked for him and she couldn't find him anywhere. She ended up walking around one side, one side of the lodge and she saw those sticks over that other canoe. So she started to take them off, took off the fir bows and put them in a pile because she knew she'd need them next year, that winter again. She looked and the canoe was there, the old canoe. The canoe they used to travel up there. She felt it all over and all the ribs were still strong and the bark had no soft spots, no holes. She didn't know why he made a new canoe. So she lifted the canoe to look underneath, to look inside and when she did underneath that canoe was the body of her dead husband. And from the looks of it he had been dead all that winter. This story teaches us one thing. That no matter how hard it is to survive in the winter and how much effort it takes even the spirits of our dead ancestors are gonna be there to help us no matter what.


No there really are no stories that I know of that are looking out into the ocean at the explorers. Most of what the documentation is today and it's pretty similar to what you're saying is that the explorers did the writings. They did the journaling and it was their perceptions that were perceived and written and documented. But I think the reason for that is how do you explain that culture? How do you explain that society? What did they bring? What did they offer and what strangeness was there? Where we didn't have a written language a lot of that stuff might have just been talked about or whispered about. But I'm sure that if we dug really deep we could probably find some, some stories that point to that.

Keep it in mind that our stories are symbolic. That they describe things that we might not understand at the time or even yet, what they're describing. We'd have to look into them like the small pox story the Chino, that's one that we actually came to realize it was the small pox explanation. So there could be stories out there that really do explain what our feeling and attitude was toward the explorers. But nothing that I can think of off hand.


The word Wabanaki first of all is a term that's often heard in Maine. The word Waban means dawn, aki is a place where people dwell. So Wabanaki is the dawn dwellers place or the people of dawns place, however you want to interpret that into English today. And that particular group of people are made up of today 4 tribes, the Penobscot, the Passamaquody, the Micmacs and the Maliseets. And they originally formed together to defend themselves. Before the English we had to defend ourselves against the Mohawk. They were at the time one we had to defend ourselves against. There was strength in numbers. Both tribes and earlier on the Abenaki were involved also. They were involved in our confederation.

Well if you take the place names of Maine and understand number one that they're interpretation either a French interpretation or an English interpretation of a native word they're, they're a little skewed in what they, how they say them, but not in what they mean. For instance, the tribe, the Penobscot tribe. Penobscot came out of a word Panawahpskek and whether it was the French or the English that interpreted that into Penobscot we don't know. But Panawahpskek means the village where the rocks come out of the water, place of the white rocks and that describes the village that we live next to. And what that does by describing where we live it became our identity of who we were.

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