Stephen Laurent: Keeping Indian Memories Green

By Erma Perry

Published in The Irregular, Wednesday, July 29, 1987, North Conway, New Hampshire

Keeping Indian Memories Green

Not since the Indians gave away Manhattan for $24 has there been so much for so little as the little Indian Shop in Intervale. If you are a scholar, you can brush right past the trinkets for tourists and pick up rare manuscripts on local Indians.

“This book,” said Stephen Laurent, owner of the shop and son of a full-blooded Abenaki Indian, “was printed back in 1859. You could not buy it today for any amount of money.”

The book gives the history of the Abenaki Indians, their vocabulary, some information on pronunciation, and the treaties entered into with the British.

Many people ask Stephen if he will sell that book.

“Hell, no,” he says, “that is the only one I have, but I’ll photocopy it for you.”

He did, and now sells the photocopied book in his shop for a modest $3.95.

Books that are hard to find are the ones he copies. For instance, a book on ornithology of the Northeastern Indians is very valuable and impossible to obtain. Some of his books are in French, because most of his customers are linguists.

“Here is the story of Wonalancet,” he says, “I copied that so other scholars could enjoy it.”

Stephen’s father wrote a book in 1884 called “Abenaki and English Dialogues”. Some years ago Stephen recorded the entire book on five reels of tape. These tapes are in the library of the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia among their books on the American Indian.

“Someone heard them there,” said Stephen, “and asked if I could read a shorter version of my father’s book onto cassettes, explaining the pronunciation of the Abenaki words.”

These cassettes are now in the shop, plus a ninety-minute one on Masta’s “Book of Indian Legends”, giving the etymology of the words. For instance, a white ash is called “a snowshoe tree”, because Indians make snowshoes from it. A dog is ‘one who runs before”.

At the Maine Historical Society, Stephen met a man named Charles R. Huntoon.

“When he heard that I was an Abenaki Indian, he told me he was attempting to translate an Abenaki-French dictionary into English, but his French was not good enough.”

A few months later Huntoon brought the famous Rasle dictionary to the post office in Jackson, where Steve was working, and slapped it down on the stamp counter. He wanted Steve to translate it.

Steve was elated. He had never had his hands on a copy before. He had only heard of it. Rasle was a Jesuit missionary at an Indian settlement in Maine from around 1691 to 1724, when it was attacked and burned by the British. Father Rasle himself was killed, but the dictionary miraculously escaped the flames.

“That book is in the Harvard Library now, and you cannot get within half a mile of it,” said Stephen.

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Keeping Indian memories green

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In 1833 a man named Pickering undertook to have the Rasle dictionary printed, and what they have at Portland is the Pickering book.

Steve translated this book back in 1865, and it is today in the archives of the Maine Historical Society in Portland.

“Nice work,” said Huntoon, “now how would you like to translate Aubrey?”

The Rasle has 200 pages. The Aubery, which Stephen is now translating, has 400 and is more like a real dictionary. Father Joseph Aubery was a Jesuit at St. Francis village from about 1705 to 1755. The original of that book is today in the Museum of the Abenaki Indians in Odanak, Quebec.

In the dictionary, Father Joseph Aubery says: “What is written in another handwriting other than the author’s is not pure Abenaki. It is Algonquin. The author of this dictionary washes his hands of it.”

During his lifetime, Aubery loaned the book to another priest who did not hesitate to annotate it, and he wrote in Algonquin. At the top of each page is a small cross which the Jesuits used to show that the work was done for the glory of God.

As a postscript to the dictionary, it says: “Here at last is the end of this teaching book for the Indians of the village. May it help anyone who studies it, and in their prayers let them remember the one who wrote it. Signed Joseph Aubery.”

When the Director of the Museum of the American Indian in New York City visited Laurent, he said, “You know, you could get paid for doing this. You could be funded.”

To this Laurent replied like a true New Englander, “I know I could; but if I accepted, I would probably have to devote more time to it than I care to.

“I would rather do it just on my own without pay and go as far as I can and drop it. If you are funded, you have to see it through to the bitter end. I am not in the trade for losing my eyesight. You can see how difficult it is to decipher.”

The Abenaki Indians had formerly lived here in the White Mountains and in Maine before the white man chased them North from their hunting and fishing grounds. In Quebec, the French, at war with the British, welcomed them, encouraging their raids on the villages in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine. The British retaliated by destroying the Indian settlement at St. Francis in 1759.

This was where Laurent’s father was born in 1839. When the Jesuits baptized Indians who had unpronounceable names, they would give them the names of saints or feast days. Stephen’s father became Joseph Laurent.

When Stephen was born in 1909, his village was still called St. Francis, but in 1917 the Canadian government decided that the Indians should have their own post office. The Indians chose the name Odanak, meaning “village where people live.”

On a plaque outside the Indian Shop, dedicated to Joseph Laurent, tourists will often question the paternity. How could Stephen be the son of a man who was born in 1839? Because Joseph had two wives and two sets of children, nine by the first and eight by the second. Stephen was the last and the seventeenth born when his father was 69.

Stephen first went to a school run by the Grey Nuns of the Cross in his village, then on to Nicolet College to study the classics. His wife, Margaret, is a graduate of Adelphi College and Columbia University. She taught French in New York City. Both Laurents are devoted to keeping the memory of the Abenaki Indians alive.

When prestigious institutions like the National Geographic Society want authoritative answers to questions on the Abenaki Indians, whom do they call? Stephen Laurent in Intervale.

© Erma Perry