indigozeal (indigozeal) wrote in 50bookchallenge,

14: When you're writing a biography, don't skimp on the arson.

An Upriver Passamaquoddy is an account of life among the Maine & New Brunswick tribe written by one of its chiefs, Allen Sockabasin. It reads more like a family album than a formal history - referring to everyone by their first names and waxing happily their work and hobbies and notable memories, etc. It's a different, more intimate way of accounting the history of a people and makes the book memorable despite a lack of developed writing.

Upriver's familial perspective, though, is a double-edged sword, as Sockabasin avoids providing background on incidents with which a tribe member would presumably be familiar but which would be enlightening and useful to the average curious reader. I mean, there are illuminating vignettes
mentions that white visitors in the '50's used to throw coins at them to get them to dance (Jesus), or information on cultural artifacts like how the community comes together for a funeral, and explanation on issues with land management like how state allows the Passamaquoddy to pursue traditional tribal subsistence hunting only on grounds too far away to be of use to the average, non-car-owning tribe member. There's also, however, mention of a land deal that somehow divided up Passamaquoddy land so that parts of the tribe (but not Sockabasin's part) became millionaires whereas Sockabasin's best friend had to subsist on dog food. Sockabasin expected the deal to bring wealth to the entire tribe, yet he never explains the particulars of this deal or why he had such grand expectations for it and how they came to be dashed or anything beyond a few sentences.

He also mentions the issue of child abuse in the tribe - apparently, from both within families and by Catholic priests, though this also is left unclear - and expresses frustration that victims were placed with non-Native homes. There's a question here of whether the alternative was staying tight-lipped and turning a blind eye to the abuse, and I'm not sure the victims' case is given due consideration, despite Sockabasin apparently being a famed crusader against child abuse on the reservation. (A news article from the time claims that the Bureau of Indian Affairs claimed that "counseling" was the best way to deal with abuse of Passamaquoddy children, which suggests that the BIA didn't have its head on right, either.) Then there's a whole issue about Sockabasin being convicted of arson yet getting off on a technicality yet being convicted of an unspecified bunch of other stuff, and while Sockabasin mentions the charges, he gives us no context whatsoever. (He never says, for example, why he was charged, whether or not he did it, or even what was burned. Apparently, according to an article in the Bangor, ME daily paper, he was accused of burning down a Passamaquoddy schoolhouse, but the newspaper reporting is so poor that alleged motive isn't even mentioned.) I have to wonder why Sockabasin brought all this up if he wasn't going to explain it; I think he did so to illustrate the injustices perpetrated against the Passamaquoddy by the out-of-touch U.S. bureaucracy, but it ends up making me question his integrity as a storyteller.

The book's an interesting take on history, but man, does it raise questions.
Tags: anthropology, autobiography, biography, cultural studies, history, native american, non-fiction

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