Critical Family History Book Review: Women of the Dawn

Women of the Dawn

Women of the Dawn

In April, 2016, I had an opportunity to visit Indian Island in the Penobscot River of Maine, and to meet some members of the Penobscot Nation. In that context, I learned about the wonderful book Women of the Dawn in which anthropologist Bunny McBride narrates the lives of four Wabanaki women of different generations. The term Wabanaki, which means Dawnland, was given to the Algonquian-speaking peoples of the north Atlantic Coast, and today includes the Abenakis, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, and Penobscot. The four women in the book include:

  • Molly Mathilde (Marie Mathilde), 1665-1717, Abenaki & Maliseet
  • Molly Ockett (Marie Agathe), 1740-1816, Pigwacket (subgroup of Abenaki)
  • Molly Molasses (Mary Pelagie), 1775-1867, Penobscot
  • Molly Dellis (Mary Alice Nelson Archambaud), 190-1977, Penobscot

Five portages connect the four stories of the women. A portage refers to the process of carrying one’s canoe and gear overland between rivers. As McBride explains, “The goal of any portage is to reunite with the river” (p. 133). Mary Dellis, whom McBride had previously researched extensively, actually did conduct research on Molly Mathilde; her research notes inspired the book. In this book, Molly Dellis researched all three foremothers with whom she shared the name Molly in an effort to make sense of her own life; her research served as her own portage as she face the question: “What of the past will be carried into the future?” (p. 97). Each of the four stories is introduced by a scene setting up Mary Dellis’s research into the life of that woman, and connecting her quest to the concept of portage.

In the Methodology and References section, McBride explains how she researched, then constructed the story of each woman’s life. For family historians, this section of the book can have great value because of its detailed description of her research and writing process. McBride also consulted several Wabanaki people, including Mary Dellis’s daughter as well as author and tribal representative Donna M. Loring, in an attempt to render the four portraits, and the narrative voice, as authentically as possible.

This book fascinated me for several reasons. I was gripped by its history of the colonization of Wabanaki people, told from points of view of Wabanaki women at different times. Readers gain a sense of how Wabanaki people lived prior to colonization, and how they experienced trying to stem the tide of white invaders, then eventually being overrun by and violently killed by them. For example, when Molly Ockett, who became a skilled healer, was asked to treat white people, she did so but with full knowledge of what had happened before: “They may have missed the irony of this, but Molly did not; the individuals asking her to cure them were related to the very people who had earned bounties for killing and scalping her relatives and friends” (p. 55).

Molly Molasses watched white people not only arrive in huge numbers, but then help themselves to whatever they wanted. “Gradually it dawned on Molly and every other Penobscot that they were being swallowed up by the dreams of strangers. For them the dreams had become nightmares, grim realizations that they were losing not only a way of life, but a sense of who they are” (p. 86). But Abanaki peoples are still here, and the end of the book leaves us with young people coming to learn from their elders, Molly Dellis having become one such elder.

As noted earlier, I was quite interested in the author’s description of her detailed historical research, and how she went from the data to narrative storytelling. She describes the kind of information she was able to track down about each woman, then how she used research into the historical context of each woman’s life to construct scenes, such as data she worked with in order to construct Molly Ockett’s thoughts during the early 1800s. 

Below you can watch Bunny McBride speak about women she had studied over the years, including Molly Dellis (Molly Spotted Elk), after a warm introduction by Donna M. Loring.

Women of the Dawn is a wonderful book I had a hard time putting down. I highly recommend it!

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