by Jaed Coffin
Last week, I had a story assignment that took me to a very small town up north called Passadumkeag (according to the Internet: population 374). On the way north, I drove through Old Town, and had to ask a guy where Route 2 East went. The sign was busted up, and I couldn’t tell which way it was pointing. After he gestured in the right way he asked me where I was from. I told him two hours south.
“A different world down there,” I said.
“Absolutely,” he said.
I drove along the Penobscot River for about an hour—all ice and leafless saplings along the banks—and then I got to my subjects’ house. (I’m not going to say what this story was about. Sorry.) On the way there I stopped at a convenience store where a woman was arguing with the IRS about getting some kind of tax relief. While she barked at the counter, I bought some breakfast sandwiches and OJ, and read all the Evangelical literature the woman displayed at the counter. She was listening to a Christian radio station. When she got off the phone I asked her what that was all about.
“They tell us there aren’t any jobs, but then they don’t give small businesses any help!”
I told her that I hoped her day improved and then I went back into the rainy gray morning outside.
After meeting up with my subjects and doing some preliminary, off-the-record interviewing, I followed them to the site where the story would take place: the Penobscot Indian Reservation in Indian Island. There’s a bridge that spans the Penobscot River that begins not far from where the man said “absolutely” back in Old Town. The sign at the foot of the bridge tells you it’s the beginning point of the reservation; it also advertises the Bingo games that are played on the reservation on a weekly basis.
After you cross the bridge you pass a Penobscot museum, and a solemn statue of The Virgin Mary, in front of a small, humble church. I was told later that Jesuits came to the island in 1604—and that perhaps their presence is among the earliest records of Christianity on the shores of America. I had always thought: Christianity+Indian Reservation=bad. But many of the people I spoke to that day were very proud of the way they’d blended their Christian heritage with their other traditions.
One of the first people I met on the reservation was a woman with the last name Sockalexis. I knew the name was an important one, but I didn’t ask her to tell me the story of her ancestors, Louis and Andrew. Louis Sockalexis was probably the first Native American to ever play baseball in the major leagues. The lore is that he used to be able to throw a baseball from Indian Island to the mainland. His story goes on and on and on, and is one of those mind-blowing narratives that seems to reach into every twisted tentacle of our American story. There is debate as to whether or not the Cleveland Indians—the team for which he played, called the Cleveland Spiders at the time—named themselves after Louis Sockalexis. Many believe they did, but Louis has never been formally cited as the inspiration. 2013 happened to be the 100 year anniversary of his death. The story of his life ends sadly, but no one I met talked about it.
Andrew Sockalexis used to run around a dirt track on Indian Island, while he trained for marathons. He almost won Boston twice; later, he came in fourth in the 1914 Olympics in Sweden, competing alongside fellow native Olympian Jim Thorpe.
I listened to a tribal historian speak about the Sockalexis family, and then I listened to him explain a very complicated theory of place in which entire maps of canoe portages and river accesses are wound up within the psychological geography of storytelling. It blew my mind. We were sitting in a dark conference room with a power point and projector, and some other people fell asleep but I felt like my head was going to explode with revelation.
As I drove home, I stopped in Bangor, to see an old friend who is now the mother of twin boys. The sun had come out and it was warm, and the ice in the Penobscot had broken, and was flowing through town like a parade of miniature glaciers. I watched them for a while.
None of what I have written about will be part of the story I was paid to write. I don’t know what I will do with any of it. My old painting teacher once told me: “Sometimes your pallet will be more beautiful than what will become of your canvas.”
Jaed Coffin is the author of A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants and Roughhouse Friday (forthcoming in 2013). He has served as a William Sloane Fellow at Bread Loaf Writers Conference, a Wilson Fellow in Creative Writing at Deerfield Academy, and a Resident Fellow at the Island Institute in Sitka, Alaska. Jaed is on the nonfiction faculty at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA.