Tuesday, March 03, 2009


Not in Our Botanies

Henry David Thoreau, Journal (March 5, 1858):
We read the English poets; we study botany and zoology and geology, lean and dry as they are; and it is rare that we get a new suggestion. It is ebb-tide with the scientific reports, Professor ______ in the chair. We would fain know something more about these animals and stones and trees around us. We are ready to skin the animals alive to come at them. Our scientific names convey a very partial information only; they suggest certain thoughts only. It does not occur to me that there are other names for most of these objects, given by a people who stood between me and them, who had better senses than our race. How little I know of that arbor-vitae when I have learned only what science can tell me! It is but a word. It is not a tree of life. But there are twenty words for the tree and its different parts which the Indian gave, which are not in our botanies, which imply a more practical and vital science. He used it every day. He was well acquainted with its wood, and its bark, and its leaves. No science does more than arrange what knowledge we have of any class of objects. But, generally speaking, how much more conversant was the Indian with any wild animal or plant than we are, and in his language is implied all that intimacy, as much as ours is expressed in our language. How many words in his language about a moose, or birch bark, and the like!
Thoreau collected Indian words for moose, birch bark, and the like. Part of his collection appeared in The Maine Woods as Appendix VII ("List of Indian Words"). Thoreau compiled his list from native informants in Maine and also from printed dictionaries of the Abenaki language.

I was curious to learn what Indian words might have been used to describe the different species of trees that grow on my wood lot in Farmington, Maine, and I found Gordon M. Day, "The Tree Nomenclature of the Saint Francis Indians," Contributions to Anthropology, 1960, Part II, National Museum of Canada Bulletin 190 (Ottawa, 1963), pp. 37-48, reprinted in Michael K. Foster and William Cowan, edd., In Search of New England's Native Past: Selected Essays by Gordon M. Day (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), pp. 72-83.

The Saint Francis Abenaki Indians live in Odanak, Quebec, on the Saint Francis River. They are descended from refugees from New England. There was an Abenaki village named Amaseconti (with various spellings), located on the Sandy River, near what is today Farmington, Maine, but I don't know if any of the inhabitants of that village ever ended up in St. Francis. Apparently in 1705 refugees from Amaseconti settled in Bécancour, Quebec, not far from Odanak: see Evan Haefeli and Kevin Sweeney, Captors and Captives: The 1704 French and Indian Raid on Deerfield (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003), p. 75. At any rate, Day's list of tree names may contain some words similar to those used by Abenakis living at Amaseconti hundreds of years ago. I have not seen Harald E.L. Prins, "Amesokanti: Abortive Tribe Formation on the Colonial Frontier," a paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Society for Ethnohistory (1988).

Those who, like Thoreau, expect some deep, spiritual insights from the aboriginal names of trees may be disappointed by Day's conclusion (p. 83):
Grouping of kinds into something comparable to the botanist's genera is appearent in the application of some names; e.g. kànòzás is equivalent to Salix, ôssàgákw is nearly equivalent to Populus, but, as might be expected, the Indian's genus does not always coincide with the botanist's. While the latter bases his classification on the similarities of reproductive structures, which are ephemeral and often inconspicuous, the Indian, in general, bases his classification on morphological features that are striking or significant in his economy and usually quite stable. Under these principles, an entire genus, though well known, may remain unnamed or receive one name for all its species, while in another genus even ecological varieties and forms (ecotypes and ecophenes) may receive separate names. Historically, the procedure may have been to name important and well-known species and to later include superficially similar species under the same name, with a qualifying adjective when desired, e.g. wîbegwìgít màskwâmòzí 'grey maskwa-tree'. This procedure was utilitarian, locally oriented, and resembled the white man's plant lore on the folk level rather than his scientific taxonomy.
Gordon M. Day (1911-1993) was uniquely qualified for such an investigation — he was a forester before he became an ethnolinguist.

Another interesting essay in the collection edited by Foster and Cowan (pp. 27-48) is "The Indian as an Ecological Factor in the Northeastern Forest," Ecology 34.2 (1953) 329-346, in which Day proved that the supposedly unbroken "forest primeval" was actually punctuated by sometimes extensive clearings made by the Indians for villages, cutting of wood for fuel, and agriculture. The primary method of clearing was by means of controlled fires intentionally set.

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