Poet’s Platform: Rebecca Pelky

This recurring column highlights the work and lives of our poets beyond their Perugia Press books, whether it be teaching or other creative professional pursuits, visual artistry, community involvements, activism, their reading suggestions, and/or their current writing projects, processes, and proclivities. The seventh installment comes from Rebecca Pelky (Through a Red Place, 2021), who writes about her archival work, finding “a poetic message in a bottle from an ancestor,” and the seeds of Through a Red Place.

Kinship & Poetry: Ancestors in the Archive

The first time I stepped into the Wisconsin Historical Society, I felt small. I was already on edge from driving and parking in downtown Madison, a city that has shoehorned itself determinedly into the narrow bridge of land between Lake Mendota and Lake Monona, so named by surveyor Frank Hudson in 1849. Even with wide open swaths of calm summer lake less than half a mile away on each side, the Capital area feels cramped and small, like it’s trying to fit itself into a space where it doesn’t quite belong. The Ho-Chunk called these two lakes Wonk-she-kh-o-mik-la and Tchee-ho-be-kee-la-kay-te-la, respectively (“Where the Man Lies” and “Teepee Lake”).

The building that houses the Historical Society is itself imposing—a looming, off-white block in the classical style. Columns are at the entrances and lining the balcony in the library reading room, where the ceiling is tiled with backlit stained glass and framed in stacked moulding. Throughout the main level, tiled mosaics grace the floors and transom windows crown the doors. The marble staircases are grand and worn, 124 years on, and it’s easy to turn a heeled foot, especially if you’re distracted, like I am, by the twelve-foot tall, three-panel “Centennial Mural,” which at least provides some color in a largely white space.

The images themselves though offer no real surprises: visual representations of progress, or, “forward,” the state’s motto in the form of railroad tracks, mining, missionaries, explorers, and Jean Nicolet, the first white man on Wisconsin soil, though it wouldn’t actually be Wisconsin for a long while. In the third panel, the only one featuring Indigenous people, one hunched individual appears to submissively offer up a fur to the “fire water” wielding figure of Nicholas Perrot. The Ottawa, led by Charles de Langlade, “the father of Wisconsin,” are painted into an uphill advance on the Miami. As is standard in these sorts of images, the Native people are always painted “below” white people, both physically and metaphorically. Nothing here was new or surprising, but everything loomed.

In a small alcove in the basement, which I stumbled upon by chance, glass cases displayed hundreds of tagged and numbered arrowheads, all jigsaw-puzzled tight together, lined up and organized. I think I imagined, or maybe remembered the musty museum smell of old taxonomy in this sterile, mineral space. I thought about all the digging that must have been done to gather such a collection. At the time, I don’t think I’d yet learned about the state capital, a few blocks away, built on a foundation of razed mound sites—convenient fill, from their point of view.

This was my experience of the archives before I ever made it to the archive reading room.

I knew I was looking for some connection here, but as I stuffed my backpack and jacket into a locker and fed it a quarter, I was having doubts. By this point, the only thing that got me through the door was thinking about how much I didn’t want to have to drive through Madison again.

**

I first became curious about the potential of archives when I was in grad school in Missouri. I took a class called “Archive Theory” not because I was particularly interested in the topic, but because I was “following” a professor for whom I quietly bore a distinct level of awe. She was the teacher that I’m still trying to become. On our first very short foray into the University of Missouri archives, they’d already brought out documents and texts based on our previously submitted general interests. They didn’t have much for me, which didn’t surprise me, though I had secretly been hoping to be surprised by some nearly forgotten Native text.

What they had set out was a hand-written manuscript of John G. Neidhart’s Black Elk Speaks. This too, turning the fragile pages gingerly, both surprised me and didn’t—the number of words, phrases, lines crossed out, revised. I didn’t spend time with the text, but rather I imagine myself now backing away slowly, though I don’t think I actually did. Eight years later, this is the only impression that remains. Though now, logically, I better understand the value and importance of the text itself, in that moment, all I could see was a gatekeeper’s scrawled script standing between me and something real. It might have turned me off of archives entirely, that small moment. Instead, it had the opposite effect. I was determined, and that determination carried me through the process of writing my poetry collection, Through a Red Place.

The book came together in about a year, which for me, is like writing at light speed. It was the product of my time spent in several archives, but it also became something like an archive of my research experiences. I wanted my readers to see behind the poems, to the documents and images and places that had inspired (though I hate the word) the poems. So the book is liberally sprinkled with images of documents—some with my notes in the margins—newspaper clippings, photos, maps, and my great-grandfather William Moon’s records from Carlisle Indian Industrial School.

Although those documents from Carlisle came from a digital archive, they were some of the most connective for me at the time. Knowing that William Moon attended Carlisle made some things clear to me that hadn’t been before, since my grandmother, William’s daughter Mabel, died before I was born. Not just about lineages—though this was how we began to rediscover our Cherokee and African ancestors—but about generational silence and addiction.

**

That day in Madison though, I didn’t know any of that yet, didn’t know what the book would become. As the very helpful and friendly archivist set me up at a table and talked me through the rules of handling old paper, I glanced at the portraits over my shoulder, portraits of Indigenous people. The room was institutional, bland—tables, microfiche, filing cabinets, wood-paneled walls, standard issue slate carpet, high fluorescent tube lights. But the portraits in their simple gold frames hinted at something. I knew a little bit about portraiture of Native people and the set ups that went along with them. Still, when I got the chance, I looked close enough to see the Quinney names on the little printed placard.

I knew I was at least distantly related to a Quinney or two, but no more than that. Still, for the hours that I was there, I felt the mother and her young child looking over my shoulder. Their presence made me feel less small in this space. It was a tenuous kinship, and ephemeral, but it left its imprint nevertheless. Later, I learned that the child in the portrait, Harriet Quinney, is my first cousin, five times removed. Her father, Austin, was the brother of my fourth great grandmother Eunice Quinney.

Sadly, when I went back to the archive again recently, the portraits were gone, though they had been part of the inspiration (that word again) for my return. I had wanted to speak to Jane and Harriet, no matter that they couldn’t really inhabit those portraits. I wanted to say, I know you now, although I didn’t, not really. Or, at least, I see you, and I’ll remember you now.

**

On the same trip, I also visited the Arvid E. Miller Library and Archives, owned and operated by the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. The Library and Archives are housed in a rectangular log cabin with vaulted ceilings, thick wooden beams, and wood railings. Everything is in a single, wide-open space—big, round wooden tables for crafts and school groups, glass cases containing Stockbridge Mohican baskets, regalia, jewelry, tools. Stockbridge stories and images lining the walls. All the archival material is held in the basement, but it’s also digitized to their internal system, so I sat at one of the two computers to do my work.

My mother, who is non-Indigenous, was with me. Our British and French and German ancestors are buried in this part of Wisconsin too. While I searched, she wandered through the museum exhibits for a time, and then settled into a folding chair next to me. Not generally a quiet person, she was quiet there, but also patient, and passively supportive, watching the screen over my shoulder. Given the circumstances of her split with my father when I was five years old, I don’t ask for more than this from her. Still, it’s from her that I heard the only stories I have of my paternal grandmother, Mabel Moon, who is also in the archives at Stockbridge.

My goals in this archive were mostly genealogical, and I found those records easily, but it’s difficult to find kinship in pedigree charts, even though they’re meant to detail just that. Instead, I finally found the “surprise” that I hadn’t found in Missouri or Wisconsin. And that surprise came to me in the form of poems.

I wasn’t looking for poems, but after stumbling upon one, I couldn’t stop looking for more. And I found them—poems penciled into “Big 5 pencil tablets” and “Herald Square Account Books,” or carefully copied onto lined loose-leaf paper, poems by Native women writing in the 1930s and 40s, in March of 1975, the year and month I was born. This was a different kind of kinship that I’d found: women who were not my ancestors, but because of the poems, I felt like they were. While I had known, in a sort of intellectual way, that Native women were always writing poems, I hadn’t known it like seeing their handwriting, like imagining their hand holding the pencil to this paper, like learning about their lives because of the poems. One of them, Dorothy Winona Davids, went on to become a life-long educator and activist until her death in 2014. She wrote the poems I’d found when she was in college at Central State Teacher’s College (Now UW-Stevens Point). She was the first Native person to graduate from that campus.

Another poet, Elaine Doxtator Raddatz, worked at a knitting mill and as a certified nursing assistant. Her obituary says she was proud of her artistic touch. She wrote poems, like I do, about her tribe and ancestors’ histories.

The archives led me not just to stark lineages, columns of dates and names, but also to stories about Native women and by Native women, and it was these stories that felt most like kinship.

But from the piles of poems that I’d found, one in particular stood out. The poem itself was embedded in a letter from someone named R.B. Roberts to Sam Miller. Roberts was requesting any information that Miller had as to the identity of the poet. Although the poet’s name was given, Roberts was looking for more information to accompany publication of the poem in an anthology he was putting together.

It was the poet’s name that drew me, Ardie Alora Abrams Miller. Abigail Abrams is my third great grandmother, daughter of Eunice Quinney. Ardie and Abigail were sisters. Ardie, my great, great, great grandaunt was a poet. Such a distant, tenuous, connection, but it didn’t feel distant. Because I knew what it felt like to be a poet, I felt like I knew something about this relative, though I’d only just learned her name. And she was writing partially in Mohican. The title of the poem, and several repeating lines throughout are in her Native language.

Ardie Abrams became something of a muse or maybe a mentor to me after that. I thought of her often as I worked through researching and writing Through a Red Place. I felt like she, too, was looking over my shoulder down the long generational lines, prodding me forward when I stumbled over Mohegan translations or felt overwhelmed by the emotional labor of the work. Although it may seem a little silly, I can’t help sometimes but think that she is what I’d been looking for since I stood over the Neidhart manuscript in Missouri.

As far as I can tell, Ardie Abrams’ poem was never published. I haven’t been able to find any traces of an anthology of American Indian writings edited by someone named R.B. Roberts. I never would have found my great aunt’s poem if someone hadn’t added it to the archives at some point. I never would have found what still feels like a poetic message in a bottle from an ancestor.

The archives have been a mixed experience for me. Sometimes, like the city of Madison, I feel like I’m trying to wedge myself into spaces where I don’t quite belong. Other times, with blood kin and poetry kin at my back, I think we fit better all together than I did myself alone.