The Life and Traditions of the Red Man

A rediscovered treasure of Native American literature

The Life and Traditions of the Red Man

Book Pages: 240 Illustrations: 8 illustrations Published: February 2007

American Studies, Literature and Literary Studies > Literary Criticism, Native and Indigenous Studies

Joseph Nicolar’s The Life and Traditions of the Red Man tells the story of his people from the first moments of creation to the earliest arrivals and eventual settlement of Europeans. Self-published by Nicolar in 1893, this is one of the few sustained narratives in English composed by a member of an Eastern Algonquian-speaking people during the nineteenth century. At a time when Native Americans’ ability to exist as Natives was imperiled, Nicolar wrote his book in an urgent effort to pass on Penobscot cultural heritage to subsequent generations of the tribe and to reclaim Native Americans’ right to self-representation. This extraordinary work weaves together stories of Penobscot history, precontact material culture, feats of shamanism, and ancient prophecies about the coming of the white man. An elder of the Penobscot Nation in Maine and the grandson of the Penobscots’ most famous shaman-leader, Old John Neptune, Nicolar brought to his task a wealth of traditional knowledge.

The Life and Traditions of the Red Man has not been widely available until now, largely because Nicolar passed away just a few months after the printing of the book was completed, and shortly afterwards most of the few hundred copies that had been printed were lost in a fire. This new edition has been prepared with the assistance of Nicolar’s descendants and members of the Penobscot Nation. It includes a summary history of the tribe; an introduction that illuminates the book’s narrative strategies, the aims of its author, and its key themes; and annotations providing historical context and explaining unfamiliar words and phrases. The book also contains a preface by Nicolar’s grandson, Charles Norman Shay, and an afterword by Bonnie D. Newsom, former Director of the Penobscot Nation’s Department of Cultural and Historic Preservation. The Life and Traditions of the Red Man is a remarkable narrative of Native American culture, spirituality, and literary daring.


“[T]his fascinating work emphasizes Penobscot survival through adaptation. . . . Highly recommended.” — L. M. Hauptman, Choice

“Make no mistake that the reprinting of this Maine classic is a cause for multicultural celebration and a benchmark event in local, regional and even North American scholarship. This is no idle boast by a parochial book reviewer, but a simple, essential fact. . . . The splendid new Duke University Press edition . . . is annotated, Professor Kolodny and other contributors put the work in fair critical context, and there is a helpful list of other works consulted. This is a volume that should please just about everyone.” — William D. Barry, Maine Sunday Telegram

“Nicolar’s life, like his narrative, provides a useful case study in survival and resistance that might fruitfully be examined along the lines suggested by Bruyneel as sovereignty’s third space. This volume is an important and welcome contribution to American Indian literary and cultural studies.”
— Carla Mulford, American Indian Culture and Research Journal

“Nicolar’s retelling of Penobscot origin stories and the journeys of Klos-kur-beh, a traditional ‘Wabanaki culture-bringer,’ exhibit Penobscot epistemology, and, therefore, indigenous cultural persistence (p. 42). Furthermore, by interweaving renderings of Penobscot stories of creation and prophecy with aspects of Catholic theology, the text exemplifies how colonized and indigenous peoples appropriated and adapted outsider cultural resources to shape reality to their own designs.” — Amanda Moulder H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews

The Life and Traditions of the Red Man is an extraordinary rendering of Eastern Algonquian history, story, and prophecy, self-published in the nineteenth century by a native writer from the northeast coast of the United States. As remarkable as the text was Joseph Nicolar himself, a brilliant and largely self-educated member of the Penobscot tribe who fervently wished to pass on what he could to the younger generations.” — Patricia Clark Smith, coauthor of On the Trail of Elder Brother: Glous’gap Stories of the Micmac Indians

“Joseph Nicolar’s The Life and Traditions of the Red Man is surely a landmark text, and Annette Kolodny’s framing helps make the narrative come alive.” — Philip Deloria, author of Indians in Unexpected Places

“Joseph Nicolar’s The Life and Traditions of the Red Man, reissued with Annette Kolodny’s excellent prefatory material, provides students and scholars of American Indian literatures with a valuable text in a reader-friendly edition, which is, crucially, endorsed by the Penobscot Nation.” — Eric Cheyfitz, editor of The Columbia Guide to American Indian Literatures of the United States since 1945


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Joseph Nicolar (1827–94) was an elder and political leader of the Penobscot Nation of Maine. He served six terms as the tribe’s elected representative to the Maine State Legislature.

Annette Kolodny is the College of Humanities Professor Emerita of American Literature and Culture at The University of Arizona. She is the author The Land Before Her: Fantasy and Experience of the American Frontiers, 1630–1860 and The Lay of the Land: Metaphor as Experience and History in American Life and Letters.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Illustrations vii

Preface / Charles Norman Shay ix

Acknowledgments xiii

A Summary History of the Penobscot Nation / Annette Kolodny 1

Introduction to Joseph Nicolar's 1893 The Life and Traditions of the Red Man / Annette Kolodny 35

A Note on Nicolar's Text 89

Joseph Nicolar's The Life and Traditions of the Red Man

Preface 95

1. The Creation.—Klose-kur-beh's Journey.—Meeting his Companions.—The Marriage 97

2. With the aid of May May, Klose-kur-beh destroyed the Serpent.—The Sea Voyage. 114

3. Klose-kur-beh's hunting.—The first mother changed into corn and tobacco. 130

4. The winter and the seven years famine.—The discovery of the frist white man's track. 142

5. The fish famine.—The capture of the white swan and the white spiritual men driven away. 161

6. The winding up the war with the May-Quays.—The grand council established—The arrival and settlement of the white man. 184

Conclusion 195

Notes to the Nicolar Text 201

Afterword / Bonnie D. Newsom 213

Works Consulted and Recommendations for Further Reading 215

Illustration Credits 221
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-4028-7 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-4009-6
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