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Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau and the Indian in "The Allegash & East Branch" (The Maine Woods)

Lee Gentry, Virginia Commonwealth University

William Ellery Channing compared Thoreau to "the Indian" and said that his ability to walk in nature among the birds and trees and speak the animals' language was uncanny. It would take many years of research to begin contemplating the reasons Thoreau was so fascinated with the Indian: the Indian was a living metaphor for Thoreau. Thoreau perhaps hoped his (personal) identification with the "Indian" way of life would compel Americans to continue their (personal) search for the sacred in life. Initially Thoreau believed the Indian as a group was not as important as the singular Indian, as the younger Thoreau was perhaps more intent on merging with the identity of the single Indian than that of the group. Taking this view while reading "The Allegash & East Branch," at least two perspectives of Thoreau are considered. First, Thoreau saw America's Indian as the ideal human, "one with nature" — and not the way America has represented the Indian. Second, as this is a piece of work done in his younger days, Thoreau eventually transcends his individual experience of life to experience a multitude understanding (yet still maintaining his individuality) through his Allegash quest.

America's "savage" warrior and Thoreau's "savage" warrior were one and the same, but the context of each was different. I think Thoreau died expressing how he still believed, even after years, that upon identifying with the Indian--as the ideal, anti-cultural, childlike, naïve, yet self-reliant human, he was accepting the universal progress of humankind. Even if Thoreau never perfectly attained the Indian-like ways he searched for in his journeys, he left this world searching for the "aboriginal".with these two words on his lips--"Moose" and "Indian"-- that future generations might keep his life's work alive.

Thoreau was not to rely on the white man's word about the ways of the savage Indian. Somehow the American ideal of the Indian was that they were "savages," which meant they were unlearned, unmannered, and uncultured--but for Thoreau "savage" meant "natural".  What could Thoreau learn from the uneducated red man? How could the Indian teach him and others anything about life? Was there something innate in Thoreau--and in all humans--often unrealized yet kin to this "savageness"? Thoreau seemed to qualify as one who intuitively understood the universal connection of humans. And the Indian represented the natural state of man better than any other example. Thus Thoreau would have indeed chosen an Indian to guide him on his trip in the Maine Woods, as he wanted the Indian perspective.

There have been different schools of thought as to the genuine Indian perspective that Thoreau received while on his Allegash & East branch trip. Ironically, and in truth, Thoreau was looking for something he would never find as the only way he would be able to experience the true and natural state of the Indian and get to the nature of the natural would be to visit the Indian in an untouched state. (This, ironically, he would also learn from the partially tamed Indian guide.) Thoreau must have known the untamed Indian scenario was a dangerous one. But I can't blame him for desiring it. Once the Indian comes in contact with the white man there is something lost in the connection--the wildness. (But Thoreau was earnest in trying to touch the Indian, at least at some point.  The tainted Indian would undoubtedly give Thoreau at first, a seemingly less valuable experience, but one he, nor his writing could, in hindsight, survive without.) It seems the more "savage" the Indian, the closer to the wilderness, and the more natural the state of existence, the nearer to spiritual reality. Thoreau must have sensed self-reliance was never so necessary as in the wild--somehow the relation to the wild and the relation to self permeated his thoughts and formed an illusion of the Indian that could not be lived up to.

In The Maine Woods Thoreau told readers the derivation of the word savage was the Latin sylva "woods."  Inhabitants of the woods were selvaggia, which in Old French and Middle English became salvage and sauvage respectively. Salvage simply meant "woodsperson" (Sayre, 8). Thus we begin to understand Thoreau's persistent and natural attraction to the woods and the wilderness beyond the woods.

Thoreau's fascination with the word "moose" is a bit more difficult to uncover. Perhaps the association with a real live moose--unless one is deep within the woods--is next to impossible. There are mentions of Moose-head Lake, Moose River, moose-hides and moose wardens in his Allegash travels. How is a person to encounter such things as these? Where? Perhaps the message is that if we are to come face to face with a moose we need to go deep into the woods. (Not to mention the Indians seemed to use the moose in every way necessary, not wasting a bit.) On the Allegash trip the references to moose in some form or another are numerous. Moose meat must have been considered a real delicacy for the Indians as the Indian guide, Joe, said when asked to accompany Thoreau into the woods of Maine: "Me like to go myself; me want to get some moose" (Sayre174). Surely moose meant more than that to Thoreau as he was vegetarian! Joe Polis, the Indian guide Thoreau asked to go through Allegash with him, was a more "civilized" Indian and it's to be noted that this half-cultured Indian didn't actually live in the woods, but had a two-story white house at the edge of the woods. (There is somewhat of a paradox here in that a not-so-savage Indian guided Thoreau.)  Still the moose fixation suggests Thoreau's almost obsessive need to touch the sacred.

One morning after an evening campfire, Thoreau gave the Indian name for the phosphorescent light he saw that previous night in rotten "moosewood," "'Artoosoqu,'"adding that "his folks sometimes saw fires passing along at various heights, even as high as the trees, and making a noise." Thoreau decided, "one revelation has been made to the Indian, another to the white man." I have much to learn from the the Indian, nothing of the missionary"(175). No doubt Thoreau was both thrilled as well as daunted that he was only on the brink of experiencing the ways of the wild.

Thoreau's quest to touch the wild and inhuman was probably inhibited by his realization that Joe was a religious man, opting to rest on Sunday and pray for his past sins of working on the Sabbath. An Americanized Indian was probably not what Thoreau originally had in mind. The paradox revisits here—a true savage of the wild would have put Thoreau in real danger. Even Thoreau was human and wanted to live! He must have had mixed feelings. Stories of truly savage Indians taking scalps and such put things in perspective for Thoreau, perhaps with some disappointment. But when his American travelling companion was lost overnight Thoreau realized his own immortality and fears of being in the deep, untamed woods. Without a guide and a kind-hearted Indian he might perish. Thoreau may well not have liked his human—American—limitations, but the trip in the woods awakened him to the culture that he so much rallied against. Here the Indian guide and Thoreau converse:

 "Suppose, that I should take you in a dark night, right up here into the middle of the woods a hundred miles, set you down, and turn you round quickly twenty times, could you steer straight to Oldtown?"
"O yer," said he, "have done pretty much same thing. I will tell you. Some years ago I met an old white hunter at Millinocket; very good hunter. He said he could go anywhere in the woods. He wanted to hunt with me that day, so we start. We chase a moose all the forenoon, round and round, till middle of afternoon, when we kill him. Then I said to him, now you go straight to camp. Don't go round and round where we've been, but go straight. He said, I can't do that, I don't know where I am. Where
 you think camp? I asked. He pointed so. Then I laugh at him. I take the lead and go right off the other way, cross our tracks many times, straight camp."
"How do you do that?" asked I.
"O, I can't tell you," he replied. "Great difference between me and white man."
Once the Indian receives the white man's knowledge he is no longer savage or wild or for that matter totally self-reliant—at least not in the sense that Thoreau once valued as essential to self-discovery. Acquired knowledge is then not necessarily spiritual, and not perhaps, necessarily natural. Thoreau must have been trying to discern the differences in types of education--some being more valuable than others. Although he was a genius in his own right, education being invaluable to his own vocation, he sensed the reality that certain types of education can be limiting to human spiritual development. He felt the Indians and their connection to the land was the most sacred and indispensable knowledge.

He does not carry things in his head, nor remember the route exactly, like a white man, but relies on himself at the moment. Not having experienced the need of the other sort of knowledge, all labelled and arranged, he has not acquired it.

The proof that it was Thoreau's hope to mingle with the "wild" "wilderness" is most profoundly stated in these words:

Just before night we saw a musquash, (he did not say muskrat,) the only one we saw in this voyage, swimming downward on the opposite side of the stream. The Indian, wishing to get one to eat, hushed us, saying, "Stop, me call 'em"; and sitting flat on the bank, he began to make a curious squeaking, wiry sound with his lips, exerting himself considerably. I was greatly surprised,--thought that I had at last got into the wilderness, and that he was a wild man indeed, to be talking to a musquash! I did not know which of the two was the strangest to me. He seemed suddenly to have quite forsaken humanity, and gone over to the musquash side…
Robert F. Sayre suggests that Thoreau believed Indian knowledge "begins where we leave off" (Sayre, 188). But surely Thoreau realized later in his life, and after his experiences in the woods with the Indians, that even the Indians were rooted in tradition and refused to change. This is why they died. This must have produced mixed feelings in Thoreau. In order for the truly wild to exist in humans, humans must be untamed themselves, and be next to if not part of physical nature. Sayre says that later in Thoreau's life he omitted the quotations around the word savage suggesting that he did not believe he had seen anything until he had developed its wildest contexts" (Sayre, 211).  Perhaps Thoreau learned to put into perspective the Indian of the past and the civilizations of the present. He said, "It is the spirit of humanity, that which animates both so called savages and civilized nations, working through a man, and not the man expressing himself, that interests us most" (211). I agree with Sayre as this was an extraordinary statement for a nineteenth century American. Thoreau continued with, "The thought of a so-called savage tribe is generally far more just than that of a single man" (Sayre, 212). Thoreau understood the universal spirit of humanity.

It was Ellery Channing who also said Thoreau's last audible words were, "Indian" and "moose." What was Thoreau trying to tell us? Perhaps he did experience one or more spiritual revelation(s) while in the woods with the Indians. If he did synthesize himself with the Indian he certainly did not fail to synthesize with the generations to come. His words are as lasting as his experiences were.

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