The Wabanaki have been living in New Brunswick and around the Maritime provinces for thousands of years. Meaning “People of the First Light” or “People of the Dawnland,” Wabanaki is a confederation of the Mi'kmaq, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki, and Penobscot First Nations. These Nations recorded their histories though storytelling and language. Oral traditions have always been very important to the life of the Wabanaki, and they preserved their knowledge within their generations (Hulan & Eigenbrod 7). One influential legend in their histories is the legend of Glooscap. Like all oral legends, the Glooscap legend has no original author, and there is no date of origin known, but it is nevertheless enjoyed and shared by both the Wabanaki and non-Wabanaki. Today, Glooscap stories can be found in many books and can be heard on the New Brunswick Museum’s website (“Koluskap”).
The Glooscap legend is essentially a creation story. An embodied persona, Glooscap is considered to be the first human, a great and powerful being who shapes landscapes and shrinks or grows the animals around him. Many versions of the legend suggest that he is responsible for how our current landscape appears. He has been called a cultural hero who was a great Motewolon (a man or woman who has learned to wield great power), and was the most powerful being of all (Teeter and LeSourd xvii). Physically he is said to be twice as tall as a regular person, but still looks like an ordinary Indian (Hill and Frankenberg 19).
The Glooscap stories were used to teach values, traditions, and ways of life. Considering that the cultures of the Wabanaki were contained in language and traditions, the Glooscap stories were likely prevalent in their everyday lives. But whereas oral history was true to their existence, that history was not recorded as Europeans recorded their own histories. Rather, oral histories were told and kept alive in community.
The first typographically recorded stories of Glooscap are most likely those of the Reverend Silas Tertius Rand, a missionary among the Mi’kmaq Indians of Nova Scotia for forty years. In the years he spent with the First Nations of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island, Rand recorded information directly from them about their cultures, ways of life, and legends. He heard the legends told to him in Mi’kmaq, then translated them into English as he wrote, stopping frequently to relay them back to storytellers for correction purposes. He stated that “Glooscap was the most remarkable personage of their traditions,” and that although Glooscap moved around, he lived mainly in Nova Scotia. Glooscap, he continued, lived like other men, but never grew old and never died. The Indians considered him to be still living, they just didn’t know where (xliv). Rev. Rand’s careful work is considered to have been a very important factor in the preservation of the Glooscap legends. New Brunswick poet Alden Nowlan has stated that we may not have Glooscap stories today if it wasn’t for the Reverend’s work (9).
Though Rev. Rand spent his life from 1847 to 1889 learning the ways and languages of the people among whom he was a missionary, and his information about their cultures was recorded from exactly what their oral storytellers were saying, other recorders were not as faithful and not accorded the same respect. There is, in fact, much controversy surrounding the legitimacy of how other non-native recorders retrieved their information, specifically as to whether those recording storytellers' knowledge could possibly have understood First Nations culture enough to capture things accurately. There is also doubt about their intentions. In 1851, for example, Joseph Barratt's work with First Nations revealed an intention that would have biased his observations. He wrote “the life of an Indian, who has been mainly devoted to the chase, will be rather tame to those sort of readers, who had rather peruse thrilling accounts of battles and savage yells, for such readers only, the peaceful habits of the Indian hunter cannot be expected to have particular charms” (3). There is also the much-criticized Charles Godfrey Leland, who wrote in his preface in 1884: “If I have rarely ventured on their field, it is because I believe that when the Indian shall have passed away there will come far better ethnologists than I am, who will be much more obliged to me for collecting raw material than for cooking it” (iv). These researchers clearly did not have the understanding of the Wabanaki People that was needed to record their oral histories and traditions for posterity. Barratt perpetuates stereotypes of the day and Leland asserts that the First Nations populations were going to die off. Both perspectives compromise full and accurate tellings, as later scholars have suggested.
Thomas Parkhill, for example, finds a problem in Leland’s Glooscap birth story. Observing that “the story exuded incongruity,” Parkill finds that all of Leland’s recorded stories have an authority listed for legitimacy–all, that is, but the Glooscap Twin birth story which has no “aboriginal authority” (45, 49).
Andrea Bear Nicholas is another of the growing number of scholars who claim that what was recorded in the late 1800s misrepresents Wabanaki culture. Like Parkhill, she reads Leland’s versions of the Glooscap stories as leading to “invented traditions,” explaining that the problem is cumulative, for the Wabanaki People themselves now mistake these fabricated stories for their own (17). For Bear Nicholas, this “altering or fabricating the traditions” is tantamount to racism (14). She elaborates: “what Leland has done amounts to double duplicity, double racism, ..., for he has not only pretended to know how Wabanakis think and feel. He has passed off his concoctions as ours so successfully that ‘his’ stories are now believed to be ‘our’ stories by generations of our people” (17).
Current scholarship is correcting these fabrications and misrepresentations, and is seeking to restore Glooscap to his central place in Wabanaki culture.
Jennifer Atwin, Fall 2014
St. Thomas University
Bibliography of Secondary Sources
Barratt, Joseph, and Nicola Tenesles. The Indian of New-England, and the North-Eastern Provinces: A Sketch of the Life of an Indian Hunter, Ancient Traditions Relating to the Etchemin Tribe, Their Modes of Life, Hunting, &c.: With Vocabularies in the Indian and English, Giving the Names of the Animals, Birds, and Fish, the Most Complete That Has Been Given for New-England in the Languages of Etchemin and Micmacs. Middletown, CT: C.H. Pelton, 1851.
Bear Nicholas, Andrea. “The Assault on Aboriginal Oral Traditions: Past and Present.” Aboriginal Oral Traditions: Theory, Practice, Ethics. Ed. Renée Hulan and Renate Eigenbrod. Halifax, NS: Fernwood, 2008. 7-43.
Hill, Kay, and Robert Frankenberg. Glooscap and His Magic: Legends of the Wabanaki Indians. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1963.
Homepage. Koluskap: Stories From Wolastoqiyik. 2005. Wolastoqiyik Executive Committee & The New Brunswick Museum. 8 July 2020
Hulan, Renée, and Renate Eigenbrod, eds. Aboriginal Oral Traditions: Theory, Practice, Ethics. Halifax, NS: Fernwood, 2008.
Leland, Charles G. The Algonquin Legends of New England, Or, Myths and Folk Lore of the Micmac, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot Tribes. Boston, MA: Houghton, Mifflin, 1884.
MacMillan, Cyrus. Glooskap's Country: And Other Indian Tales. Toronto, ON; New York: Oxford UP, 1955.
Mechling, William H. Malecite Tales. Ottawa, ON: Government Printing Bureau, 1914.
Nowlan, Alden. Nine Micmac Legends. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1983.
Parkhill, Thomas. “‘Of Glooskap’s Birth, and of His Brother Malsum, the Wolf’: The Story of Charles Godfrey Leland’s ‘Purely American Creation.’” American Indian Culture & Research Journal 16.1 (1992): 45-69.
Rand, Rev. Silas T. Legends of the Micmacs. 1894. New York: Johnson Reprint Corp, 1971.
Spicer, Stanley T., and Teresa MacPhee. Glooscap Legends. Hantsport, NS: Lancelot Press, 1991.
Teeter, Karl V., and Philip S. LeSourd. Tales From Maliseet Country: The Maliseet Texts of Karl V. Teeter. Lincoln, NE: U of Nebraska P, 2007.