- “All This / Is Abenaki Country”Cheryl Savageau’s Poetic Awikhiganak
Abenaki poet Cheryl Savageau has received considerable critical acclaim for her work. She published her first book, Home Country, with Alice James Books in 1992. Her 1995 volume, Dirt Road Home, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and was a finalist for the prestigious Poetry Prize. Individual poems have appeared in such literary magazines as The Boston Review and in anthologies including those widely circulated among Native-studies teachers, Carolyn Dunn and Carol Comfort’s Through the Eye of the Deer and Joseph Bruchac’s Returning the Gift. Savageau’s newest book, Mother/Land, appeared in 2006 in Salt Publishing’s Earthworks series, edited by Janet McAdams; this will put her even more visibly in the company of such esteemed poets as Carter Revard, Diane Glancy, and Heid Erdrich.
This is, then, a good time for a scholarly and pedagogical consideration of Savageau’s work, which, to date, it has not received. The marginalization of Savageau’s poetry is part and parcel of the marginalization of Indigenous New England writers within Native American literary studies as a whole—and therefore in the broader field of American literature. Two other northeastern writers—the late-eighteenth-century Mohegan minister Samson Occom and the early-nineteenth-century Pequot minister William Apess—have achieved more visibility, thanks to LaVonne Ruoff, Barry O’Connell, and the popular Heath anthology of American Literature (edited by Paul Lauter et al.). And thanks largely to his own voluminous output, many people have at least heard of Joseph Bruchac’s poetry and [End Page 1] fiction, although, like Savageau and many other talented Abenaki writers, he receives next to no scholarly attention.1
But the Occom-Apess-Bruchac triumvirate still leaves a gaping, nearly two-centuries-long hole in literary history that, in turn, replicates some common misconceptions about Indigenous people in New England—namely, that they vanished from the region early on (either outright, as the result of disease and warfare, or more inexorably, through assimilation) and that, when they are visible nowadays, they are somehow “reconstituting” themselves after a long dormancy. As the Missisquoi band of Abenakis in Vermont know all too well, having been continually frustrated in their efforts to gain federal recognition, the United States has a vested interested in maintaining definitions of Indian-ness predicated on particular phenotypes, land bases confined to reservations, and governance structures (such as those organized around unified tribal councils, tribal courts, and tribal police) that are politically registered—and manageable—by U.S. federal and state governments.2
Abenaki writers, of whom Joseph Bruchac and Cheryl Savageau are only two, unsettle those definitions. As I will illustrate below, Savageau’s poetry comes out of a long line of Abenaki writing traceable all the way back to the precontact birchbark maps called awikhiganak. Thus her poetry challenges readers to see all of New England as fundamentally Indigenous space, and it furthers an ongoing, nation-building literary project.
Looking for Indians . . . Who Are There in Plain Sight
Anglo-New Englanders have religiously (in multiple senses of that word) installed themselves as the “first” Americans, as the originators of the nation. The myth of the Puritan “errand into the wilderness” has always been underwritten by the myth of Native disappearance. Colonial administrators began institutionalizing this myth early on—outlawing, for instance, the very name of the Pequots in 1638.3 Meanwhile, a range of literary, artistic, and historical genres rehearsed King Philip’s War (1675–76) as the official [End Page 2] “end” of Indigenous presence in New England—whether representing that end as the workings of Divine Providence, as in Mary Rowlandson’s famous captivity narrative (1682), or as a gruesome spectacle to be mourned, as in John Augustus Stone’s popular melodrama Metamora (1819). Non-Native local historians, for their part, favored what Ojibwe historian Jean O’Brien calls “the ‘Last of the _______’ genre.” Racing to eulogize particular “full-blood” or “pure Indian” individuals (while neatly sidestepping the continued presence of these individuals’ sons and daughters), these writers ironically “reveal[ed] a New England thickly populated by ‘last’ Indians throughout the nineteenth century” (419).