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  • Contextualizing the Ecological Indian
  • Scott Slovic (bio)
The Life and Traditions of the Red Man, by joseph nicolar Edited by annette kolodny Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007 340 pp.

When Joni Adamson and I wrote the introduction to the 2009 special issue of MELUS on "Ecocriticism and Ethnicity," we described in detail Annette Kolodny's article titled "Saving Maine for the Indian: The Legacy of Joseph Nicolar's the Life and Traditions of the Red Man," which she wrote for the issue, exploring "the crucial connections between place and formulations of ethnic identity, evaluated in light of the critique of the 'ecological Indian'" (14). We noted that this article for MELUS extended an article she had previously published in ISLE, locating Joseph Nicolar's self-published 1893 volume The Life and Traditions of the Red Man in relation to the debate about Native American identity stirred up by Shepard Krech III's 1999 The Ecological Indian: Myth and History. In her MELUS essay, Kolodny discussed how Nicolar's focus on traditional Penobscot stories, full of specific place names associated with tribal lands, contributed eventually to the tribe's reclaiming of hundreds of thousands of acres that had been appropriated by the state of Maine. Nicolar's text bolstered the case for the Penobscots as a people who saw themselves and actively described themselves as protectors of their traditional lands, which had a practical impact on their success in the US legal system.

Taken by itself, Kolodny's 2009 article for MELUS helps to clarify the pragmatic force of the image of the ecological Indian as expressed in Nicolar's nineteenth-century tribal history. But the article also functions as part of an elaborate array of curatorial statements surrounding the republication of Nicolar's book, beginning with layers of introductory and concluding materials in the volume's 2007 edition, orchestrated by Kolodny for Duke University Press. The overarching goals of these curatorial statements [End Page 909] are both ceremonial (in the best sense of that word—a formal gesture of respect) and strategic (in the best sense of that word, too—a shrewd and effective action). The ceremonial material, which I will discuss below, most fundamentally establishes the scholar's respectful attitude toward Joseph Nicolar and his work, toward his heirs, and toward the Penobscot tribe, but it also engages in ongoing debates about the ecological Indian in ways that reinforce the agency and effectiveness of self-representation of both contemporary and earlier Native American writers, including Nicolar himself, who lived from 1827 to 1894.

In her 2007 introduction to The Life and Traditions of the Red Man, Kolodny identifies Nicolar's resistance to cultural erasure and resource appropriation as a key to the significance of the book, which appeared initially in an edition of only a few hundred copies, many of which were destroyed in a fire ("Rethinking" 4). Kolodny notes that if Nicolar, a Penobscot elder and political leader, had not committed this information about the tribe and its history to writing,

knowledge of "the simple and natural state of their life, habits and ways" of his people "as they [once] existed" could be forever lost to the Penobscots. … And what little remained might become the exclusive property of non-Native folklore collectors, curious antiquarians, anthropologists, and ethnologists. … In the face of this disturbing possibility, Nicolar intervened with an assertion of Native capacity for self-representation. In doing so, what he chose to leave out of his narrative is perhaps as telling as what he decided to include.


As Kolodny explains, Nicolar's tribal history studiously avoids mentioning illness and famine and military massacres that would have forced him "to acknowledge radical cultural loss" (69). Instead, his self-representation of the tribe focuses on "continuity and survival," despite risking untruth by omission. "In other words," writes Kolodny, "Nicolar was determined to evade the ruptures of history and offer his people the mythos of an ineradicable continuum. … Upon these traditions, he hoped, the Penobscots might build for the future" (70).

By recognizing the mythmaking fictionality, the imaginative achievement, of Nicolar's work, Kolodny invites readers of her own republished version of the book to read it as a...


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pp. 909-915
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