This is a guest blog by Barbara Bair, curator of Literature, Culture and the Arts in the Manuscript Division.
A small cache of personal papers of Wyandot poet and folklorist Bertrand N. O. Walker (Hen-Toh) are newly open for research access in the Manuscript Division reading room at the Library of Congress.
The wind has spent its fierce wild wail,
The dark storm-pall has shifted,
Forth on his sight the stars gleam pale
In the purple haze uplifted.
And down the steep trail, as he lists,
He hears soft music stealing;
It trembling falls through filmy mists,
From rock-walls faint echoes pealing.
Hen-Toh, “A Desert Memory,” typed draft, n.d. Bertrand N.O. Walker Papers, Manuscript Division
Best known for his poems and renditions of Indigenous legends and stories, Wyandot poet, folklorist and civil servant Bertrand Nicholas Oliver Walker (1870-1927), often used his Wyandot name, Hen-Toh, as his pen name in his published poetry and prose.
Patterns of Hen-Toh’s sensibility and writing, and the stories he sought to tell/retell, come to the fore in the newly processed materials in his personal papers collection in the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress (250 items, 1 container).
Walker’s poetry reflected tribal nation beliefs and traditions besides his native Wyandotte, including those of the Hopi (“A Desert Memory”) (“Tis the Angu, the Kat-ci-na, ‘tis the Hopi’s song of prayer, / That in darkness wards off danger, when ’tis breathed on the air”) and Diné of the Southwest, which he observed while he was teaching in Arizona. In one of his most reproduced poems, “A Song of the Navajo Weaver” (1906), Walker drew an analogy between the symbolic narratives created by a Diné artisan at work at the loom and the responsibilities of ancestral poet-storytellers like himself (“Shall I . . . Tell something of their story while/ My shuttle swiftly flies” . . . “Shall I weave the zig-zag pathway / Whence the sacred fire was born/ And interweave the symbol of the God / Who brought the corn” . . . “Weaving closely, weaving slowly / While I watch the pattern grow.” . . .) (the full poems as published are available on the Academy of American Poets web site at https://poets.org/poem/desert-memory and https://poets.org/poem/song-navajo-weaver ).
Born in Kansas City, Kansas, Walker worked as an Indian Services teacher in several states but maintained primary residence in Oklahoma. An intense reader and largely self-taught, he began his literary career as a child-editor of his Indian School literary society’s monthly newsletter. He went on to publish select work in magazines and journals and became a consultant and interviewer of Wyandot elders for academic anthropological folklore studies, most prominently partnering with Canadian ethnologist Charles Marius Barbeau to provide source content for Barbeau’s “Huron and Wyandot Mythology” (1915). This collaboration is reflected in his personal papers collection, as are draft works for his own publications, his traditional story collection “Tales of the Bark Lodges” (1919; second, 1920 edition, featuring illustrations by Cherokee artist Royal Roger Eubanks) and poetry collection “Yon-Doo-Shah-We-Ah (Nubbins)” (1924), both of which were produced with Harlow Publishing Company in Oklahoma City. He maintained a family farm while writing and held various Indian Services positions, including as senior clerk of the Quapaw Agency in Miami, Oklahoma.
Like the saga of creation and transitions told by the rug-weaver in his poem, Hen-Toh’s own Wyandot heritage is a complex story of zig-zagging encounter, movement and change. Hen-Toh was a member of the Oklahoma band of the Big Turtle Clan of Wyandot (or Wyandotte). His parents, Isaiah and Mary Walker, were members of the Little Turtle Clan of the Ohio Wyandots and the Big Turtle Clan of the Canadian Wyandots, respectively. The Wyandot confederacy of tribes were among those subjected to forced migration by terms of the 1830 Indian Removal Act. Originating in the woodlands of the North American northeast (Canada and the United States), the Wyandot tribal language is derived from Six Nations Iroquois, and the Anglicized versions of the tribal nation name, Wyandottes or Hurons, stem from encounters with English and French colonial traders. Originally strong in lake and river regions of Ohio and Michigan, and later in Kansas, the federally recognized Wyandotte Nation is today headquartered in Wyandotte, Oklahoma, northeast of Tulsa. Hen-Toh’s parents were removed from Ohio to Kansas with other Wyandottes in 1843. They moved their family from Kansas to Wyandotte, Indian Territory, in 1874, when Hen-Toh was young. He attended a federally funded boarding school for Seneca, Shawnee and Wyandotte children that operated in the vicinity.
Hen-Toh connected closely with elders who were storytellers in the region. In his adulthood he became the tribal nation’s most prominent crossover poet, writer and assimilated bi-cultural conveyor, working to transmit traditional ways through English-language small press and periodical publications. Modern editions and critical analyses of the importance of his published work, its style, wit and romanticism, have been produced by scholars Daniel F. Littlefield and James W. Parins, and select poems and tales are included in anthologies of Native American literature, notably Robert Dale Parker’s edited “Changing is Not Vanishing: A Collection of American Indian Poetry to 1930” (2010).
The small collection of drafts of tales and poems and Hen-Toh’s notes on bilingual vocabulary at the Library of Congress reflect the poet’s keen interest in Wyandot linguistics, stories and patterns of speech. Notable items include the hand-penciled Wyandot-English glossary pocket notebook and typed drafts, which reflect Hen-Toh’s use of dialect in his renditions of inter-generational oral storytelling. The use of dialect was sometimes intended for comic purpose, especially when capturing the entertainment as well as morality aspects of animal and trickster tales—but it also can at times appear to be mocking the speech of Native Americans for whom English was a second language, to supposedly humorous effect. It also reflects Hen-Toh’s effort to transcribe non-recorded nuances of elders’ ways of speaking for the purpose of preserving the ways that traditional stories and cradle songs were heard or sung by those whom Hen-Toh termed in his foreword to “Tales of the Bark Lodges” as “old time Indians”.
Those who view the collection will find that many of its typed drafts of poems and stories resonate closely with Hen-Toh’s published works, including draft versions of poems later published in the Harlow editions, while other poems depart from Native American focus to address politics, jazz, relationships, nature, friendship, infancy, soldier service in World War I or other themes. Some poems as published underwent considerable revision from the typed draft or drafts that exist in the papers collection; others remain exact or very similar.
A stereotypical studio photograph of Walker in Indigenous dress taken by George Bancroft Cornish in 1909, mis-titled “Hen-Tah, Wyandot Chief,” was used for publicity purposes, including as a frontispiece for his book of poems. A copy of the photograph is the sole visual item in the personal papers collection, which is otherwise made up of handwritten, typed and printed textual sources. Typeset items include an 1899 Twentieth Century Classics edition of William Elsey Connelley’s “Wyandot Folk-Lore” annotated by Walker.
Themes of pan-tribalism and universality are importantly reflected in Hen-Toh’s poems. “O-See-O” serves as an opening epigram for his 1924 “Yon-Doo-Shah-We-Ah” collection. In the poem he cites original Indigenous inhabitants “of whatever tribe, / Of Choctaw, Cherokee, or Wyandot, / Miami, Ottawa, or Ojibwa / Or Shawnee, Seneca, Modoc, or Creek, / Quapaw, Sioux, Cheyenne, Peoria,” as “true Americans” and dedicates his work to “all of these, and to all other tribes.” His poem “The Calumet,” the third in the anthology, honors Indigenous spiritual tribute to the four directions and brotherhood in relation to the earth, a prayer “Off’ring its incense to the Universe.” His “Agency Police” series, published in part at the conclusion of the anthology and also reflected in typed drafts in the papers collection, are narrative dialogue poems relating modern happenings and personalities on Indian lands.
Meanwhile tales like “Why Autumn Leaves are Red: A Wyandot Myth,” speak to us across time. As wanderers ourselves, we may—like the boy of the story—come suddenly across “some dog-wood shoots yet bearing their brilliantly colored leaves” and find that the sight sparks an origin story.