"`Of Glooskap's Birth, and of his Brother Malsum, the Wolf': The Story of Charles Godfrey Leland's "purely American creation."

Thomas Parkhill

American Indian Culture and Research Journal, 16:1, 1992: 45-69.


from the introduction:

I first ran across Charles Godfrey Leland's The Algonquin Legends of New England or Myths and Folk Lore of the Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot Tribes when I was looking for stories about Kluskap, the Abenaki and Micmac culture hero. An important source of stories since its publication in 1884, Algonquin Legends showcases the story of Kluskap and his evil twin, Malsum the Wolf, how they came into the world, what they did here, how Kluskap fought and killed his brother. Here it seemed was a key story in the Kluskap cycle. Yet I was suspicious. When set in its cultural context, the story exuded incongruity. For example, this kind of story, a story of Beginnings, ought to be the linchpin of the precontact Abenaki and Micmac worldviews. But as far as we can know of those worldviews, it isn't. Too suspicious to make any use of it at that time, I set the story aside.

When I returned to Leland's Kluskap-Malsum story, it was with the idea of quickly discrediting the story (by means of this incongruity bolstered by internal textual evidence), so I could move on to the question of why Leland did what he did. Instead I found myself simultaneously fascinated and repulsed by the way a well-meaning folklorist of the late nineteenth-century treated the stories and the storytellers he encountered. As a consequence this study is about the way a particular "Indian" story came to prominence and the impact it continues to have....

from the conclusion:

...Leland's promotion of the Kluskap twin story continues to have an impact in three areas: 1) on scholarship, 2) on the self-understanding of native people, and 3) on the interrelationship of native and nonnative peoples. Whatever else it is, Leland's disregard for the integrity of the traditions he studied is bad scholarship that has encouraged more bad scholarship. A relatively recent, outrageous example is a book which, using Leland's stories as a primary source, purports to prove that Kluskap was really a fourteenth century Orkney nobleman named Henry Sinclair who overwintered in Nova Scotia.[1] I have already noted the example of Joseph Campbell. The process of how Leland came to compose "Of Glooskap's Birth...", indeed his story- gathering and editing methods in general, serve to remind students of Native American religions to be careful, even suspicious, when considering sources, and to be tentative about their findings.

I have to be tentative myself about the impact of Leland's promotion of the Kluskap twin story has had on the self understanding of native people. There is some evidence that some Abenaki and Micmac peoples have appropriated the Kluskap-Malsum story, that their creative response has been to make this story their own. Despite some excellent work,[2] we still do not know very much about the process whereby native peoples of this region melded their traditional, preEuropean contact way of life with Roman Catholicism. The existence of the story on the predominantly Roman Catholic Tobique Reserve as late as 1962 would indicate it was still useful to some Maliseet people at that time, most probably in the process of creating a religious alliance or co- evolution. Among the minority Maliseet, Micmac, Passamaquoddy and Penobscot "traditionalists," people who understand themselves to be rediscovering and following traditional, preEuropean contact spiritual ways, I have heard the Kluskap-Malsum story from only one elder. Despite the fact that he has been telling the story for over ten years, I have heard no other "traditionalist" tell the story either spontaneously or when questioned. I gather from this that Abenaki and Micmac "traditionalists" generally have not found this story particularly meaningful.

There is one other dimension to the impact of this story on native self- understanding. In my experience native students in the courses I teach on Native American religions are often interested in discovering more about their "Indianness," by which they seem to mean at least something not European or EuroCanadian. Turning to stories as a key, they will usually find Algonquin Legends.[3] When any Abenaki or Micmac concerned, like these students, with discovering more about their "Indianness" find Leland and his lead story about Kluskap and his evil wolf brother Malsum, I contend they are at least distracted -- if not thrown -- from their path if they take seriously Leland's implied claim that this story was once central in their ancestors' lives.[4] At the very least the vilification of Malsum the Wolf, central in Leland's story, runs counter to the positive characterization of Wolf in many other stories, including Aquin's Kluskap twin story. Further, the dualism of the story, the radical distinction between good and evil as well as the notion that in the past times all humankind was wicked, seem out of place when set beside the host of other stories where these ways of seeing the world are not the case. Finally, whatever wisdom this relatively minor story gave its hearers about ways of understanding what we today would call "family violence" has been obliterated in part by the editorial standards Leland imposed on both his data and his consultants.

The third area in which Leland's promotion of the Kluskap twin story has had an impact is the interrelationship of native and nonnative peoples. By shifting this story to the center of Abenaki and Micmac story traditions, Leland has distanced nonnatives even further from understanding the native people whose land they occupy as part of the spoils of conquest. Leland, of course, was not concerned a hundred years ago with this problem since, according to popular wisdom based on the culmination of a history of conquest, "the Indian" was destined to extinction.[5] What has happened instead is that Abenaki and Micmac people have co-evolved with the society they call "dominant." They have done this despite the dominant society's consistent misunderstanding of their religious traditions. The nonnative's skewed understanding has been distorted by the history of conquest, a history that produced and was in turn driven by distorting stereotypes of "the Indian."[6] As a consequence, the process of trying to understand the people that have lived longest on the land now called North America -- in this study's case the Maliseet and Micmac, the Passamaquoddy and Penobscot -- is fraught with difficulty. Leland's decision to promote the Kluskap twin story to the center of Abenaki and Micmac story traditions has compounded the difficulty. This promotion, then, perpetuates in ways Charles Godfrey Leland could never foresee, that conquest history.

  1. Frederick J.Pohl, Prince Henry Sinclair: His Expedition to the New World in 1398 (New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1974).
  2. Kenneth M. Morrison, The Embattled Northeast: the Elusive Ideal of Alliance in Abenaki-Euramerican Relations (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984; and Kenneth M. Morrison, "The Mythological Sources of Abenaki Catholicism: A Case Study of the Social History of Power" in Religion, 11(1981): 235-263.
  3. I saw my first copy of the hard-to-come-by [*]Algonquin Legends outside a library in the hands of a native student. It was a photocopied, loosely bound, untitled copy. After some negotiation, I was allowed to make a photocopy from the photocopy. When, some years later, some of my pages turned up missing, I found another photocopied version to copy those missing pages, again from a native student from a different reserve than the first. Whether Ruth Holmes Whitehead's excellent retelling of twenty-nine Micmac stories in Stories From The Six Worlds: Micmac Legends can redress this distortion only time and book sales will tell. The Kluskap-Malsum story does not appear in Whitehead's collection. In fact, only three of the stories feature Kluskap at all.
  4. Leland, Legends, iv, 3, and 8; Leland and Prince, KulĘskap the Master, 15.
  5. Sam D. Gill, Native American Religions, 6-10.

* Algonquin Legends was reprinted by Dover Press in 1992. It is now easy to obtain.

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