My family is an old one..we are descendants of some of the first families of New England. My parents claim they can trace back our ancestry to William Bradford on one side, and William Brewster on the other. There is a sea captain (by marriage) on my Dad's side, and some speculation that there were some interracial marriages early on into the Wampanoag tribe. On my Mom's side, we can only trace her father's family back to a certain point. As the Penobscot (and many other peoples) sometimes did to survive in the 1800's, they pretended they were white. Tribal records only go back so far, and when forces of society made it seem necessary for members to change their names to sound more English, the family trees were broken, and we were left with a mysterious past.
There are missing roots of our tree that probably lead deep into the lives of a people who were here thousands of years before my ancestors Bill and Bill decided to kiss the Netherlands goodbye and grace the New World with their particular brand of intolerance. And they were here long before the silversmith who was my great great grandfather on my Dad's side decided to move shop to New England sometime in the 19th century.
As a result of all this hidden family, sometimes we come upon unexpected moments when we see a resemblance too close to be just chance. While traveling up in Maine during our honeymoon years ago, Dr. Science and I visited Indian Island, in Old Town, Maine. A reservation on a tiny island in the middle of the Penobscot River with a population of a little over 400 people, I was depressed at the thought that this people who had once roamed so freely through the wilds of New England and Canada were now just as confined as the rest of us to land, house and money (or lack of it). Once caretakers of the earth, now caretakers of their history, and their children who continue to learn the songs, the dances, the language, and the skills of their ancestors.
The Penobscot Nation Museum is a small building that reminded me of camp lodges I had visited as a child. Dr. Science and I wandered in to a dim interior, kept darker to preserve the old photographs, and the beautiful works of art we found within. At some point in time growing up, I'd heard somewhere that there is no “Native American” word for art. That beauty and utility were almost synonymous, and that there should never be one without the other. All art could be utilized, and all utensils were art. I've no idea if this is true, but I love the concept.
I've also heard that taking a photo of a person is akin to taking their soul. To look at some of the old pictures, I could easily believe it. There were so many faces, elders with elaborate tribal vests covered with double curve designs, young children in traditional dress leaning against Penobscot bows, school children stiff and silent in itchy looking clothes, and then...one face suddenly arrested my attention. I stood staring through the glass at a small black and white head-shot. It was an image from the 1920's, a young girl, in three quarter view, gazing at the camera with a quiet, inscrutable smile. I couldn't speak for a moment. Because it was my mother I saw, staring up at me.
Of course, it couldn't have been her, and it wasn't. Joe Neptune, the wonderful curator who spent literally hours talking with us about the museum, life on the island and in Old Town, and the history of the surname “Neptune”, said the picture was of Mary Alice Nelson, aka Molly Spotted Elk, an entertainer from the 1920's and 30's.
She had 13 siblings, so perhaps a connection to the family isn't a far-fetched as one might believe, but it isn't necessarily something I need to pursue. It was the moment that was the gift...the surprise of seeing my mother, and myself in that glass case, hiding somewhere behind the eyes of a woman we never knew, who lived a life we can only dream of. Her extraordinary life.
But it is as if that blood still flows in our veins, because behind my mother's deceptively quiet countenance lies another extraordinary life, who has shown me how to see the extraordinary in the ordinary as well...the art in the utensil, the beauty in the banal. And for that one can't be buried in the past...just intensely, immediately present.