Ephemeral Assays – Fire Keepers


 

“Long ago the earth was entirely covered by a great blanket of water. At that time the only living creatures of the world were water animals such as the beaver, muskrat, duck, and loon. There was no sun, moon, or stars and so there was no light.”

Many years later, when there was light, I sat at the top of a high bank looking down into a long confluent pool of the Fox Creek, where I saw a beaver, a muskrat and a mink all plying their trade at the same time. That’s a pretty rare mammalian convergence in our tamed countryside. And if I had to have a spirit animal it would be the kingfisher, always on patrol along this stream.

Fox Creek was behind one of my favorite rural auction halls, now defunct (the auction, not the creek). First it was to the east, and after we relocated it was to the west. The half hour drive out from the latter more suburban starting point is beautiful, rising through the foothills of the Helderberg Mountains in upstate New York and coinciding with a Sunday morning acoustic radio program. Highlights along the way included several herds of unusual cattle breeds, great blue herons in the mist, a large bluestone concern spread out like a flattened cemetery, a tiny hairpin turn town perched on a deep ravine which surely must have claimed some lives over the years by slippery moss or flash flood, more aloofly situated old white homesteads with lilac bushes on the lawns and clematis vines winding up the wraparound porches, and a small improbable airstrip always at the ready for planes which never landed as I passed by. The fairly-modern auction hall itself was very nicely set up, with folding chairs in front and smooth gray raised wooden platform seating in back, generous enough to pile up lot after lot all around you or to stretch out a bit with a cheeseburger and coffee. It was associated with a large summer weekend flea market housed in numerous permanent buildings, some of which used to contain the owner’s extensive antique buggy collection. They held a couple of special events each summer which always seemed to feature country music, a steam engine exhibition, and great barbecue chicken. I would arrive by 9:00 or so, preview the auction, and browse the flea market back when bargains could still be had in plenty at such venues. From there I walked along the border between large field and narrow wooded ridge, seemingly without purpose to deflect attention, until the high perch above the creek was reached. What a contrast between this spot and the city I worked in, the pungent fairgrounds-type bathroom building I could now avoid, and the relative warfare of the auction set to start in ten minutes. I left my wife and small kids home most of these mornings and regret that a bit looking back, but I returned before they knew it, all restocked and recharged.

We visited this upstate New York region when I was the small kid back in the 1970s and poked more than a little fun at it. I was rather surprised upon my return from a post-college cross-country trip some years later to be informed that we were actually moving there! Coincidentally, my good friend’s grocery store manager father had transferred up a bit earlier, so we both had a continuation of employment. Mr. Hornung used to take us to this same auction hall in search of his passion¾antique corkscrews¾most of which went for a buck or three back then. His collection displayed very nicely, and has probably increased in value a hundred fold since then. On the way home we would sometimes dig for arrowheads in various cornfields along the Schoharie Creek. My sharp-eyed picker mother ran a barn sale on weekends, and all these things conspired to give me an interest in antiques, books, and, as things unfolded, paper items.

The owner of this enterprise was a trim, pleasant looking man, like a country version of Gentleman Jimmy Walker, steeped in the ways of agriculture and rural commerce. His glory days as the big dog in town were beginning to fade due to the finite supply of previously undiscovered antiques and collectibles, competition from upstart auction halls (one founded by one of his runners), rising consumer awareness, and a tendency to reallocate commissions. The more common way for auction houses to cheat is by misrepresenting the quality or provenance of the item up for bid, or to initiate or comply with bid rigging efforts of one sort or another. Not paying consignors, however, is a bit more black and white, and he lost his license more than once. A lot of folks were angry with him, the buggy collection was forfeited, and the last I heard he was making a living from the now diminished flea market and huge party tent rentals. This colleague still owes me $500.00 or so in consignment money, but I forgave the debt with no misgivings. I had lots of fun, education, and relaxation there; and I took home many prizes, like an early Palatine bible with wooden covers which sold for $1,200.00, and a classic country store mahogany showcase I still use which only went for $50.00 because nobody else had the room or good back to haul it away that day. Many will boycott him for life but I still hold out hope that he can reform and rebound one last time.

Anyway, I showed up rather late one morning and was a little startled to see about a hundred boxes of paper off toward the back. No time for creek sitting that day. Upon inquiry I was informed that these were the files of a longtime school teacher, which in the past would have been unceremoniously pitched. The auctioneer did not want to sell the whole collection as one lot, which cuts down on confusion and chicanery, so I only had time to read the teacher’s folder tabs and jot down the corresponding box numbers. I put a “must win” star next to the lot that contained a large amount of Native American material. The other good thing about Sunday morning auctions is that I could get home in time to process the goodies on a couple of long outside work tables in a peaceful and secluded spot right in my round stone driveway. This is where I first came into contact with Aren Akweks, through his booklets, correspondence, and other ephemera.

I use “Aren Akweks” as that is how he signed most of his publications, but he was also known as Ray Fadden or Tehanetorens. Now it would take a full biography to impart the measure of this man, but a thumbnail sketch and some quotes will have to do. Fadden was teaching young Mohawks at the St. Regis Reservation at Akwesasne in the 1940s when he began delving deeply into the cultural past of his people. In 1954 Ray and his family founded the Six Nations Indian Museum in Onchiota, NY, a kaleidoscopically rich repository of artifacts and learning. The design for this grandfather of Indian museums, constructed from trees felled by Fadden himself, reflects the architecture of a traditional Iroquois dwelling. “The long bark house is a metaphor for the Six Nations Confederacy, symbolically stretching from East to West across ancestral territory. The Mohawks are the Keepers of the Eastern Door, the Senecas are the keepers of the Western Door, the Onondagas are the Fire Keepers and the Oneidas, Cayugas, and Tuscaroras (admitted into the Confederation in the early 18th century) are the Younger Brothers.” “We take pride in our existence as a living museum, embodying the values and worldview of a vibrant culture. Many museums appear to have the same goals, but in most cases, they are institutions deeply rooted in western culture, in effect presenting Native American cultures ‘under glass.’ Cultural perspective markedly affects the manner in which material is presented. The Six Nations Indian Museum presents its material from a Native American point of view.”

“Yet, with all of the museum’s awesome beauty and contents considered, the most important and profound aspect of the Six Nations Museum remains Tehanetorens himself. Visitors of his museum receive much more than a casual tour of the premises. Upon entry through the gift shop, one is cordially invited to be seated on one of the many Longhouse style benches. He proceeds to read a beaded pictograph record belt concerned with the story of the migration and trials of the Iroquois people. This is what he deems his first message. By itself, his first message is an interesting historical record, but if enough interest is apparent in his audience, Tehanetorens delivers his second message which delves into considerable depth with the Indian contributions to the world. It includes everything from popcorn to rubber, and Indian Nations from the Inca to the Mohawks. Tehanetorens delivers his messages with dramatic authority tempered by his pleasant witticisms. If the interest is great enough and the situation warranting, he will unleash his third and final message that quite frankly sometimes disturbs the more delicate and patriotic American ego. He strips away the veil of lies and half-truths that makes American history palatable to the average American conscience. He reveals the undenatured truth of the treatment that this continent’s Native people received from American and Canadian Governments and its people. He emphasizes not only past history but the present as well.

His oratory is a comparative discourse that spans pre-contact Europe and North American pre-Columbian histories. Tehanetorens paints not a pretty picture. One senses from him an anger at injustice and atrocities committed against his people. Yet there is also an underlying sadness, a desperate, even fearful sorrow about him as he speaks of the ravaged forests, dead polluted waters, and whole species of life slaughtered into extinction.”

From the signed correspondence in this auction lot, some of which was adorned with small grouse feathers, I learned that the school teacher in question knew Ray personally, had visited the Museum, and probably used these materials in his classroom instruction. There are a dozen or so booklets from the 1940s on. Some are listed online for an average price of about $25.00, while others don’t show up at all. Most of them are on specialized topics such asThe CreationThe Hermit Thrush, or histories of the individual tribes such as Migration of the TuscarorasMonuments to Six Indian Nations is a 68 page illustrated guide to dozens of sites throughout the state.

There were also twenty-five or so charts about the size of placemats, reproduced from large originals, which are very richly illustrated with the simple yet eloquent pictographs that were Fadden’s stock in trade. These sheets are incredibly busy, with tiny lettering, strident invective, and lavish decoration. Fadden researched the early design motifs found on historic wampum belts, bark dishes, condolence canes, rock writings, bead work, and images recorded in the writings of missionaries and explorers who coexisted with the Iroquois, and he added modern pictographs to fill in any blanks. Rounding out the collection were some photos of the Reservation classrooms, and some Mohawk Indian postcards, one featuring Ray and his wife Christine and young son John Kahionhes Fadden traditionally garbed in a sunny field many moons ago.

I recently watched a rather obnoxious author on Book TV pitching the theory that Native Americans were subsistence level savages who were more or less rescued by Europeans. I have no Indian blood, other than eating hundreds of big fat blueberries as a child on a tiny island graveyard in the wilds of Quebec once, but this guy made my blood boil. He makes some valid points about the myth of the Noble Savage, etc., but it was essentially a mean-spirited ahistorical justification of genocide, shortsighted environmental policies, and placing nationalism, Christianity and profits before human needs. He made much of pre-contact brutality, while ignoring little details like our Civil War and the two world wars. The Iroquois Constitution, also known as The Great Law of Peace, is probably the longest-existing international constitution in the world. When the founding fathers were working out a federal union of the colonies and no suitable European model was found, Benjamin Franklin and others borrowed liberally from Iroquoian forms of government. Women played a very important role in their society as well. It does not take much to imagine Native Americans shedding tribal warfare and improving their living standards (the ones that needed improving) while retaining their culture and significant lands without all the bloodshed and assimilation. New York State’s modern copout response to the Indian question has taken the form of ensuring the sovereign tribal right of erecting huge casinos and letting them sell tax-free cigarettes. Ray Fadden’s personal vision of Native American healing is a more soothing balm of lament, pride, and hope for the future. He was in the early wave of modern Native American activism, and always put his thoughts into deeds, from raising awareness to teaching woodlore to building museums. Feeding the local woodland animals was a favorite pastime right up to the end. “He cares little for fame and glory; his cares are Earth, Life, and Peace. For a time, Tehanetorens was the sole steward and fire keeper of the Eastern Door. He harboured and nurtured within his being the last embers of Peacemaker’s timeless Council Fires that had all but vanished at Akwesasne. From the doors of his classrooms came leaders and men, Clan Mothers and children who beat within their breasts the spirit and blood that fueled the rebirth of the Mohawk Nation at Akwesasne.”

In this series of articles on paper ephemera, I am not inclined to expound on large categories like sheet music or baseball cards one at a time. While this would be somewhat informative, it seems that every antiques newspaper, magazine, and Antiques Roadshow-type program is already covering this basic paper education with colorfully illustrated overviews. In my view, the strength and appeal of ephemera is in its variety and scarcity. You are generally holding something more rare than a particular book, which is the other thing (along with original writings) that physically speaks to us from the past. Unusual printed ephemera also sparks interest, as individual pieces are often small clues to some larger truth. In this case, for example, I was basically ignorant of New York State Native American activism before stumbling onto these materials. Such interest can even lead to other avenues of research or commerce, journeys, and new friends.

What to do with this particular survivor ephemera? The correspondence and photos will be donated to the museum. It includes a six page letter proposing the erection of a fitting memorial to the great Shawnee patriot Tecumseh in Ontario. The booklets will be listed online. The pictograph charts may do better right in the shop. This ramble is not about profit though. Big moneymakers are great, but I think of them as supporting the pursuit of paper rather than causing this pursuit to begin with. After one enjoys hunting for, handling, and perhaps learning from these pieces and it comes to disposition, each must be judged on its own merits. You rescue them, you add to the variety of your stock, you provide affordable historical items, and ten and twenty-five dollar sales add up to hundred dollar totals.

I would like to visit the Six Nations Indian Museum in the Adirondacks next summer. Ray Fadden’s children and grandchildren run the operation now. I called to see what the hours are, as there is a little less online information than one might expect. They are open in July and August, offering a rotating series of lectures. School groups may visit in June and September. Admission is $2.00, $1.00 for children. The man on the phone asked if I would like a brochure. I found that I was speaking to John, Ray’s little son in the old postcard image and a talented artist and fire keeper in his own right. I shared the story about how I came into possession of all these items, and we had a very pleasant conversation. I received the brochure and a note in short order. “Thanks for your call . . . enjoyed our brief discussion about my Dad.” Aren Akweks, by the way, is in a nursing home but still with us at 93. He lived two lifetimes, said I. More like ten, replied his son. And the inspirational ephemera he produced still speaks for itself.

Shawn Purcell is the principle of Balopticon Books & Ephemera in Delmar NY, online at www.balopticon.com, and may be e-mailed at mail@balopticon.com
Copyright Ó 2004 Shawn Purcell

 

 

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