CM . . .
. Volume XXI Number 9 . . . . October 31, 2014
The character Broken Trail appeared first in Jean Rae Baxter's novel of the same name. Set during the American Revolution (1780), Broken Trail introduced 13-year-old Moses Cobham, who, with his United Empire Loyalist family, was travelling to the British colonies north of the Great Lakes. En route, Moses got lost in the woods where he was found by Oneida people who accepted him into their culture, renamed him, and taught him their warrior traditions. Later, the British army sent him overland as a courier with a message for the British commander at King's Mountain, North Carolina. The British lost this battle, however, and it was a turning point toward American victory.
The White Oneida opens in 1785 with Broken Trail's arrival at the Sedgewick School, an institution dedicated to training native men and women as missionaries to their own people. Jean Rae Baxter based this fictional school on the real Moore School in Lebanon, Connecticut, which Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) attended from 1761 to 1763.
Although Thayendanegea appears "on stage" only briefly, his power and mystique pervade the novel. Thayendanagea grew up in what is now New York State; his sister, Molly Brant, was the spouse of the influential British Superintendent of Northern Indian Affairs, Sir William Johnson. During the American Revolution/War of Independence, Thayendanageae led Mohawk and settler Loyalists against the American forces in a violent frontier campaign in present-day northern New York state.
In the 1783 peace treaty, Britain ceded to the United States the area south of the Great Lakes, north of the Ohio River, and east of the Mississippi, in which Six Nations and western Indians had previously been sovereign. In 1784, through negotiations with Quebec governor/military commander Frederick Haldimand, Thayendanegea secured a land tract for Six Nations people on the Grand River around present-day Brantford, ON. Baxter skilfully blends the necessary background information into her story.
The first half of the novel is about Broken Trail's experience at the Sedgewick School where he and other aboriginal teenaged youths are being educated to adapt to a more confined way of life. Although of European ancestry, he shares the aboriginal youths’ anger and longing for their traditional ways. The school is striking for its unthinking racism and emphasis on assimilation into white settler culture. Baxter marshals a number of telling details and incidents which jar upon the sensitive reader. Insistence on English "Christian" names, bowl haircuts, handshakes as the only "civilized" greeting are just some of the irritations. Dictation is from authors who speak of "lazy savage people who live by hunting". One of the teachers, a Mr. Dudgeon, speaks of "the "inferiority of [their] race."
Other than meeting classmates from other native groups, Broken Trail feels that he is learning nothing that will fit him to serve as Thayendanegea's junior diplomat and negotiator. In fact, the bad school brings out Broken Trail's inherent social and diplomatic skills. Author Baxter has created teachers who are atrocious moral examples. Broken Trail and another youth rescue Mr. Sinclair who has been left beaten on the road because of his gambling debts. Mr. Dudgeon makes advances towards Margaret/Yellowbird, the one female student, and when Broken Trail reports the incident, President Webber cares only about maintaining the school's reputation. Broken Trail then subtly threatens to take the story to the wealthy benefactor unless Dudgeon is fired.
Broken Trail's instinct for building solidarity is shown when he decides that the lacrosse teams should be mixed, rather than always having the Algonkians on one side and the Six Nations on the other. "To make ourselves strong, we must put aside our hatred and stand together," he says, and Mr. Johnson, a teacher of aboriginal background, agrees: "With the mixed teams we'll feel more like brothers than rivals," he says. "That's what we'll need if we're ever going to stand shoulder to shoulder to defend our lands."
Broken Trail's schooling is interrupted when Thayendanegea summons him to meet with him at Brant's Ford before he leaves for England. This journey, from Vermont to southwestern Ontario, involves a side trip to Oneida territory to return Margaret/Yellowbird to her family. Margaret/Yellowbird is a strong, quietly ambitious young woman who intends to use her English skills to negotiate for a better life for her people.
The last half of the novel presents Broken Trail's education in settler and native ways of life as he travels to Brant's Ford. The climax is his visit with Thayendanegea. This hero of Canadian history is presented by Baxter as a complex man with many contradictions in his personality. A strong advocate for justice for his people, he enjoys a lifestyle much more luxurious than theirs, one complete with African American slaves to do the work.
Thayendanegea, who shares with Broken Trail the amenities of his comfortable home, says that he would transfer his loyalty from Britain to the United States in a heartbeat if he thought it would serve the interests of his people. Because Governor Haldimand is being evasive about British support for an Indian confederacy, Thayendanegea is going over his head to appeal to King George III's ministers. He tells Broken Trail that he secured the Six Nations land grant (the Haldimand Tract) by threatening a blood bath if Britain tried to leave her native allies stranded and homeless after the war's end. He has an assignment for Broken Trail: to find and talk to the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, (1768-1813), who has been rallying the tribes and sinking settlers' flatboats on the Ohio River.
Broken Trail's trip to the Ohio River involves more observation of the mutual hostility between settlers and natives. Tecumseh, who is close to his own age, has heard Thayendanegea speak and feels that they share the same vision of a land for native people stretching from the Ohio River to the Great Lakes, but he doubts that Indians will ever adopt farming, as Thayendanegea envisions, even though they have adopted European technologies useful to them. Tecumseh is dubious about Thayendanegea's current emphasis on diplomacy, wondering if he has "thrown in the tomahawk."
We who are aware of Tecumseh's role in the War of 1812 suspect that another novel about Broken Trail is probably in the planning stage and that The White Oneida will be the second book in a trilogy. The ending is open; we leave Broken Trail on his way back to school, having promised to return to Margaret/Yellowbird in Strawberry Moon.
Baxter's knowledge of both political and social/cultural history shines through in this novel. Having studied this era long ago from the "official" or "colonial" perspective, I was impressed by her solid grounding in the alternative "First Nations" viewpoint.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.