Finding your own way

. . . after all our explorations, we come home and know the place for the first time. - Eliot

I nicknamed him Talking Moose the day we met. I'm not certain why, although I suspect it had something to do with the fact that he was built like a moose and talked with me. Also, during my first week working with the Maliseet and Micmac Indians of northern Maine, he was the only Indian who didn't approach me with skepticism and great reserve. So I gave him a friendly name. That autumn day he was clad in an enormous handknit white sweater that had a huge blue eagle on each breast and a border of eaglets on the cuffs and waistband. His shoulders and upper arms were solid, his belly rotund and soft, his legs lean. Straight, coarse black hair rioted around a fleshy face that had a wry mouth, strong nose and slanted brown eyes sunken into it.

Like most Indians with whom I'm working, Moose has inherited a centuries-old battle to unearth the buried Indian heart and translate it into present terms. His life has spanned a series of bittersweet transitions for American Indians. He was born in the first half of the 1900s, when Indians were unconditionally viewed as nonpersons and their traditions were considered backward, uncivilized, county-fair material. Along with most young Maliseets and Micmacs attending on-reservation mission schools, he was punished for speaking his native language. Those were days when if one could pass for white, one most certainly did. And if one couldn't, one became what Moose calls an Apple - red on the outside, white within. Others became roadside hucksters who peddled Indian trinkets, or cheap seasonal pickers of potatoes and blueberries. More often they became prisoners of reservations and government handouts. Whatever one's occupation or lack of it, the status of Indian was not a positive one.

Talking Moose was raised on Woodstock Reservation by his Maliseet father, who taught him the Indian ways of hunting, trapping, basketmaking. One winter evening after work, I made the twenty-minute drive along the frozen St. John River to Woodstock, where Moose still lives. Inside a turquoise house that had a bevy of stripped autos and trucks out front, I found Moose shuffling about in his black rubber boots, which were unzipped, flapping with each step. He was concocting a potful of beef and potatoes, and soon, standing around the countertop, stooping over our plates, we were eating and Moose was reminiscing.

''When I was about sixteen years old, I felt ashamed of my family's Indian ways, and curious about the more fancy way of life outside the reserve. One day I picked up and left, planning to build a life away from my family and my people. I was gone two years. During that time I felt trapped between two cultures, both out of reach. Then, partly because I couldn't stand up to that outside life, and partly because I didn't want it, I returned. When I got back, things here looked different. They hadn't really changed, but for the first time I felt something was here, something valuable.''

Moose explains that he believes part of the reason he and so many of his people haven't known who they are or where they belong is the fact that years ago their distinct way of life, developed over centuries, was haphazardly cut off. It was replaced with a welfare reservation system that failed to fill the void left by what it swept away. Indians learned to turn to the government rather than to themselves to ask ''Who am I?'' for only if they fit the bureaucratic definition of Indian were they eligible for continued handouts - and handouts they needed because there were few productive remnants left from their original culture and means of livelihood. If support was designated for reservation Indians, Moose said, ''it paid to remain on or move to a reservation.'' If resources were earmarked for single mothers, ''it was tempting to become a single mother.'' If grants favored Maliseets over Micmacs, ''why not claim you're a Maliseet to help your family make it through the winter?''

The 1960s gave birth to an age of no limits to growth,m a period of national affluence that left room for expanded consciousness within this country's status quo, and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement. The repentant social pendulum swung to an idealized picture of American Indians as exemplary, super-noble, nature-integrated human beings. It was an image which Moose and others living on Indian reserves, heavy with alcoholism, welfare and low self-esteem, had difficulty comprehending as the new truth.

Thomas Merton once said, ''To be a saint means to be yourself,'' and I see why: it's no easy task for anyone to step out of social categories and climb inside to explore the huge kingdom within oneself. Moose, stubborn as his shoulders, says, ''It's hard work to do your own thinking. The reason there is no real Indian culture now is that most Indians aren't contributing to it. They think they gotta wait until the professionals sort it out, hand it back, and tell them what they're supposed to be. But if you don't know where you're going yourself, how will you know when you get there? Because somebody else tells you? You go somebody else's way and you get lost. You miss yourself.''

During that subzero evening in Woodstock, I sit with him in his brisk workroom, observing as he makes baskets, listening as he continues to talk in his think-aloud way. His broad hands are sturdy, weathered, resembling the deep-grained brown ash trees out of which he constructs his baskets. I watch him pound sticks until they split into the strips he needs for weaving. Then his thick, heavy-jointed fingers, with wide flat fingernails pressed into their tips , swing, bend and push ash strips into place. ''I'm not good at this yet,'' he confesses with a smile. ''My father taught me the steps years ago, but I didn't value it then and never wanted to practice - until now. So it's slow going, and making a good basket takes all my concentration. But I have time; my father spent a lifetime knowing how to do it.''

He looks at me. ''Most Indian people don't have, just as I didn't, a feeling of Indianness and nature. I haven't sorted it all out, but just because the Indian thing isn't working yet as I think it should doesn't mean it doesn't exist. I know my culture is connected to the land, the history. Around here the tradition was to hunt or trap, and to survive with what nature gave you. Fifty-sixty years ago, Indians in these parts still did that. I'm trying to figure out what it means for me today. One way I'm trying is by living here, near nature. There is a naturalness to the Indian way that I like, a nature - like using a tree to illustrate a problem, rather than a spaceship.''

He holds up a splint of ash, showing where he has overpounded it and caused it to smash rather than split into clean strips. ''Your own life is like this: if you understand the nature of wood, you can get 30 percent more out of it. But in order to get to the nature of something, you have to spend a lifetime at it. And you have to trust something inside you that tells you yes, even if everybody says no. After seeing other ways of life, I know there's something here and inside me. Not the old Indian way and not the white world's way; some new way I've yet to discover.''

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