- “To Remove the Fear”A Conversation with Charles Norman Shay about Joseph Nicolar’s The Life and Traditions of the Red Man
Charles Norman Shay is the grandson of Joseph Nicolar, whose 1893 book, The Life and Traditions of the Red Man, serves as a fundamental document in Penobscot historiography and cultural heritage.1 During our conversation, Mr. Shay respectfully considered Nicolar’s purposes in writing and self-publishing Life and Traditions, and he discussed the book’s meaning within his own family.2 He also addressed the edition published in 2007 by Duke University Press and edited by Annette Kolodny, for which Mr. Shay contributed a brief preface. This conversation extends some of the remarks he made in the preface by drawing on Life and Traditions and on family memories.
A rich and thoughtful appraisal of the book emerges from the discussion, one that urges us to see Nicolar’s text as a crucial entry into the canon of Native American literature, particularly within Wabanaki studies. Mr. Shay’s insights about the complicated historical terrain that shaped Nicolar’s work help readers to understand the specific economic, social, and cultural constraints against which Nicolar deftly deployed his narrative. He illuminates the contexts wherein we might read the narrative’s constituents, such as its origin story and the descriptions of first-contact experiences, as well as its calls for perseverance and preservation. Mr. Shay emphasizes the critical work of Nicolar’s book as a salutary antidote to historical ignorance regarding the literary and scholarly production of Penobscot people.
As a direct descendant of Joseph Nicolar, Charles Norman Shay [End Page 97] speaks from a unique vantage about his family and nation. Indeed, for Mr. Shay, “nation” holds multiple meanings: he is a much-decorated veteran of World War II, landing with American forces as a medic on D-Day. In 2007 he was presented with the French Legion d’Honneur by President Nicolas Sarkozy. He lived in Europe, primarily Vienna, for over forty years and returned to Indian Island, the ancestral land of the Penobscot Nation, in 2003. About his return to Indian Island, Mr. Shay says, “I had to reconnect with my people and my culture.” He accomplishes this reconnection by publishing books on Penobscot people, notably his mother and aunt, as well as through his frequent public presentations on Penobscot history, the history of American Indian veterans, and his own personal journey that took him “from Indian Island to Omaha Beach” and back again.3 Wherever Mr. Shay travels, he brings copies of the 2007 edition of The Life and Traditions of the Red Man in order to introduce Nicolar’s version of Penobscot traditions to national and international communities of scholars, students, and all readers drawn to Native American topics.
In the preface to the 2007 edition, you write, “I see it [the original edition] as a preservation of what he knew, what he’d heard and learned directly . . . so that those who came later might learn and understand” (xi). Would you expand a bit on what is preserved in the original edition of 1893?
Joseph Nicolar wrote about the beginning of the creation of man, the Indian, and how he learned to survive, how he learned to clothe himself, how he learned to take animals down to feed his family, and so forth, and all of these things were taught to him by Gluskabe,4 who was the spiritual leader of the Native Americans. . . . I find this important that this information has been preserved because there is so little known about Native American history because there was hardly anything ever written about it. The only written testimony that we have came about after the arrival of the settlers; before that we had no written language. And I think it was very important that he had enough education that he [End Page 98] was able to put these stories that he had heard, these legends, from other people that were passed down from generation to generation, that he was able to put them down on paper and preserve them for future generations.
Do you think that when he...