Acadian Chronicles: When Ancestors Look Down

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Heart of Darkness

Why did Edgar and Sylvain leave Maine – a family quarrel? It was more than that. It was a nightmare that lasted years. Native people are invisible in Maine, but there they persist, where they’ve always been, where they belong. The Payen nightmare began with Louise’s misplaced trust in Maine’s foster system – causing Sylvain’s lost childhood, after he was removed from the reservation to be re-educated – for a better life, of course. For generations, Native children had been removed from their families without warning, sometimes without the consent of their parents. Still today, Native children are placed in foster homes, now with parental consent, due to dire poverty and lack of opportunities on the reservation. Louise Payen placed Sylvain for these reasons. But instead Sylvain lost his childhood, his health, and his Native culture. Non-Native foster families rarely ask for resources to offer Native children connections to their tribes. In this way, Native families end up shattered, and their languages and rich cultures lost to the next generation. What’s worse, many Native children, like Sylvain, were placed in institutions or

homes where they were both physically and emotionally abused.

How did this re-education system get started? During the 19th century, U.S. policy changed from one of total conquest and annihilation of Native Americans to one of cultural assimilation, and Richard Henry Pratt (1840-1924) established himself as the most ambitious proponent of re-educating Native children. The great general whom Pratt cites below refers to Philip Henry Sheridan (1831-1888), the General-in-Chief of the U.S. Army, and this hateful remark about “the only good Indian” is generally attributed to Sheridan:

“A great general has said that the only good Indian is a dead one, and that high sanction of his destruction has been an enormous factor in promoting Indian massacres. In a sense, I agree with the sentiment, but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man.”

“To kill the Indian” for Pratt meant ironically – “to humanize” the Native American, and so Pratt established the Carlisle Residential School in Pennsylvania in 1897, providing a model to “humanize” Native children or to assimilate them to non-Native culture. Unfortunately, Wabanaki children, like Sylvain – from Maine and across New England, would end up marginalized in non-Native culture, not assimilated into it, and, moreover, nor would they own their Native culture, and never would they think to celebrate the accomplishments of their Wabanaki Confederacy, made up of 5 nations – the Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot and the Abenaki. How differently Sylvain’s identity would have been, if he had known he was one of the proud Wakanaki – “People of the Dawn.”

Edgar and Sylvain were both born in the St. John Valley, a region first settled by the Maliseet and Mi’kmaw tribes who raised agricultural crops in the rich valley floor. Acadians arrived in the 17th century, followed by American Loyalists in the 18th century. Despite the size of the valley, its long history of navigation and settlement, while being a prime location of 18th century British-American conflict (once the home of Benedict Arnold), and also the very place where the famous northwoods Chestnut canoe was perfected, this river valley is little known outside of New Brunswick and Maine.

More Acadians arrived in the Upper Saint John Valley in the 1780s. Consequently, being part of old Acadia, along with this new influx of Acadians in the 1780s, Maine has retained its French-speaking population to the present day. In fact, some towns in Aroostook County still have above 60% of their inhabitants speaking French at home – towns such as, Madawaska, Frenchville, Grand Isle, and Hamlin, but the public school systems forbade the use of French prior to 1970. Teachers – many native French speakers themselves – were obliged by their districts to punish children for speaking French. The shame of speaking French outside the home caused a decline among younger Acadians in Maine, and that stigma continues to decrease its use, though Maine remains the state of the Union today with the most French-speakers per capita in the U.S.

Back in Payen Hall, in the Ballroom, Vicky’s panic spirals into a fever. She passes out. The Saqamaw sees Vicky slip off her chair onto the marble floor. He puts his fiddle aside, rushing to her. The tiny man who had escorted Vicky to the dance floor arrives even quicker – in a split second. Edgar looks down and imagines in her pained face his little brother, as if it happened only yesterday, when Edgar removed Sylvain from the asylum. Tears well in Edgar’s eyes, as he bends over to cradle Vicky in his arms. She begins to whisper, slurring words, her warm puffs against his wet cheek:

“I’m angry but won’t find fault. I promise! Protectors, help me, but, but…, okay… Violette, hurry back, help me…!” Edgar sits down with Vicky in his arms, a flood of emotion making him shake and weep, as Vicky succumbs to restful sleep – a gift from her Protectors.

“Don’t worry, little one. I’ll take care of you.” Edgar reassures Vicky – she, drifting into oblivion. His heart an open wound, the Saqamaw utters the very same words to Vicky in the Ballroom as those he had whispered to Sylvain that horrible, horrible day. Sylvain’s stories still haunt Edgar. Terrified, angry, and desperate to escape his foster homes, six-year-old Sylvain had tried to run away but ended up in an asylum:

“I can’t live like this. They’re hurting me, and no one cares. Where were you all these years, Edgar? I’m so afraid, so alone.” That horrible day, Sylvain explained his routine in the asylum to Edgar, how he spent days in solitary confinement, sometimes chained to the bedpost in his room, sometimes with no mattress to sleep on.

“With my three foster families,” Sylvain had told Edgar, “it was worse than the asylum. Sometimes I didn’t even know what I did wrong, but one foster dad made me stand on my hands and knees for hours. If he felt like it, he’d come give me a kick in the butt, so hard that I’d fall and bruise my face against the floor. He would laugh his head off. Sometimes at night he’d come upstairs while I was sleeping and slap me with a belt. The way he beat me for no reason, I was turning into a rebel, something I’m not, something I wasn’t before. But it was the only way I knew how to get away, somehow. I used to cut myself up – hoping a doctor would treat me and take me somewhere safe.”

One weekend, in the last of Sylvain’s foster homes, something happened that took years to confess to Edgar. While doing his chore of raking leaves in the backyard, Sylvain decided he’d had enough of being abused. Matches in hand, he went to the barn and set it on fire:

“I didn’t care who or what was in there.” Edgar listened to what would be Sylvain’s final confession, Sylvain then sick with the flu in California: “After I did that, I turned myself in to the police, telling them I had started the fire. I wanted to be arrested and taken away.” Instead of going to another, better family, however, Sylvain was transported to the Eastern Maine Insane Asylum, opened in 1896. During that same confession on his death bed, Sylvain also told Edgar how he’d lost all hope the first day at the asylum: “They had iron bars all over the place, people talking to themselves. I knew what kind of place it was, I knew it was a ‘crazy’ place, and I knew I was going to be there forever. I lost all hope of being with a good family.” He stayed one year at the asylum, mostly sedated, till Edgar found out where Sylvain had been committed.

Edgar never hesitated to take custody of his little brother, once Edgar was old enough to become his guardian. For years, Edgar never knew where to find Sylvain, their mother herself ignorant of his whereabouts and condition. During his stay at the asylum, Sylvain had been ostracized by the caretakers for being Mi’kmaw. To have their fun, justifying it as an innocent joke, administrators presented Sylvain on his 7th birthday with a fake feathered headdress. The day Edgar took Sylvain “home” later that same year, Edgar had wanted to give Sylvain a fresh start, but Sylvain’s childhood had already been gutted, his identity erased – having become, thanks to his re-education, a very “good” Indian.

Carefully, and ever so gently, Edgar removes Vicky’s frames, struck, like Violette, by Vicky’s fine features – a sleeping beauty, her flawless complexion, lips slightly parted, her breathing now calm and regular. He had noticed, while fiddling in the Ballroom, Vicky twirled majestically in the Snake Dance, despite the frenzied tempo. How proud Edgar would be to have Vicky as a daughter – admiring her energy, intelligence, gracefulness, and caring nature – yet, when overtaken by fear, she became unexpectedly fragile – and hopeless. No wonder the Protectors watch so very closely over their beloved daughter of the Great North.

Now dreaming, Vicky hears chanting, a man’s warm voice soothing her – the lyrics introducing the “People of the Dawn.” Most of the words are incomprehensible, neither in French nor in English – in another melodious tongue, but what she understands allows a dreamscape to emerge. The chanter describes a bird, the size of a duck, his feathers black and white – his eyes blood-red. All chanting ceases, replaced by the bird’s loud and clear calls – he’s desperate, his cry haunting and resonating in the lonely night. Moonlight illuminates silver-white waves on the surface of a lake, against a silhouette of trees on the far shore. The black head of the messenger re-emerges – it’s the mournful loon, Aquim, the most loyal friend of Glooscap.

This was the same magical storytelling Edgar would chant to Sylvain each night, even as grown men in California – Sylvain, forever a lost boy, forever frightened in the dead of night. Edgar put his heart and soul into chanting for Sylvain heroic rescues, just as do countless Wakanaki mothers telling stories about Glooscap and his messenger Aquim to soothe their children back to sleep. Such loving reassurances, alas, many children never know.

As it happens, Aquim summoned Glooscap to the Ballroom that evening, where
Glooscap pulls the wire, enters the Meditation Tower, and prepares the hiding place for Vicky and Violette, with the aid of lightning-quick Forest People, who used the sisters’ inventory to gather all the girls’ belongings from the guestroom. Edgar would travel in the vortex that evening to make sure Violette would be back by dawn, and he’d return to the tower at dawn to explain all the finishing touches that Glooscap had devised. After everything was ready, Glooscap himself departs, requesting that the tiny people, invisible to the sisters, guard and assist the two puoins, warning the tiny people to be good, that Glooscap would intervene if they misbehaved – all these details and events being described fully in the enchanter’s song, reassuring Vicky.

Now apeased, Aquim is finally still, his mission accomplished, while the enchanter too falls silent, rising to quit the tower, already being guarded by Forest People. Vicky slips deeper into restful slumber. Before leaving the sleeping beauty, Edgar makes sure that Vicky is snug in her bedding, the Saqamaw sighing with a bitter-sweet mix of hope and consternation, realizing his own troubled family and Vicky’s are now interwoven forever and their futures too – hoping beyond hope that his great expectations might usher in a new dawn.

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